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Ithaca College swimming and diving highlights team culture with new coaching staff

Mike+Blakely-Armitage+00%2C+the+head+mens+and+womens+swimming+and+diving+coach%2C+has+put+a+stronger+emphasis+on+team+culture+outside+of+the+pool+this+season.+Blakely-Armitage+replaced+long-time+head+coach+Kevin+Markwardt+after+36+seasons.
Clark Roque Royandoyan
Mike Blakely-Armitage ’00, the head men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach, has put a stronger emphasis on team culture outside of the pool this season. Blakely-Armitage replaced long-time head coach Kevin Markwardt after 36 seasons.

The Ithaca College men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams have recently moved on from two longtime coaches. This season, with new voices in leadership, the Bombers have continued to have success in the pool while also placing an emphasis on success outside the pool.

Kevin Markwardt led the men’s team for the last 36 seasons and hall of fame coach Paula Miller retired after the 201920 season, having coached the women’s team for 36 seasons.

This season, both the college’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams are under the leadership of first-year head coach Mike Blakely-Armitage. After being on the coaching staff the previous five seasons as an assistant coach, Blakely-Armitage said that he was ready for the promotion and that throughout the regular season, he has upped the standard for both teams, focusing on building a sustainable team culture that goes beyond fast performances in the pool. 

Despite a firstplace finish at the Liberty League Championships for the women and a second place finish for the men in the 202223 campaign under Markwardt, Blakely-Armitage said he felt as if his program was lacking a strong culture outside the pool. This has been a focus for Blakely-Armitage this season as he said he strives to coach continued success in the pool, but also build a program with a strong, sustainable culture that athletes across the country want to be a part of.

“We’re just working really hard on our culture and I think that was kind of a missing piece for us in the past couple years,” Blakely-Armitage said. “We’re trying to build one of those prototypical amazing cultures, and we’re on our way.”

Dennis Berg, a senior swimmer on the men’s team, said Blakey-Armitage’s added emphasis on team culture has made the team more enjoyable.

“It’s been a fun season so far,” Berg said. “I think he’s stepping up and doing a great job.” 

One element Blakely-Armitage has added under his leadership are weekly captain meetings where leaders from both teams meet to discuss character culture and how it is constantly changing. Blakely-Armitage said he credits these meetings as the reason why the team buys into the culture.

“Having that leadership from them directed by me really helps them kind of navigate some of these situations and helps everybody stay together,” Blakely-Armitage said. “I think the difference is that the student athletes we have now expect there to be more than just working hard in the pool.”

One of these studentathletes is graduate student Lauren Brady, who said she agrees that the team culture has improved throughout her time as a Bomber.

“I would say our team culture has definitely gotten stronger over the years,” Brady said.

Brady said herself and the rest of her teammates have embraced having Blakely-Armitage at the helm and even had voiced her support for her head coach during the summer hiring process. Brady along with Berg and James Collishaw, a senior on the men’s team, were chosen to sit in with the hiring panel and despite many out of program options, the obvious choice was Blakely-Armitage.

“I honestly couldn’t see anyone else other than Mike filling that head coach position,” Brady said. “I know a lot of other people felt the same way.”

Brady said Blakely-Armitage’s experience with both teams in prior seasons has helped to aid the transition process and has ensured that the training has gone smoothly. 

“He came in with a lot of experience and of course he already knew all of our teammates.,” Brady said. “So we already had that relationship with him. We’ve been used to his practices too since he wrote a lot of them last year.”

While Blakely-Armitage has had to manage both men’s and women’s squads like Markwardt had done the prior three seasons after the departure of Miller in 2020, Blakely-Armitage’s prior coaching experience has set him up for the challenge. Prior to joining the college’s coaching staff in 2019, Blakely-Armitage spent 10 years with Ithaca High School where he coached both men’s and women’s swimming, leading the men’s squad to eight Section IV titles and the women to three Section IV titles. 

Despite that prior success, the large teams could have left Blakely-Armitage stretched thin if it were not for a strong expanded coaching staff which features graduate assistant Aubrey Syron, volunteer assistant coach; former women’s head coach Paula Miller; longtime aquatics coordinator and head diving coach Chris Griffin; and first-year assistant coach Noah Beck.

Brady said she is very appreciative of the large coaching staff. The South Hill squad has come a long way as just two seasons ago, there were only three full-time coaches on staff for both programs. This is the first time since the 20202021 campaign that the Bombers’ have had a graduate assistant on deck.

“It’s just nice to have some more support with a team so big and just have more people on deck to help us through those really tough practices,” Brady said.

Beck has made his impact throughout the program so far in his debut with the Bombers. Beck has plenty of coaching experience throughout the Division lll level, most recently working with rival SUNY Cortland as an assistant coach during the 202223 season. Beck said his well-versed skills have helped him assimilate with the program. 

“I think it’s been really smooth,” Beck said. “I think I have a lot of strengths. I have a pretty diverse set of experiences, so I think just the ability to jump in and pick up the slack wherever it’s needed.”

Beck said he shares Blakely-Armitage’s views on team culture and together they have been working hard to make the program stronger both in and out of the water. 

“Coach Mike and I have a lot in common in terms of ambition and what we want to accomplish and how we want to accomplish it,” Beck said. “We’ve done a lot of work with especially the captains … in terms of bringing these two teams together a little bit.” 

Unlike Blakely-Armitage, Beck had no prior experience with these student-athletes, and has been blown away with their dedication to making the swimming and diving team culture great.

“There’s always room for improvement in terms of culture and I think the best thing about this team is that they accept that,” Beck said.

With all this added focus about performance outside of the pool, performance inside the pool has remained strong for both the men and women. Both teams sport an identical 10–4 record going into the Liberty League Championships. The teams have started their tapers and are feeling ready to bring home the hardware. Brady said the energy the team holds brings up the mood.

“Energy is definitely really good,” Brady said. “I think everyone’s pretty excited.”

Brady and the rest of the women’s team have a target on their backs as the defending Liberty League Champions. Blakely-Armitage said he believes his squad is poised to come back even stronger this time around and prove why they are the reigning champs.

“I think we have a very deep team that is going to set us up for that possible championship,” Blakely-Armitage said. “Anybody who wants to win it has to get through us to do it.”

Blakely-Armitage said the men’s team is looking to turn the tide after a tough loss to the Rochester Institute of Technology last season at the Liberty League Championship.

“I think we’re looking at giving a strong challenge to RIT who are the reigning champions,” Blakely-Armitage said. 

Berg said the men have been looked at as the underdogs to RIT all season. He said that the Bombers have embraced this underdog mentality, and that it has motivated them to train hard all year while staying under the radar.

“So I think that motive makes people swim faster,” Berg said. “I kind of like being the underdog, it’s not as much pressure.”

Whatever happens, both coaches are proud of the work their squad has put in all season. The Liberty League Championships will take place Feb. 21 to 24 at the Kelsey Partridge Bird Natatorium in Ithaca, New York.

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