By Guerby Ruuska, Swimming World Intern.
It’s hard to take a program to the top, but many college coaches enter the profession with that goal. Some get there and some don’t. Of those who get there, some get there faster than others. Texas A&M University head coach Steve Bultman admits that the climb toward being a top NCAA program wasn’t as fast a process as he had wanted.
“It wasn’t an overnight success like I would have liked to see it happen, but we have been very consistent,” Bultman commented on his team’s rise.
Bultman took over the women’s program back in 1999 and has worked tirelessly to build it into the success it is today. The Aggies have been a force to be reckoned with for a while now, but they have been a fly-under-the-radar team for years, the dark horse.
“You learn what they need to work on with swim meets,” Bultman said. “We give the girls a lot of feedback. You are always wanting lifetime bests, and it is the little things that all add up.”
Every year the Aggies have shown major improvements. In 2010, they won the Big 12 Championship meet just a few points over the University of Texas and then went on to place sixth at the NCAA championship meet.
Bultman has proven he knows how to develop world-class talent. Two of his swimmers – Sarah Gibson and Bethany Galat – made the U.S. roster for the 2017 World Championships back in July. Galat went on to win a silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at World Championships in Budapest.
Breeja Larson was a part of a golden era of Aggie swimming that put the team on the map. In 2012, the Aggies crushed the competition at the Big 12 Championship meet. Texas A&M went on to place 4th at the 2012 NCAA Championship. Larson crushed the NCAA, US Open and American record in the 100 breaststroke at the 2012 NCAAs and went on to uncork a swim at the 2012 US Olympic Trials that would land her on her first Olympic team.
The Aggies found themselves in an interesting position in 2013– they switched conferences and moved into the speedy Southeastern Conference (SEC). In 2013, they took on the talented Georgia Bulldogs…..a team that went on to win the national title the next two championships in a row. Although the Aggies had Larson, Georgia had Olympian Allison Schmitt.
“Last year was my 18th year here,” Bultman said. “And what we did in the Big 12 Conference before we moved didn’t happen as quickly as I would have liked to see,” Bultman said.
Having a dominant team like Georgia now in their conference was the wake-up call the Aggies needed. The team went on to take 4th place at the NCAA Championships once again in 2013. Larson repeated as the 100 breaststroke champion. That was also the year Aggie’s star butterflier, Cammile Adams, took the spotlight. Adams was a huge part of the A&M era that completely crushed the competition. She went on to dominate the 200 fly at that year’s national championship meet.
But in 2016 the Aggies did the unthinkable, they dethroned the Bulldogs at the SEC Championships. Even though Georgia went on to win NCAAs again that year, the Aggies kept their consistent 4th place NCAA finish. But Texas A&M had had their breakthrough, and that was the confidence they needed moving forward.
Last season, the Aggies continued to show improvement when they became SEC champions once again, but more impressive still was their third-place finish at 2017 NCAAs.
When you are the third-best team in the nation behind teams like Cal and Stanford, the question becomes “how do we beat them?” For Bultman, the answer is very simple:
“Pretty much simple improvement. The team makes the goals but my number one goal is to make every girl better. We just want lifetime bests, every season.”
Bultman is now a two-time U.S. Olympic Team coach, a testament to his great understanding of the sport. The Aggies’ 2017-2018 season is off to a promising start. After a meet against Auburn and a tough loss to Texas (which came down to the final relay), Bultman was happy to see the team is around where he thinks it should be.
“Every year we start out in mid-October and at times I thought we were ahead of where we thought we would be,” Bultman said. “We are obviously wanting to get better. Last year was our best finish ever at NCAAs and that was part of our goal we set every day.”
Bultman is going into the season with a roster full of depth, among that depth is senior Galat, fresh off a silver-medal finish at Worlds which made her the first Aggie swimmer to earn a medal at a World Championship event.
“She has been a big part of our success,” Bultman stated. “She’s a racer. One of the hardest workers. She leads by example– the girls see how hard she works and they try to model themselves after that.”
Bultman and his team understand that simple improvement every day is what will get the job done and they backed that up when they finished in first place ahead of Stanford at the Art Adamson Invitational back in November.
“We want to help them achieve their goals,” Bultman said. “We had two individuals medals at World Champs, and that came from working on the small things every day and not worrying about what other teams were doing.”
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.