That's how you finish a job.
FIU could've cruised to the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Saturday night. Instead of cruising to the title, the Panthers crushed to it.
They struck Rice and Western Kentucky repeatedly with inspired performances. Definitive blows never let their competition experience hope. Then, with the title clinched, the women completed the season with a team and individual flourish, a school-record victorious relay swim capped by an aquatic soul shout by the greatest swimmer in program history.
They won the Conference USA title by a British Airways First Class comfortable 103.5 points over second place Rice, the two-time defending champion.
“Everyone was crying in tears of joy," senior Jean Madison said. "Everyone was so happy. We’re happy for each other, too.”
No matter the sport or gender, you should want to see an athlete cry after a major competition.
It's an indisputable sign what just happened reached inside them, caressed the heart while opening the memory doors in the head. Whether for hours or just a few seconds, their mind's eye sees the sweep of the team's season or several seasons or their career or their lives. And that taps the emotional well. Nobody cries over just that win or that loss. They cry for the story that event ends.
Where do you want to start this story? With head coach Randy Horner's first season? With his first recruiting class, ranked No. 23 by CollegeSwimming.com, now the seniors on a championship team?
“I’m very proud of the team and the seniors who believed in us and signed with us when we didn’t have much to believe in," Horner said. "I’m also thankful for the girls who were here and helped change the culture. We had three alumni here watching. This is as much their championship.”
Senior Johanna Gustafsdottir, Conference USA Swimmer of the Year, said, "We were joking about coming from the bottom and now we’re here at the top. It shows how great our coaching staff is and how far you can come as a team in three years. This is going to help us in recruiting. I’m excited about our future. I’m ready to be a proud alumni.”
When I talked to Gustafsdottir Friday night, the first event she mentioned wasn't either of her wins or even an event FIU won. She brought up the 200 freestyle because the four point scorers for FIU were freshmen. Madison feels that kind of solidarity played a role in FIU consistently getting one or two "WHOA!" swims each event.
“The team and us being behind each other. We wouldn’t be here without each other," she said. "That’s where all the tears of joy came from.”
FIU entered Allan Jones Aquatics Center Saturday night with a 73-point lead on Western Kentucky and a 104.5-point lead on Rice for the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Saturday night. The absence of Rebecca Quesnel didn't entirely eliminate FIU's diving advantage on the other two contenders, so, really, Rice and Western had six swimming events to catch FIU.
Rice's Erin Flanigan won the 1650 freestyle, but FIU struck back with body blows. Kyna Pereira put up a 16:47.84, second best on FIU's all-time list, to finish fourth. Senior Courtney Vander Schaaf's 16:55.60, third best on that list and almost 13 seconds better than her personal best, got seventh. Freshman Skye Carey's 17:19.07 bettered her PB by just over 13 seconds and got the last points position, 16th. FIU led Rice by 101.5 and Western by 76.
Then came the 200 backstroke and a 1-2 Senna-Prost finish by freshman Silvia Scalia and junior Karin Tomeckova. Scalia broke Gustafsdottir's FIU record in 1:53.80, 2.2 seconds ahead of Tomeckova (1:56.00). Rice had two swimmers in the final, three in the consolation round and still trailed by 95.5 points. Western trailed by 72. Four events left.
“We knew coming in we had everything in our control," Horner said. "When we went 1-2 in the backstroke it was “game on.” I had no doubt we were going to finish it."
Rice pulled ahead of Western in the 100 freestyle, and closed on FIU, though FAU's Agi Bucz kept Rice senior ace Casey Clark out of first. Freshmen Paulina Zelazna (50.31, fifth) and Letizia Bertelli (51.23, eighth) and sophomore Jenny Deist (50.72, seventh) had done the job just getting into the final. Damage limited. FIU up by 75.5 and Rice running out of time.
Gustafsdottir, Madison, Jessica Chadwick and Chase Harris drained the rest of the sand from the hourglass in the 200 breaststroke.
Gustafsdottir said two years ago that breast was her worst stroke. Yeah, well, FIU used her in the 200 breast this year and she set a school record that she broke by 1.85 seconds Saturday in 2:12.35. And she came from 1.43 seconds behind to do it. Madison's 2:19.86 got eighth. Chadwick won the consolation race in 2:16.77 and Harris (2:18.94) took third. FIU's lead porked up to 88.5 points. Two swimming events left. Game over.
"She was behind after 100," Horner said. "She ran that girl (Western's Clair Conlon) down."
Junior Valerie Inghels -- "she had a great week," Horner said -- made sure of it with a third place in the 200 butterfly in 1:58.31, .07 off her school record swim in the prelims. Sophomore Jenny Alfani, who didn't even have a seed time, did 2:05.01 in the morning to make the consolation race and 2:04.93 at night. Freshman Brittney Fant came in behind her at 2:05.77.
Up on the platform, sophomore Lily Kaufmann won the event with Natalia Coronado sixth.
"I said someone would have to step up (without Quesnel)," Horner said. "That's what it takes to win by over 100 points when you have a loss like that, a total team effort."
So, time to close with a great team effort. The 400 free relay remained. FIU finished all the previous relays third in the pool, getting a second in the 400 medley relay when winner Rice was disqualified for an early start. (A goof worth 42 points, but FIU came to the meet without the conference's best diver, Quesnel, who's worth about 50 points. Cancels out.)
“We have a lot of pride. We’ve been shut out in the relays," Horner said. "That was a pride relay.”
Scalia's opening leg left FIU in fourth. Zelazna edged FIU into third. Sophomore Jenny Deist pulled away from fourth place FAU along with Rice and Western and sent off anchor Gustafsdottir in third place, 1.04 behind first place Western Kentucky.
Coming into this year, every FIU record relay started with Gustafsdottir leading off. She said teammates could see on her face her determination before the 200 breast. Now, a former swimming burnout victim who revived her career at FIU and held 10 individual conference titles, part of three relay titles and five school records launched into her final team swim as anchor.
And she swam a water version of that final note Nina Simone hits from the soul in the above video.
“I’m a relay person. I live for relays. I’m usually the first person. Being the last just pumped me up even more," she said. "I didn’t even feel any pain through the relay. As I passed the girls…I was crying before I even got on the wall.”
A win by .75 of a second in a school record 3:18.85. Gustafsdottir's anchor leg of 48.48 was .96 of a second faster than second place Rice's Melissa Konicke and over two seconds faster than all the other anchor legs.
That's getting it done. That's how you leave it all out there, tears and all.
Hope they saved something for the party.