When freshman swimmer Michael Sheehan was walking to class in the morning, his dark brown hair used to blend in with the dreary winter background on campus. But now, his bleached-blond locks are a beacon, signaling to all of his peers that he is a member of the Ithaca College men’s swimming and diving team and is ready to compete at the Liberty League Championships.
In preparation for the conference championship, the majority of the men’s swimming and diving team bleached their hair. The act has become an annual ritual for the team over the last several seasons, but it is not unique to the South Hill squad. Assistant coach Andrew Marsh said that “crazy hair” is a long-standing tradition among competitive swimmers.
“I used to swim at West Virginia University, and we did the same thing,” Marsh said. “Back in the day, we didn’t really have swim caps, so all the swimmers just shaved their heads. For the weeks leading up to the championships, everyone would do something funny with their hair.”
Marsh said that the tradition often gets competitive between the athletes at the college as they attempt to create more ridiculous hairstyles than their teammates.
“Everybody tried to outdo themselves,” Marsh said. “The guys did it, and some of them turned out orange, so one of them was like, ‘I want to make it even blonder,’ and then they were all trying to see who could make it the blondest. [Senior] Jake [Hewitt] has the mohawk, which is pretty awesome.”
Although the bleaching is a common practice, Sheehan had never experienced it before coming to college.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “I had seen pictures of the year before, but I really didn’t think I was gonna do it because my hair is so dark, so I was kinda scared to try out the blond hair.”
However, Sheehan wanted to be a part of the team bonding, so he eventually came around to the idea. He said that the noticeable hairstyle has unified the team both in and out of the pool.
“I think it’s cool,” Sheehan said. “It’s a nice little culture and you see everyone walking around campus and it’s like, ‘Oh they’re swimmers.’”
Junior swimmer Nate Bartalo did not participate in the hair–dyeing during the 2018 Liberty League Championships. However, this season, he felt that the team has grown closer, and he said he was excited to be visibly part of something bigger than himself.
“Not a lot of people were doing it last year, and we had to buy our own dye,” Bartalo said. “This year, the captains were able to supply it for us. We also had a strong freshman class, and a lot of them wanted to do it, so I wanted to join in the fun.”
Marsh said that the four seniors on the roster have put a strong emphasis on building the team culture and creating a tight-knit energy among the athletes.
“Our senior class has done a good job leading the team,” Marsh said. “It’s nice as a coach when you don’t have to be the one preaching the message when your seniors are kind of living it out and setting the example for everyone else.”
The team has high expectations for this year’s Liberty League Championships, which will be held at 10 a.m. Feb. 20–23 in the Kelsey Partridge Bird Natatorium. The Blue and Gold are currently tied for second in the conference with Rochester Institute of Technology. They will be in contention for the team title, along with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The team’s goal is to claim at least the second–place spot if they aren’t able to defeat the reigning conference champions. Marsh believes that the hair dyeing will give the team the extra confidence boost they need going into the meet.
“If you can go walk around campus with your hair looking just bright blond and orange, that’s a sense of confidence,” Marsh said. “If you can do that, then you can go from point A to point B in the pool.”
Bartalo said the bonding experience of the bleached hair will help the team to motivate each other through the grueling four-day championship meet.
“Swimming is a very independent sport, but when you get behind your teammates and you go up there and push them, especially for the relays, it really pushes everyone to work hard and do their best,” he said.
Sheehan said he is excited for his first Liberty League Championships, but he is unsure what the future of his blond hair will be.
“If it looks good, I might keep it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to go bald, so I might shave it off. We’ll have to see.”