In the center of the women’s locker room at Spieker Aquatics Center hangs a punching bag.
Adorned in red and gold, it stands out against walls plastered with John Wooden quotes in Bruin blue. Its message is simple but timeless: Beat ‘SC.
“The moms came in during the Super Bowl and decorated the locker room. They made little gift bags for us and these “˜Beat USC’ buttons,” senior Sam Vanden Berge said. “We’re always focused on just racing and having fun, but this week we even wear “˜Beat USC’ swim caps ““ it’s always in the back of our minds.”
The decorations are only a part of the weeklong effort to rally the No. 21 UCLA swim and dive team for its standoff against No. 3 USC on Saturday. Another beloved element is the series of speeches by other UCLA coaches on the history and significance of the rivalry.
“The track coach once told us to always walk out like we had swagger,” senior Dani Milligan said. “That’s something I’ve never forgotten at any meet. You just have to go out like you own it.”
The Bruins will need all the inspiration they can muster when they make the trip to USC this weekend. The Trojans have emerged victorious in the last three matches, with UCLA’s most recent win ““ in 2007 ““ coming down to the final relay event.
The schools’ respective performances against No. 4 California earlier this month ““ USC fell by 64 points, while UCLA fell by only 37 ““ prove that UCLA has the talent to hold its own against the nation’s top teams, but USC still boasts a breadth of talent nearly unparalleled in the country. For coach Cyndi Gallagher, however, this intense competition is a good thing.
“Swimming against kids that are faster than we are makes us better,” she said. “We’re definitely going to be in enemy territory ““ the USC band is even there ““ but it just makes us swim faster.”
Gallagher’s training regimen has the team training hard until Pac-10 championships at the end of the month, so this weekend is as much about having fun as it is about making the NCAA cuts the swimmers have been chasing all season.
“We’re not really rested right now ““ practices are still really tough ““ but there’s so much energy at this meet that great swims happen anyway,” she said.
Many of this weekend’s standout performances promise to come from the senior class ““ Sam Vanden Berge, Brittany Beauchan and Lauren Hall are all ranked top 15 in the nation in their respective events ““ and the fact that this is the last dual meet of their college careers only increases their determination.
“It’s such an emotionally charged meet,” Milligan said. “It doesn’t matter how you feel that day. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining. It’s all about just beating that person in the red and yellow cap next to you.”