The UMBC men's swimming and diving team captured the America East championship in Worcester, Mass., Feb. 18.
The win marked the team's 15th title spread over three different conferences in 17 years under head coach Chad Craddock -- and the 23rd league championship for Craddock overall if you include the women's program. But this one might have been the most dominant.
Between the men and second-place women, whose furious rally the last two days came up just short, the Retrievers captured 61 total medals: 26 gold, 18 silver and 17 bronze. Of those, the men won 41 total medals -- 19 gold -- and swept gold, silver and bronze in eight events.
Sophomore Ilia Rattsev, a native of Russia, was named Male Swimmer of the Meet. Freshman Kai Wisner earned Rookie of the Meet honors and Serbia-native Nikola Trajkovic received the Dave Alexander Coaches' Award as the meet's highest-scoring senior. The men also set five conference and three school records while turning in six NCAA B-cut times. Making the B-cut puts swimmers on a list to potentially compete at the NCAA Championships once the number of automatic A-cut qualifiers is determined.
"We were definitely a force," said Craddock, who also serves as UMBC's director of aquatic programs. "I'm pretty excited about the school records and conference records that we set. Starting back up in the conference this year, it was a hard feat to break some of the records that were set a long time ago."
For the past four years, the UMBC men's team competed in the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association, where the Retrievers captured the last three titles. Meanwhile the women's team competed in the America East. This year, with both teams in the same conference, UMBC exhibited a different level of dominance.
"I was really surprised by how well we did," Rattsev said, "but this was our goal, and we worked hard for it the whole season. It was great to see so many of my teammates have really, really good meets, too, and great having the girls there and getting to see them swim. It was so exciting to feel their support and be able to support them."
Rattsev, who was named UMBC Athlete of the Week for his performance, earned gold medals in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events while also leading the 200-meter medley, 200-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle relay teams to first-place finishes. He shaved .05 seconds off the school record in the 50-meter freestyle and helped the 200-meter medley relay knock .30 seconds off the conference mark. Rattsev also turned in three NCAA B-cut times.
Rattsev is one of six international swimmers on the men's team; there are five more on the women's squad. International recruiting has become a staple of Craddock's program, exposing UMBC to prospective student-athletes who otherwise might never have considered attending the school. He also attracts swimmers from all over the United States, with athletes coming to the Catonsville, Md., campus from California, Texas, Florida and Minnesota.
"First, we really recruit through the internet," said Craddock, whose staff was named the America East's best thanks to the overall championship-meet performance. "We see their times and then we'll send them emails and start corresponding that way. Then it really spreads through word of mouth. Athletes come here and have a great experience and tell teammates and their clubs about us, and we end up getting more kids from the same countries in the future. We are fortunate to have a great group of really diverse athletes from all over the world."
Trajkovic, from Zrenjanin, Serbia, spoke to countrymen who had attended UMBC before making his final decision, but it was Craddock who won him over.
"There were some other Serbians who had been here, and I called some people to ask them about [UMBC]," he said. "But once I talked to Chad, it made me decide that UMBC would be a good place for me. They had a nice team and an outdoor pool. I always wanted to be close to the East [Coast], and the whole team was very competitive. I thought I would improve if I came here, and the decision has been a good thing for me."
Junior Alexander Gliese, who won seven gold medals at the conference championships, is a local product with international ties. Born in Denmark, he moved to New York at an early age before being raised mostly in Columbia, Md., where he attended Long Reach High School and swam for the Columbia Clippers.
He knew of UMBC from growing up nearby but didn't really think about enrolling until his older sister applied. Then he spoke to Craddock, visited and made his decision.
"I was contacted by Chad and then had a really good experience through the recruiting process," Gliese said. "When I came here to visit it was such a strong program with a family atmosphere that I thought it would be the right place for me."
Despite all the talent he's able to bring to UMBC, Craddock said establishing a consistency of excellence is not as easy as it looks.
"By winning so often you become the hunted, and it's a lot harder to win when you are the hunted instead of the hunter," he said. "Everybody is gunning for you and wants to knock you off, so we come up with some creative ways to train and help us perform well and continue to recruit excellent athletes. Success tends to breed success. Our past helps us continue to be successful, and it really helps that our school administration and athletic support staff cares deeply about our success."
Photo Credit: Greg Cooper/UMBC Athletics