Reasons FIU should embrace its Swimming & Diving team as the school's best athletic program. Some previously stated, all worth repeating:
1. They're annually among the best teams academically, if not the best.
2. No latecomers exist in this sport. You don't just go into the pool as a teenage lark, like taking up electric guitar. Everybody swimming at a Division I level avoided or fought through burnout. Or may still fall victim to it.
3. They show up at everybody else's sporting events more often than any other team.
4. They make the best coladas when they work the baseball concession stand.
5. A year after becoming the first FIU team to win a Conference USA title, Saturday they became the first to win consecutive Conference USA titles and the first FIU team to win consecutive conference tournament titles since women's tennis won three straight Sun Belt Conference titles in 2005-07.
The Panthers didn't float through Saturday's coronation. They could have with an obese 233-point lead on second place Rice after Friday, which meant they'd win the title unless the CUSA required them to swim with anvils on their backs.
Instead, FIU kept putting the hammer down. More individual wins by the Swimmer of the Year, redshirt freshman Naomi Ruele; sophomore Kyna Periera; and senior Valeri Inghels; another diving win by sophomore Rebecca Quesnel, giving her two of the three diving titles after a concussion kept her out of the 2015 meet; and a climactic crushing relay win, this one in the 400 freestyle relay that FIU won by 4.5 seconds.
That's right, 4.5 seconds. That's a rout and a wrap -- by 311.5 points over Marshall and 318 over Rice, which came in as the favorite if you went by national ranking.
You bully like that, you take home all the hardware. Ruele, at the meet last year recording video via iPod after a shoulder injury caused her to be redshirted, won Swimmer of the Year. Quesnel won her first Diver of the Year award. Diving Coach of the Year went to Rio Ramirez. Randy Horner got his second consecutive Coach of the Year honor.
Horner said when he did the pre-meet handicapping, comparing times, "It looked like a dead heat between Rice and us. They looked stronger in the swimming and, with the diving (Rice doesn't dive), it equaled out. I've never seen a team light it up the way they did for three and a half days without one slip up along the line."
FIU did swim a near perfect meet. Saturday, Periera took 4.27 seconds off Sonia Perez Arau's FIU record set at the 2014 CUSA meet in winning the 1650 freestyle in 16:24.36. Freshmen Oceane Peretti (17:04.41) and Ilari Manzella chipped in another 20 points from eighth and ninth, respectively. Sophomore Skye Carey (1:58.95) and senior Becky Wilde (2:00.23) contributed a fifth and sixth in the 200 backstroke.
There have been three sub-50 second 100 freestyle races in FIU history -- Ruele in the Saturday prelims (49.30) and Ruele and sophomore Letizia Bertelli (49.89) in the final as they came in first and second. Both knocked Johanna Gustafsdottir's 50.01 from the 2014 CUSA meet down to third. Jenny Alfani came in eighth in 51.79.
When Horner mentioned "a lot of stepping up from swimmers who hadn't done it before or in previous seasons," one swimmer he had in mind was sophomore Chase Harris. A hand injury sidelined Jessica Chadwick for much of the season, necessitating Harris fill Chadwick's role as in the breaststroke and individual medley races. Saturday, Harris' 2:16.01 got her on the podium for the 200 breast in third. Also scoring for FIU were freshman Nicole Hunnewell (eighth, 2:21.19) and Peretti (16th, 2:23.02).
FIU's butterfly queen, Inghels, crushed the field in the 200 fly, winning by 2.78 seconds in 1:58.49. Junior Jenny Deist's 2:02.34 was good enough for seventh. Sophomore Maria Lopez's 2:05.47 put her in 11th. Quesnel won the platform diving the same way FIU seemed to be winning everything -- by ridiculous blowout -- when her 299.80 in the platform diving left Marshall's Megan Wolons 57.45 points to the rear. Laura Coronado (221.95, third) and Natalia Coronado (216.90, fourth) and Lily Kaufmann (203.55, seventh) gave FIU half the top eight.
All that remained was the final relay, the 400 free relay. Last year's acted as metaphor for the upward sweep of FIU's program when Johanna Gustafsdottir, FIU's most college-decorated swimmer, motored through an anchor leg that deserved those overused words "amazing" and "awesome" to bring the Panthers from significantly back to winning comfortably.
This year's relay acted as metaphor for the way FIU bestrode its competition this meet. Bertelli gave a 15 hundredths of a second lead to freshman Mauri Lauridsen. Lauridsen's 49.95, the second fastest leg swam in the entire race, presented Periera with a 1.33 second lead. Periera turned a 2.31 second lead to Ruele. Ruele slammed down the fastest leg in the race, a 49.14 to finish the whole thing in 3:20.10, a whopping 4.5 seconds up on Old Dominion.
"This was actually more rewarding," Horner said. "To repeat, it's a validation of last year. We had no room for error and we dominated from Day 1."
Oh, and this year, instead of walking or biking to practice at Tamiami's pool, they had to schlep to Gulliver Prep or wherever they could to practice. Tamiami's renovation took a Miami longer than the two months originally stated. FIU didn't get back into Tamiami until five days before leaving for the conference meet. Similarly, the divers turned nomads when the University of Miami pool they usually use for practice went under repairs.
FIU lost significant swimmers that helped build the program, such as Gustafsdottir, Klara Andersson and Jean Madison, as well as last year's freshman ace, Silvia Scalia. Still, while they didn't defeat all in the dual meets as they did in 2015, they left everyone in the CUSA meet on the bad side of the wake.
That says FIU's good. This reign could last a long time.