UCLA junior Michael Picotte has clocked a 44.43-second 100-yard freestyle, the fastest time in the NCAA this season. Now if he can just persuade competitors and UCLA Coach Ron Ballatore that his time is indicative of vast improvement, rather than a rested state caused by his absence from swimming practice.
"He's not as tired as the rest of us," Ballatore said.
Picotte, who has missed practice to train and compete for the Bruins' water polo team, claims he is worn down.
"The water polo workouts are grueling," he said. "I don't think swimmers realize how hard it is. I didn't."
Picotte wanted to compete in both sports since his freshman season, but because he is on a swimming scholarship, he had to show Ballatore he could excel at swimming.
He struggled his freshman season, however. His 200 freestyle was 2.6 seconds slower than his personal best, his 100 freestyle barely improved and he did not qualify for the NCAA championships.
As a sophomore, Picotte turned his disappointment into determination and placed fourth in the 100 freestyle at the NCAA championships. He also helped two relay teams finish in the top four as the Bruins finished a surprising third in team competition. Then Ballatore gave Picotte permission to play water polo.
"I missed it," Picotte said. "It has all the elements of swimming, plus you get to use a ball and there are other guys."
At times, Picotte, the first UCLA athlete to swim and play water polo since Robin Leamy won All-American honors in both sports in 1982, is torn by his dual commitments.
"It's hard," he said after missing the 200 freestyle against Texas because of a water polo match against USC. "There's a big emphasis placed on the (swim) team working together."
Not only did No. 2 Texas overwhelm No. 3 UCLA, 154-89, the Longhorns downed No. 8 USC, 135-104. The defeat of USC might have been greater, but in a gesture of friendship toward new Trojan Coach Mark Schubert (the former Longhorn women's coach), Texas Coach Eddie Reese designated his fastest 400 freestyle relay as an exhibition.
"You can't stand up and beat Texas by psyching up," Schubert said. "It happens (by practicing hard) six days a week, two times a day. The great thing about this sport is that it all depends on how you swim the last week of March (at the NCAA championships). If you go in prepared, amazing things can happen."
One of those, Schubert says he hopes, is a recovery by Brian Earley, the defending NCAA platform diving champion who will be sidelined until at least January with a back injury. "He's a three-event guy and a threat in all three," Schubert said. "We need him badly."
The most impressive swim by the Trojans was the 3:18.86 by the 400 medley relay team of Jason Stelle, Mike Mason, Frank Wattles and John Steel. In winning the 500 (4:30.05) and the 1,000 freestyles (9:10.79), Jeffrey Ong, a junior from Malaysia, also turned in quick early season times.
The 10th-ranked USC women's team upset No. 4 Arizona, 131-108, with three victories (500 and 1,650 freestyles, and 200 butterfly) by Jenn Hutchison, a sophomore from Quebec, Canada, and victories by both relay teams. The meet came down to the last event, the 400 freestyle relay, in which senior Elin Bartell and freshmen Ayako Nakano, Petrina Lessard and Jennifer Stephen never trailed.
Nakano, a Japanese Olympian; Lessard of Pierrefonds, Canada; and Stephen of Porterville, Calif., have given the Trojan relay teams unprecedented depth, and senior All-Americans Tara Shriner, Sheri White, Monica Koyama and Bartell, a former walk-on, have provided extraordinary leadership.
"This is the most conscientious team I've ever coached," said fifth-year Coach Darrell Fick.