By Brandon Cruz
The University of Nevada women’s swim and dive team races into the postseason with an unblemished record of 6-0. The Pack’s flawless start must be attributed to someone, but whom? The vast majority would credit the team’s success to first-year head coach Neil Harper; Harper would deny these claims.
Although coach Harper believes his role in this team’s success has been minimal, his swimmers would disagree. Sophomore swimmer Kate Hofmeyer had nothing but praise for her coach. When asked who the leader of their team was, Hofmeyer replied “Neil” without hesitation.
“He inspires us every day,” Hofmeyer added. “When we get to practice we might not be in the best mood, but he’s always in such a great mood, which pumps us up!”
Harper’s attitude and positive energy has brought this team to new heights. A team that once dreaded attending practice made a complete 180 over the course of a season, due to a unique style of coaching.
“It’s the happiest team I’ve ever been a part of. Everyone loves coming to training, loves competing,” Hofmeyer said.
The only thing Harper will take credit for is enabling his team to realize that they’re all important.
“They all can be and should be leaders of their own right,” Harper said.
This approach to coaching allows each swimmer to see their true potential. Freshman Rebecca Murray understands Harper’s approach.
“Everyone contributes to every aspect of the team,” she said.
Coach Harper’s unorthodox methods have yielded impressive results.
Hofmeyer wasn’t the only swimmer to commend Harper for his unparalleled techniques. Briana Peterson is now in her second season with the Pack, and understands the necessity of a positive learning environment.
“It’s a lot different than last year,” Peterson said. “When you walk on the pool deck, it’s a much happier environment. Everyone wants to be here, rather than feeling like you’re forced to come to practice.”
In just one season, the team went from a loss of ambition and motivation, to newfound self-confidence and an abundance of encouragement. Teams tend to struggle with a new coach, but in the case of Harper and the Pack’s swimmers the transition was seamless. The team accepted him with open arms, and allowed him to implement his game plan with ease.
A large part of Harper’s game plan comes by not letting the younger members of the team feel sorry for themselves.
“You’re supposed to feel tired, that’s the way the good teams are,” Harper said. “They tear themselves down, they give themselves everything they’ve got and they prepare for the challenge ahead.”
Nevada’s women’s swim and dive team was unrivaled during its regular season, as it swam through the competition with ease. Though this may be the case, coach Harper and his team understand the challenges that come with the postseason.
Mindsets alter, training intensifies and perfection becomes a need instead of a want. At this point in the season, Harper is attempting to push the team to its breaking point.
“The idea about swimming is you break them down, work them hard, throw them to the wall,” Harper said. “Have them bounce back the next day and you push them even harder. Squeeze them for everything they’ve got, and you make them believe they can perform at a level they’ve never trained at before.”
To some this may seem like excessive training, but in reality Harper is preparing his team for every situation it may face in the postseason. He does this to reduce the chances of the swimmer or diver cracking under pressure. If anyone knows anything about pressure it’s Harper; he is a two-time Olympian and seven-time All-American.
“The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship is probably the fastest, deepest, challenging meet, that rivals the Olympics,” Harper said. “[It is] the pinnacle of swimming in the world and 70 percent of team U.S.A. will consist of kids who swam in the NCAA championships.”
The stakes are high when it comes to the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.
Coach Harper has found himself in a Steve Kerr-like situation. He was given the reigns to a championship-caliber team in his first season as a head coach at Nevada. Can he mirror Kerr and take his team to the promised land? If you ask his team, you’ll receive a resounding yes.
Brandon Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.