From facilities to training, Alabama swimming enjoying a renaissance
It’s called Muay Thai and it is considered a combat sport in Thailand.
Americans would refer to it as a form of kick boxing, combining stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques. The “art of the eight limbs” looks like something one has to learn to become a U.S. Navy Seal, only in this case is part of the new training regimen for the University of Alabama men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams.
Yes, the swim teams. Also included are grappling, agility ladders and football sleds. The athletes still swim miles after miles during practices, but also do quite a bit out of the water, from running with parachutes to flipping massive tires.
“It definitely engages the athlete and creates a powerful, durable athlete in the water,” new Crimson Tide coach Coley Stickles said.
“We have a different style of training from [most] coaches. We’re looking for durable athletes, athletes with athleticism. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one of the top swimmers. We can work on that as long as they kind of have the athletic ability.”
Things are obviously a little different with the Alabama swim program, which over the last year has undergone a complete overhaul. In addition to the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Dennis Pursley, who had been with the Crimson Tide since 2012, an overdue upgrade to the facilities was green-lighted.
Work on the $21 million renewal and renovation of the Alabama Aquatic Center began in the spring and the indoor 50-meter Olympic-sized pool is on target to open in early November.
The old pool was known for being a fast venue – which boils down to the gutter system, the depth of the pool (the deeper, the better because it means less resistance) and what kind of turbulence drifts through the lanes – and the expectation is this one will be as well. No one will know how fast until it’s finished, but everything else from the new 7.5- and 3-meter diving platforms to the team suite and locker room are already tangible improvements.
“The new facilities are considered state of the art,” Stickles said. “I think they rival any in the SEC, if not the country.
“One of the key components here is just getting people to see our facilities, to see campus. To me it’s almost like a hidden gem.”
They obviously worked with the coach, who was lured away from Indiana, one of the nation’s top programs along with the likes of Texas, Stanford and California. Even though he was the associate head sprint coachfor the Hoosiers, Stickles had developed a strong reputation in the sport.
The Hoosiers had a program-first sweep of the men's and women's Big Ten team titles in the spring, and at the NCAA Championships he helped guide the Indiana men to their second straight top-three finish for the first time in 44 years. In all, 13 Hoosiers earned a total of 38 All-America honors.
Stickles has also made an impact internationally as a USA National Team coach since 2013.
Consequently, some of the best swimmers in the world are beginning to train in Tuscaloosa, which is quickly becoming a destination spot for all levels of the sport.
“Recruiting has been going fantastic,” he said. “We have many of our best recruits are coming down for recruiting trips in September. Hopefully they’ll want to see a little more than football games.
“We have a good shot at getting more than few of those recruits. With the new facilities and the weight room, and everything we bring to the table we actually not worried about it. Even compared to Indiana, Alabama trumps a lot of the resources that we had at Indiana and we were pretty good there.”
All that was accomplished without having the competitive pool in place yet.
Moreover, after finishing up his junior year Zane Waddell won the 2019 FINA World Championships title in the 50-meter backstroke by edging world record holder Evgeny Rylov of Russia by six-hundredths of a second (24.43) in South Korea.
“It’s a huge deal,” Stickles said. “No one expected him.
“The time difference between Gwangju, South Korea, I don’t know what it was but we were having to watch the races in the middle of the morning. As he was marching out I fell asleep, and I missed the race. And then I heard my phone ‘ding, ding, ding, ding.’ The first text I read was from a kid in Indiana that I had coached and he said Zane did ok. I thought, okay meant [like] fifth, you know. I didn’t really think much of it and then I had to hit refresh five times to look at the results and saw that he had won. I kept hitting refresh to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
Sophomores Sam Disette (freestyle) and Tyler Sesvold (butterfly) will be among those helping Waddell lead the men’s team in 2019-20.
On the women’s side, sophomore Kensey McMahon was recently named to the United States National Team, thanks to finishing second in the 1,500-meter freestyle with a career-best 16:09.80 at the USA Summer National Championships.
With the start of the 2019-20 season already at hand, the goal for the Crimson Tide men is to be in the mix at the sport’s top tier this season. The women’s side will take a little longer, as Alabama first needs to establish itself as a perennial top-25 program.
Either way, Alabama isn’t just tying to knock on the door of swimming’s top level, it wants to kick it down.
“Depth for us is going to be key,” Stickels said. “For us to compete with the top-five teams in the country we’re going to have to be a little bit better on relays. We’re going to have to be able to maneuver a little bit. I’m kind of an X’s- and O’s-type coach, similar to football. So I want to be able to substitute players, if you will, in the relays based on prelims and finals and based on whether or not they have other events that day.”