Every dominant athletic program begins somewhere — pieces of a puzzle that came together somehow to create a dynasty. What is it that flips the switch? What makes a team turn the corner and become unstoppable?
The University of Wisconsin women’s swimming team has never won a single Big Ten championship or NCAA title in school history. While the team has seen many amazing individual careers, they’ve never been able to put the pieces together and become a dominant force in the swim world.
Other schools like Stanford, Georgia and Auburn hold five or more NCAA titles in women’s swimming alone. But this season for the women’s swim team may be the turning point we’ve all been waiting for.
Former three time Pac-12 championship swim coach from the University of California Yuri Suguiyama has been named the new head coach for Wisconsin. After a mess of new coaching staffs for the past four years, it seems as if Badger Swimming has finally found what it’s been looking for in Suguiyama.
“At the beginning of the year, we sat down as a staff and made a list of all of the characteristics and qualities of the best athletes we’ve worked with,” Suguiyama said. “Out of all of the most successful teams that I’ve been a part of, there’s been two dominant characteristics: one being trust and the other resilience.”
Suguiyama’s positive outlook comes from this list of swimmers who he knew carried these traits — those of champions.
UW senior Jess Unicomb has had undeniably one of the best swimming careers at Wisconsin over the past four years. Last year she qualified for three events in the NCAA championships — finishing in the top ten for both the 200 and 100 meter backstroke.
Unicomb has been a part of countless dominant relay squads in the Big Ten and has even more career awards under her belt. Coming from Australia, she had never thought of traveling to the United States to swim until she was recruited by the Badgers.
“We’ve got a really great freshman class,” Unicomb said. “I am excited to leave the team in a better place than when I joined it and I’m jealous of the freshman that they get four years of this coaching staff. They’re awesome.”
Eleven freshmen will get that opportunity to work closely with Suguiyama, a group the head coach helped recruit.
When asked about her expectations for the future of Badger swimming Unicomb expressed her utmost optimism.
“I truly believe this group could win a Big Ten championship and, hopefully, a national one,” Unicomb said. “I have no doubt in my mind that they will reach great things.”
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For these goals to be met, Wisconsin will rely heavily on their star swimmer, Beata Nelson.
Nelson, a junior, has been in the swimming spotlight her entire career. In high school, she was a 12-time state champion and received multiple offers from across the nation.
In fact, she never thought she would end up a Badger. But after an unofficial home visit, Nelson was left convinced that Madison was the way to go.
With plans for a new pool and facilities at the now under construction Nicholas Recreation Center and a solid team of hardworking individuals she grew up watching, Nelson couldn’t see herself anywhere else.
In her freshman year, Nelson was a four-time Big Ten freshman of the week and appeared at both the Big Ten and NCAA championships. By her sophomore season, she qualified for the NCAA championship in three individual events, medaling in two.
All eyes had turned on Nelson rapidly, but what did she believe was going to make this program great?
“Toughness,” Nelson said. “We are some of the toughest people I’ve ever been around.”
Nelson explained that with all the great experiences she has had as a Badger she has no regrets in choosing Wisconsin.
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In just her junior year, Nelson has already raised the expectations for women’s swimming to a completely new level. She has set a high bar with the program but she believes in her freshman class.
Though unable to name one single person who will take over the team, Nelson believes that they, along with the new coaching staff, will be exceptional in the years to come.
“There is nowhere but up that this program will go,” Nelson said. “This team has the mentality and the work ethic to make anything happen.”
Both Nelson and Unicomb have extremely high expectations for not only this season but seasons to come. According to them, all the pieces of the puzzle are there, they just need to be put together. With an exceptional new coaching staff, brand new pool, and solid incoming class of swimmers, what will stop this Badger powerhouse from rising to the top?