Three lanky teenagers linger beside the pool, laughing as they watch their teammates complete an obstacle course.
Nothing in their unassuming air suggests that they stand poised to lead a pack of freshman recruits to the relay and sprint success that has eluded UCLA swimming.
And yet they do.
Cynthia Fascella, Ting Quah and Kathryn Murphy promise to bring much-needed sprint freestyle skills to the Bruins, who have excelled more in distance and non-freestyle events in recent years. These additions become even more vital when considered in the context of the Pac-10, a competitive conference in points-laden relay events. California won the NCAA Championship in 2009, and Stanford and USC promise to emerge as top contenders for the title this year.
These top recruits could have chosen to swim at nearly any of these schools, but were drawn to UCLA by the combination of prestigious academics and spirited camaraderie.
“When I came on the recruiting trip, I realized it was a perfect place for me,” Murphy said. “Everyone here has so much heart and drive and passion for the sport.”
This team dynamic is enhanced by the fact that UCLA lacks a men’s team, something that Quah says “brings the team much closer, as weird as that seems.”
Coach Cyndi Gallagher, however, says it also presents serious recruiting challenges.
“When girls go on recruiting trips to other schools, they party with the men’s team, they add them on Facebook,” she explained. “It’s great to be wined and dined and have college boys around when you’re 17 years old.”
But in hindsight, this disadvantage has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, helping to identify athletes that will fit into UCLA’s program.
“The girls that come here are mature ““ they don’t buy that stuff,” Gallagher said. “That’s not our style; that’s not what we do.”
That maturity is crucial for a program that focuses heavily on mental preparation and personal responsibility. This outlook is perhaps part of what makes UCLA successful year after year, and is certainly part of what attracts top student athletes.
“Ever since the third grade, I’ve had the dream of coming to UCLA,” Fascella said. “When I started to think about swimming in college, I knew that, even though it would be hard, UCLA was the way to go.”
The Fountain Valley, Calif., native turned heads at last year’s Mission Viejo Invitational when she broke Olympian Tiffany Cohen’s meet record in the 200-yard freestyle, a feat made even more notable by the fact that the 50- and 100-meter races are her specialty.
Murphy, another top-ranked sprinting recruit, will add more speed and versatility to the Bruin squad. Her specialty is unquestionably the 50 free ““ she is the Irish national record holder in the event, and she won it at the Speedo Junior National Championships in 2009 ““ but she has also competed on a national level in longer freestyle events and the 100 butterfly.
Quah, who competed for Singapore in the 2008 Summer Olympics, is perhaps the most surprising addition to Gallagher’s squad of sprinters. In Beijing, she competed in the 100 free and the 400 individual medley, an event in which she also holds Singapore’s national record. These events usually imply endurance and stamina, as opposed to the explosive quickness required of the 50 free.
Quah’s height and strength suggested an even brighter future in sprint events, and she began to focus more on shorter distances after her return from Beijing. After hearing that Quah was considering attending school in the states, three-time Singapore Olympian and former Bruin Nicolette Teo suggested to her that she look into UCLA. Quah signed a letter of intent shortly after.
But even with this fresh crop of talent, Gallagher remains optimistic when it comes to her predictions for the team’s success.
“We always think we can win (Pac-10′s). We have a really good team, and if everything goes right, we could be in the mix,” she said.
If the Bruins have any hope of remaining in the competitive Pac-10 mix, the freshman sprinters will need to live up to their past successes, a prospect that is never certain in a sport which is won or lost in milliseconds.
Even with this pressure, however, Gallagher is careful about the expectations she places on any new Bruin.
“You’re throwing so much at them, and it’s a lot of responsibility to be the best,” she said. “They’re very talented, but I don’t expect them to fulfill all my dreams right away. For now, it’s one year at a time.”