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We are Tennessee: The merging of two swim programs

Dec 16, 2013  - Erin Gaeckle

We are Tennessee: After merging of two swim programs, Vols are now one

You always know something big is going to happen when the men in black suits and ties come onto the pool deck. We certainly did, at least, in March of my freshman year at the University of Tennessee. The then separate women’s team had been gathered into our team room and Coach Kredich, along with our athletic director, Dave Hart, and some of his cronies stood before us. We were informed that there was some news to be shared.

We all knew about the tumultuous year(s) our men’s team had been through, the climax of that being the termination of John Trembley as the head men’s coach January of that year. It was a well known fact that they had been in search of a new head coach for the men’s team, and we just assumed that this was the meeting informing us of who it would be. But, to our own shock (and to some dismay) we were told that Matt Kredich, effective immediately would be the new head coach of both Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving at the University of Tennessee.

Looking back it’s really no surprise that Matt was the best choice for this position at the time, and now, due to his mounting success with the women’s program. Everything they said after the initial announcement is really gone from my memory; I can’t remember words said or ideas thrown around as to why this would be a good idea for all of us. But what I can remember are the looks on my teammate’s faces. None of us expected this, and none of us had come to swim for a combined program. Girls were crying, shaking their heads in anger, and some (including myself) just sat wide eyed with our mouths hanging open in shock until the meeting ended and we went out onto the pool deck.

I loved the tiny team atmosphere Matt and assistant coach Jen Woodruff had created for their program at UT. The extremely tight knit group of girls is what attracted myself and my teammates to the program. He presented his team as a unit, and a unified little army we were. As an incoming freshman Tennessee was definitely my athletic reach school, and being on a team with such building success seemed a daunting task to enter and try to climb with them. But, I pushed my pride aside knowing that if I wanted to find individual as well as team success this was where I needed to be to find it.

From day one Matt presented our women’s team as one with a culture of high moral values, and one that acted as one tight entity. I can say that if you were going to be on this team you were going to find success, big or small. We saw our men’s team as the opposite of these standards. I personally didn’t know them and I didn’t communicate with many of them save for the members of my own class. Sure, we held our pleasantries but really that was about it. At swim meets we would cheer for our own separate teams, and sit in segregated sections. We came together for close races, some of the younger men embracing the friendships formed with their respective freshmen class, but that was about it.

The men had been bred into a culture of masculinity; if you were a VOL you were a VOL, no Lady Vols included. This attitude had shifted over into our own Lady Vol culture; we stuck to ourselves save social gatherings and that was about it. Wearing the Power T was considered a disgrace to us, not only in our swimming and diving program but in our entire athletic department prior to the university's merging together under the Vol name. The men and women were taught to share a common disdain for each other, not just our athletes but employees within the athletic departments.

These values had been passed down for decades, and when we first combined this line that had been etched into our relationships proved harder to cross than just saying “Ok, we’re a merged team now, let’s start acting like one”. It took time and a lot of work to get to the place where our program has gotten to; and we’re still working to perfect the union we are still becoming accustomed to. I don’t think that the merging of our two teams would be possible without the hiring of the new coaches brought into our newly dysfunctional family.

Being part of a team for one year, let alone two or three, really inundates you with ideas and customs; you become set in your ways, especially in a particularly tradition rich university such as Tennessee. They say old dogs can’t learn new tricks, and I think that the combining of our programs really reversed that concept. We were brought into programs as freshmen that kept men and women segregated, and within just a couple days we were pushed into swimming together regularly. To say it was a change of scenery was an understatement.
Matt Kredich is known worldwide as one of the most innovative coaches in our sports history, and the men’s team knew this, but whether or not his successful coaching skills could intertwine a team taught to dislike each other was up in the air. I left during the summer of that year to go back home and train, and coming back I really didn’t know what to expect. We had trained with the men a couple times, and all I could really take from it was a lot of swimming through hawked up loogies and being told I was getting peed on while listening to instructions for the next set. It was nerve racking walking on deck for the first day of practice, we had four new coaches, a large incoming freshman class just as foreign to the idea of a joint program (almost all of them signed before we had merged), and some swimmers still bitter with the idea of our merged program to begin with.

We started our 2012-2013 season off in uncharted waters. I think that a lot of the swimmers that had been around for a couple of years already were wary for the potential drama to unfold but, really, none of that happened.

In the beginning of the season, usually during September, our team takes a training trip to Wilmington, North Carolina, where we get to learn how to surf, compete with the University of Wilmington’s swimming and diving team, but most importantly we set up our visions and goals for the team. It is an annual trip that Matt had introduced to the women’s team the year before the combining, and it has become a powerful tradition that helps our team get to know each other.

This first year that we travelled together proved to be a little daunting at first, I think, because we had never had to share a vision before with the men. But by merging two extremely strong and different ideals that we had already learned at our time at Tennessee, were able to lay a foundation that set us up for success. Certain goals and values that the team had chosen to stand by through our season such as resilience and Kaizen (the pursuit of continual improvement), for example helped to set up our new team for the success we found at the end of the year, and the success we continue to find each day.

For those of us that have been around to see the evolution of the two programs into one have a different understanding of the culture and values that came before us. We still recognize and appreciate the values that we were taught before the combining of our programs, but now with our younger teammates and new coaches we are able to embrace the new ones we have chosen as a team to form our new culture. This is what makes our team special, though. We are able to combine ideals and traditions impressed upon us as veterans on the team, and mesh them with new traditions we have begun as one team. Because that is what we do; we learn, we adapt, and we find success.

Now, we aren’t just Vols or Lady Vols, we are Tennessee.