Queens Swimming Captures Sixth National Title To Complete #UnfinishedBusiness
About this time last year, the swimming team at Queens University in Charlotte was in the middle of its Division II NCAA championship meet, trying to capture its sixth straight national title, when coach Jeff Dugdale told the team to gather for an announcement.
The meet was canceled. They were going home. The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic had put the world — and their national title hopes — on pause.
Francesca Bains, a junior on the women’s team at the time, was so focused on the meet that she didn’t realize just how bad everything had gotten.
"We were obviously devastated that everything was kind of taken from us that season," Bains said. "But we knew that obviously something big was going on."
Bains and her teammates went home, and vowed to not only keep in shape, but be ready to dive right in when the season started again in the fall.
That was easier said than done. With everything shut down, many of the swimmers couldn’t get back into a pool for at least two months. Jan Delkeskamp was back home in Germany, but the co-captain of the men’s team made sure everyone stayed connected.
"We did not only virtual workouts but we just were like, 'Hey, we are separate for so long, but no matter the distance, we are still one team, one family. And we want to support each other,'" Delkeskamp said.
Last week, that training and support culminated in their sixth straight NCAA titles. Dugdale, the coach, says the win this year was particularly sweet.
"We had this theme ‘together’ this year and ‘together we're stronger,’" he said. "And they just absolutely put together an incredible team effort to make sure that they walked away with their sixth national championship."
That's somewhat astonishing considering the Queens swimming program didn’t begin until 2010. But it has become a dynasty. They captured their first national titles in 2015 and have won championships in men’s and women’s swimming every year since then.
Dugdale attributes the success to the culture of the program, which he modeled after his experience as a swimmer at Auburn. His coach and mentor there was the legendary David Marsh, who guided Auburn to 12 national titles and went on to coach Olympians such as Ryan Lochte at Charlotte’s SwimMAC program from 2007 to 2017.
The culture is one that expects success, now. According to Bains and Delkeskamp, that was clear from the moment last year’s championship was canceled.
"You know, right after the meet was canceled, I don't know who came up with it, but #UnfinishedBusiness was (our motto)," Bains said.
Said Delkeskamp: "I know I mentioned it once, but I wouldn't give myself credit for that, honestly."
Whoever came up with it, it became the team’s motto. Even when there was a COVID-19 cluster on the team in January and the future looked in doubt.
Half the team — 22 swimmers, in all — tested positive for the coronavirus after they came back from Christmas break.
"When one person got it, it went like wildfire," Dugdale said.
No one got extremely sick, but everyone on the team was tested every few days and had to quarantine for anywhere from 10 to 24 days.
"Every three days we would go in and we just like sat there in the morning waiting to see who is going to be next, praying that no one was," Bains said.
With all the absences, the team basically lost training in the month of January. That led to an unusual approach to the conference meet in February — Dugdale did not have his swimmers taper. Typically, before a big meet, swimmers will decrease training and rest more to allow for the best performance. Instead, they continued training hard.
"And we just asked them to trust us because we've done this," Dugdale said. "We can get them ready for events."
They still won their conference again, but Dugdale tried to caution both teams that COVID-19 might derail their national title hopes — and that was OK.
"They were very adamant that they were told — and we did tell them this — that they were to emerge better than they entered this pandemic," Dugdale said. "And that would define them as the true leaders that they are. So it was amazing to watch them just go and leave a legacy and stamp their place in history."
The women’s team scored their third-most dominant national title of the six straight they have won. The men’s team, though, won by just 30 points — the second-smallest margin of victory of their six titles.
That’s where the team’s culture and character — along with the experience winning championships — came through, according to Dugdale.
"In a four-day competition, when you come to the fourth day, you're exhausted," he said. "But if you've won before and you've tasted it and you don't want to lose that taste ... yeah, that plays a huge factor."
And even in the midst of a pandemic, they were able to complete their #UnfinishedBusiness.