Talk to any swimmer who wins a big race and the refrain is the same. It wasn't his explosive start, or strong push off the wall or finishing kick that delivered the desired result. It was his ability to stay relaxed during competition.
"If you bunch up, you don't swim very well," said junior Mike Zittel of Eden. "You have to stay loose and not get too excited. I try and stay focused, but I don't want to over-think things too much."
All the training and coaching in the world will not be enough to overcome swimming tight. But mastering the technique of relaxing isn't easy, and it's sure to be a factor this week when the New York State Swimming and Diving Championships return to Buffalo. The Erie Community College Burt Flickinger Aquatic Center will host the 46th annual event Friday and Saturday.
Williamsville North's 400-yard freestyle relay showed what it could do when it was relaxed. The foursome of Mike Lin, Chris Deputla, Brandon Beckinghausen and Matt Krupp already had qualified for states in prelims. Without needing to swim fast in the finals, they knocked their 3:19.65 prelim time down to 3:16.51.
"We just wanted to go out and see what we could do," said Krupp, one of seven swimmers to qualify for states from North. "When you're relaxed everything feels smoother, it feels natural. When you swim tight it feels like you're forcing it. Before a race I'll go into the locker room and stretch and be alone. Some guys like to be around other people and talk and forget about the race."
Senior Dan Szajta, who will compete in the 100 and 200, has been on Alden's varsity since seventh grade. He said over the years he's learned visualization techniques that have helped him relax. "I kind of isolate myself and think my race through and picture it going well," he said. "You have a better mind-set so you can focus on the race more. If you don't, you can choke a lot."
Western New York will be sending 49 athletes from Section VI (46 swimmers, three divers) and seven swimmers from the Monsignor Martin Association. The meet returns to Buffalo for the first time since 2002-2003. Approximately 425 swimmers from all 11 sections, along with New York's Public School Athletic League and the Catholic High School Athletic Association will compete. Section V Rochester is the defending champion. Section VI was fourth last year.
Junior Ian O'Rourke of Grand Island will look to defend the public school title he won last year in diving in Uniondale. As a seventh grader, O'Rourke became the youngest diver ever to place at the state meet when he came in fifth. He finished second in both eighth and ninth grade before winning it last year.
"I know the other guys are fighting for it and want it as bad as I do," said O'Rourke. "You want to have an optimistic mind. If you don't, then your confidence level goes way down and you're not fully committed to the dive."
Senior Travis Martinez is one of 10 swimmers from Clarence to qualify. He'll compete in the 100 and 200 freestyles along with two relays. He was state runner-up last year in the 100 in 47.98. He went 47.56 at sectionals without having shaved. His goals are clear. "I'm going to try and win one or two events," he said. "It's always fun when there's people to race."
Senior Joe Callageri of Orchard Park returns in the 50 free where he finished second last year. Clarence's 400 free relay is looking to reach the final again.
"It's a nice blend of kids," said Section VI chairman Ron Zugelder of Lockport. "Travis is the best out of Section VI as far as swimmers, and Ian obviously in diving -- those two young men will be the leaders of this state team. Right now we're taking a big team. Other than those two [Martinez and O'Rourke], they may not be in the running to win an event, but a lot of them are going to make it back (to the top 16) and score a lot of points for the Section."
>Ready to impress
Canisius, four-time winner of the Monsignor Martin Association will send five swimmers.
The Crusaders broke two All-Catholic records at its qualifier. Its 200 medley relay went 1:40.95 to break St. Joe's 1998 mark of 1:41.13. That's the fastest time in Western New York. The other record came in the backstroke, when junior Dan Donnarumma went 54.86 to break Aaron Ortwein's 2000 mark of 55.12 for St. Joe's.
Donnarumma will also swim the 200 IM and medley relay. Junior Jake Kwapiszeski advanced in the 100 free, 200 IM and medley relay. Both will be making return trips to the states.
"Last year we had three guys who went to states. We got to go to New York City," said coach Chris Stuff. "It was cool to go, but this time we want to make an impression. It's home and we're going to have a lot of support."
St. Joe's junior Angelo Ciraolo earned his second trip, going in the 50 and 100. Last year he was part of the 400 free relay that finish ninth overall and broke the St. Joe's record in 3:10.10.
St. Francis qualified senior Mike Hoak in the 100 butterfly.
St. Joe's coach Phil Ciraolo said he wouldn't be surprised if two or three swimmers from Monsignor Martin placed in the top eight -- if they can hold their tapers.
"We swam so long ago. We're at such a disadvantage," said. "We had to hit these times three weeks before the other teams had to. When our boys hit their times that early . . . We don't get two shots at it. We get one shot, we have to do it on that night, or that's it."
Ciraolo was alluding to the All-Catholic qualifier being on Feb. 1 and the states coming on March 3-4. And public schools get two chances to hit the state cut times (prelim and finals of the sectionals) while his league only gets the All-Catholic finals.
>Boys swimming state championships
At Flickinger Center, Erie Community College-City Campus
* Friday -- Diving trials, 10 a.m.
* Friday -- Swimming trials, State Federation meet, 4 p.m.
* Saturday -- State public school finals, noon