Johns Hopkins hoping to ride wave at Division III swimming championships

Many banners overlook the pool at the Newton White Athletic Center, but three stand out. The 1977, '78 and '79 Johns Hopkins men's swimming national championships stare out over the pool, as if to motivate those who have qualified for this year's championships today through Saturday in Indianapolis.

On the pool deck, coach George Kennedy writes practice information on a whiteboard as his men's and women's teams wait patiently in the water. After a brief period of instruction, the swimmers begin to warm up with paced laps, going about their business of trying to earn more titles.

Both the men's and women's teams are ranked fourth nationally, and both are coming off strong showings at last year's nationals. The men placed fourth last season, their best finish since coming in second in 2008, and the women were fifth, their best finish since 2002 and matching a program best.

"I think the major difference in our program is the excellence at a national level that our women's team has right now," said Kennedy, who is in his 29th season with the Blue Jays and is a six-time NCAA Division III National Coach of the Year. "The men seem to almost always be in the top 10, top five, and now I'd say the women are one of the teams that people are talking about in Division III."

One reason people are talking about Hopkins is senior Taylor Kitayama, who was part of the 800 freestyle relay team that won the NCAA title last year and has been named the Philip Hunsaker CollegeSwimming.com Women's Division III Swimmer of the Week five times, most recently Feb. 19.

Kitayama attributes Hopkins' success to the bond her teammates share.

"I think that we're a really tight group of people in general, not necessarily just in the pool," she said.

They pull for one another, and push one another, too.

After the women won the 800 free relay last March, the men came out and won the same event while breaking the NCAA Division III record time.

"It was cool to watch them and sort of back it up on the men's side," said senior captain Will Kimball, (St. Paul's), who swam in that event. "We had to one-up them."

The 2013 success fuels Kitayama's desire for more high achievement this year.

"Getting a taste of what it feels like to win a national title really drives me to come in every day and push myself and push my teammates so that everyone can feel that sense of pride that I did," she said.

Kennedy attributes much of the men's success and the women's team's rise to that kind of leadership.

"Our senior class is just dynamic," Kennedy said. "Taylor Kitayama and Sarah Rinsma are two senior women who have just raised the level of the whole program on the women's side."

Kimball believes the younger swimmers take on the leadership qualities of the upperclassmen.

"We're always keeping each other accountable during practice, and you definitely see the freshmen take note of those things and it's exciting to see," he said.

That wasn't always the case, Kimball said, as during his freshman year the team was focused less on swimming and more on things outside the pool.

"I've seen throughout my four years here the culture change to a much more focused, determined, really excited culture," he said.

Dylan Davis (Annapolis) said the Blue Jays' team-first attitude has paid off.

"I think when you focus on the team goals ... I think that the individual accomplishments will come along with that," said Davis who won an NCAA title in the 100 backstroke last year.

Added Kitayama: "Whenever a program starts to get fast, then fast people want to come here and it kind of keeps rolling."

The Blue Jays hope to keep that momentum going in Indianapolis and beyond.

"I think in the next few years we're going to have a shot to win the whole thing," Davis said.

And raise more banners.

mneidhardt@baltsun.com

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