By David Rieder.
The scene was a hoard of maroon tracksuits and hugs. Texas A&M women crowded behind lanes one through five on the starting end of their home pool, seeking to congratulate the five women who had all swum in adjacent lanes in the women’s 200 breast final at the SEC championships.
Sydney Pickrem had finished first in the race in 2:04.62, moving her past two-time defending NCAA champion Lilly King in the national rankings and all but ensuring that Pickrem will head to next month’s NCAA championships as the top seed in the event.
Second was Anna Belousova, the tall 21-year-old from Russia in her first season in College Station. And then in third was the most accomplished breaststroker of the bunch, 200 breast World Championships silver medalist Bethany Galat.
For the second straight year, the Aggies had swept the podium in the team’s signature event at the SEC championships. And for good measure, Esther Gonzalez finished fourth and Jorie Caneta took seventh.
Then came the hugs: In the pool, the swimmers hugged each other, and then they hugged their teammates as the excited the water. Pickrem, Belousova and Galat wrapped their arms around each other as they all joined in on a post-race interview with the SEC Network. Finally, the three women hugged their head coach, Steve Bultman, as he handed out medals.
As Galat stepped off the podium, she began to tear up—not because a 200 breast sweep at the conference level was anything new but because of the circumstances: Because the team was about to win its third straight conference title, because all of this was happening at the Aggies’ home pool in front of a rousing crowd and because, as a senior, this would be her final SEC championships.
It was an end Galat had already seen coming. Two days earlier, when answering a question about her World Championships experience, Galat had wandered off on a reflection about how much she appreciated being part of that Aggie breaststroke tradition.
“Having a team with how many breaststrokers we have, it’s crazy,” she said. “It’s really incredible to be a part of it. College season is very different from summer season. It’s sad to see it coming to an end. I’m very happy with my decision to come to A&M because I have a lot of fond memories.”
In speaking with the Aggie ladies all weekend long, the theme of family kept popping up. Early on this year, the team had adopted the slogan, “Team is family; family is team.”
Freshman Jing Quah spoke about how that attitude made her feel welcomed as a 16-year-old coming over from Singapore.
“You’re not going to find another team like A&M, and the support system is crazy,” she said. “I was welcomed right into the family. I’ve never been this close to this many girls on the team, and they’re just like family to me.”
“We’re just so supportive of each other, and our coaches, family members, everyone, it’s really amazing,” Belousova added, reflecting on her own first year at A&M. “They don’t give you an opportunity to fail.”
That attitude developed organically, beginning with a swimmers-only camping trip back in the fall. As Bultman pointed out, that level of support was not something he could force on his swimmers—they had to strive for it.
“It’s not my team. It’s not (associate head coach) Tanica (Jamison) and my team. It’s our team,” Bultman said. “You can lead the horse to water, and if the horse wants to swim, it’s going to swim, but if it doesn’t, the coach or the person’s going to have a hard time getting them to do it.”
On that camping trip each year, the women discuss their goals for the season and bring them back to present to Bultman and Jamison. This year, as Pickrem recalled, they discussed going after an undefeated dual meet season and finishing in the top two at the NCAA championships. The conference meet, for whatever reason, was an afterthought.
“We didn’t even mention winning SECs because it was, like, assumed,” Pickrem said. “Then we were like, ‘Uh, I know we didn’t mention this, but I think we’re going to try to win again, right?’”
The day before the meet began, the A&M swimmers and coaches moved into a local hotel, in order to remove the distractions of school and keep the feeling of a championship meet, but whenever they were at the pool, they were truly at home.
Over the course of the meet, the Aggie women earned eight total wins, including: Quah in the 100 fly, Belousova in the 100 breast, Claire Rasmus in the 200 free and Alais Kalonji in platform diving. Their superstar was Pickrem, who swept the IMs, won the 200 breast and helped the Aggies to their only relay win when she passed Tennessee on the anchor leg of the 4×200 free relay.
Like Galat, Pickrem was coming off her first-ever international medal over the summer, a World Champs bronze in the 400 IM, but that came six days after she choked on water and was forced to get out of the pool after 50 meters during the World Champs final of the 200 IM.
Even though she managed to get past that and put together her proudest moment in swimming in the 400 IM, Pickrem realized later how stopping in the middle of such a big race had messed with her mind, and it took longer than she expected to exorcise those demons.
“It wasn’t until after that it set in what it did to me psychologically and overcoming that has been a challenge,” she said. “Every day, dealing with anxiety, dealing with depression is something that is a lot more real to me than I thought in the past. With the help of my teammates and with the help of A&M, I’ve definitely grown a lot.”
Combined with a handful of minor injuries, her junior season had been a difficult one, but 90 minutes after her 200 breast SEC victory, she wore a massive smile and sopping wet hair after belly-flopping into the diving well to celebrate yet another conference title.
“It’s pretty special. We always say at A&M, ‘Once you do something twice, it’s tradition,’ so hopefully it’s a tradition we can keep on,” she said. “We get tomorrow off, but I think school’s going to overwhelm me quickly enough, so I’ll get back to reality quick.”
Aside from catching up on academics, the Aggies face the reality that they have less than three weeks of preparation to go before they depart for Columbus, Ohio, and the NCAA championships.
The team has weathered the losses of program greats like Breeja Larson, Cammile Adams and Sarah Henry and still managed to continue its upward trajectory at the national level, culminating in a third-place finish last season.
With flyer Sarah Gibson the latest to graduate, moving up from that spot towards the team’s stated goal of a top-two finish would be a big ask, but how his team stacks up with the rest of the country will not be the main task on Bultman’s mind.
“Go faster than what we were here,” he said of his goals for the NCAA meet. “We left some in the tank with a number of our girls, and they know that. NCAAs is the big one, so we want to go there and go faster. We can’t control what the other swimmers or teams are doing, but if we take care of ourselves, we give ourselves a chance.”
Watch Video Interviews with Sydney Pickrem & Steve Bultman: