December 21, 2014
Ithaca, NY 31°F | Clouds

Sports

Freshman swimmer plunges into prominent team role

IMG_0067
  Corey Hess/The Ithacan
Freshman swimmer Grace Ayer practices her backstroke during the women’s swimming and diving team’s workout Feb. 18 at the Athletics and Events Center Aquatics Pavilion.

It is 4 p.m. at the Athletics and Events Center Aquatics Pavilion, and the pool is still, waiting for a body to make some splashes and stir up the water. Freshman swimmer Grace Ayer has produced major waves this season in the pool, impressing many opponents and spectators who have seen her perform. 

As she begins to take her warm-up laps, the smell of chlorine is in the warm, misty air and pump-up music plays in the background. Ayer takes a break to catch her breath and looks up at the record board containing the names of the many former swimmers who have worn the Ithaca College swim cap and accomplished so much in their collegiate careers, as many expect her to do.

Ayer, who graduated from Bethlehem High School in Delmar, N.Y., last spring, has won half of her individual events, with 17 so far this season. Her high school team is known for its notoriously good swimming program, where she earned five varsity letters and was a part of the Section II State Champion team in 2011. She was also the Section II Champion in the 100-yard breaststroke in 2010.

Unsure of what to expect in the beginning of the collegiate season, Ayer said, she has been able to make a bigger impact on the team because there was no initial pressure to succeed as a freshman.

“I came in here not knowing what to expect,” Ayer said. “It helped me to focus. I went with the flow and absolutely loved it.”

With the 2014 Upper New York State Collegiate Swimming Association Championships and the Empire 8 Championships beginning Feb. 19, the women’s swimming and diving freshman class has proved it could make a significant impact this season — especially with Ayer’s contributions. The Bombers enter the meet undefeated at 11–0 and ranked 16th in the country, positioned to capture their first Empire 8 title since 2012.

During Paula Miller’s 27 seasons as head coach, the Bombers have finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Division III championship 12 times and have twice placed fourth in the meet. Miller said Ayer will be a key factor toward success this year.

“She is very well-balanced with tremendous talent,” Miller said. “She is not just pigeonholed at one event. It is sometimes challenging though because — for example, at States — she could score in any event. It is a curse in one way, but a blessing in another.”

Miller said she has made a strong impact on the team in her first season with the Bombers. Most notably, she has been named Empire 8 Conference Women’s Swimming and Diving Athlete of the Week twice this season.

Leading all swimmers in nine different categories, including the 100-yard freestyle and 200-yard butterfly, Ayer has totaled for almost double her output in points for the scoring meets during the course of the season.

Last year, the Bombers went undefeated, as they hope to do again this year. They sent two senior swimmers and three overall divers to the NCAA Championships. The team graduated 11 seniors from its roster last season, but ended up recruiting 17 swimmers and two divers to fill in for the swimmers it lost.

Miller hoped at the beginning of the season that her team could stay as healthy as possible while training as hard as it could. The women look to win the Empire 8 and to qualify as many swimmers and divers as they can for Nationals.

Ayer said the freshman class has many talented first-year swimmers who have helped her train hard during practices and given her support in and out of the pool.

“We use each other as a support system,” Ayer said. “The hardest thing is seeing your teammate being injured and have them sitting out because we want everyone to have a chance to swim. We care about each other’s races and not just our own.”

During practice, Ayer and her teammates converse about ways to correct their strokes. As they work on longer distances, she can hear her teammates shouting her name, giving her motivation and the last ounce of energy she needs to finish the rep, Ayer said.

Before every meet, the seniors gather in the locker room and make a motivational, heartwarming speech and play music to get their teammates awake and focused. For the upcoming meet, those five seniors will be swimming to motivate the freshman class and keep their final season alive.

Senior captain Elizabeth Gawrys said the impact of the freshman class will dramatically improve the structure and the outlook of the team in the future.

“It is going to make the team grow and become stronger overall,” Gawrys said. “If they can stick with the program long-term, they can be very powerful. This team is capable of setting a new standard.”