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Take Your Mark

January 23, 2014
Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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women’s swimming and diving program reaches new heights
under head coach Steve Bultman

by Brian Davis
12th Man Magazine

Steve Bultman figured the Aggies were due for a bump in the rankings.

His fourth-ranked women’s swimming and diving team had just outpaced No. 7 Stanford for a first-place finish in the 2013 Art Adamson Invitational. And Texas A&M was in the midst of a strong fall season with two Southeastern Conference road victories and a non-conference home win over sixth-ranked Texas.

But when the next rankings were released on Nov. 27, the Aggie head coach was stunned. The College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) had vaulted the Aggies to the top of its Division I poll.

“My first reaction was, ‘Whoa!’” Bultman said. “That was a really nice surprise. The team responded the same way. It shows that people are noticing us.”

The No. 1 ranking was another first for an A&M program that has steadily climbed to elite status since Bultman was hired away from the Georgia coaching staff in 1999.

“It’s been fun because in each of the last 10 years or so, we have accomplished something that no previous team has done here,” Bultman said. “Whether it’s moving up higher at NCAAs, winning conference championships or having record holders (we keep achieving more).”

The Aggies were completely off the radar when Bultman took the reins after helping the Bulldogs win a national title as an assistant. Now, the Aggies are a perennial top-10 program.

“The goals that we set within our first season or two together were to be a top-10 team at NCAAs and win the Big 12 Championships, which meant dethroning Texas,” former A&M assistant coach Kristin Hill said. “As we recruited and worked with our teams each year, we continued to talk about this vision.”

The results started improving immediately, but the total transformation to an elite program took hard work, patience and persistence.

“Part of it was getting the team to buy in to a harder training program and setting some higher goals for themselves,” Bultman said. “But the main thing was just helping them improve. Some had improved, but not by much.”

"We have a great group of girls, and they set high goals for themselves. That makes it a lot easier on coaches when they want to reach those goals as much as we do."

- Steve Bultman, head coach

Recruiting at a higher level was instrumental to the Aggies’ future success, but that was easier said than done with a program that had never finished higher than third in its conference and had only one top-15 finish at the NCAA Championships (11th in 1985).

“If you are not top 10, the top recruits won’t give you the time of day for the most part,” Bultman said. “A few would talk to us occasionally and a few would visit, but we didn’t get many of them. We had to show that our team was getting better.”

The Aggies gradually improved in Bultman’s first seven seasons, finishing second to rival Texas in the Big 12 and winning at least eight dual meets each year. Neither had happened prior to the Bultman era. In 2004, the Aggies jumped all the way to 16th at the NCAA Championships when the meet was held in College Station. A year later, A&M was up two more places to 14th. Then, buoyed by a talented freshman class, A&M matched the school-record with an 11th-place finish at the 2006 NCAA meet.

It’s no coincidence that the program reached another level of competition when the senior class of 2009 first arrived on campus for the 2005-06 season. Arguably the strongest in program history, the class was comprised of future Olympians, All-Americans and program-changers, including Kristen Heiss, Codie Hansen, Marissa Jasek, Sarah Woods, Julia Wilkinson, Christine Marshall and Triin Aljand.

“We were starting to get better and qualifying more girls for the NCAAs, but the group that arrived in 2005 really raised the bar,” Bultman said. “It was a pretty good recruiting class, but then they really improved to take us to another level.

“We were really excited about the group and felt like they could really jump-start the program. They worked hard, wanted to get better and had high goals for themselves. The results followed.”

Hill, now the head swimming and diving coach at Boise State, made the difficult decision to leave A&M to start the Broncos’ program following the 2005-06 season knowing the Aggies were on the cusp of greatness.

“When I told Steve I was considering leaving he said, ‘You know, next year will be the year we beat Texas for the first time,’” Hill recalled. “It was one of several things we had been working toward for six years, and it was clear to us that we were just one year away.”

Sure enough, the Aggies beat Texas in 2007 and claimed their first-ever Big 12 championship in storybook fashion by a single point after the final race. The 2006-07 team added to the list of program firsts with an undefeated dual meet record and a school-record eighth-place finish at the NCAAs.

“It was pretty neat when we reached the top 10 for the first time in 2007,” Bultman recalled. “We swam really well in a phenomenal conference meet. And we continued to swim that way for the first day and a half of the three-day NCAA meet. The last day and a half, we had a couple of swims that could have been better and we ended up eighth. But I think we should have been seventh and maybe could have snuck up to sixth. It made the girls hungry for the next year.”

The 2008 season was even better, as the Aggies won 17 of 18 Big 12 races to defend their conference crown and followed with a school-record fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships—a feat that was matched again in 2013.

Texas A&M’s unprecedented run of success since 2007, with seven consecutive top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships and four conference championships along the way, firmly entrenched the program among the best in the nation.

“We have a great group of girls, and they set high goals for themselves,” Bultman said. “That makes it a lot easier on coaches when they want to reach those goals as much as we do.”

Bultman is quick to give credit where it is certainly due—to the swimmers and divers who represent the school each season. But the head coach has proven over the long haul that his vision for a top-10 program at A&M helped pave the way for the Aggies’ success.

“Steve’s patience, his eye for stroke technique, his consistency in coaching and sticking with a plan, his recruiting style and the resources as an athletic department at Texas A&M have helped propel the program to be a perennial top-10 team,” Hill added.

Hill has modeled her program at Boise State on what Bultman built in Aggieland.

“Steve’s training program was successful, so I didn’t see a need to start over and develop something completely new here,” she said. “He uses a lot of drills and specific training sets that he has found work over his many years of coaching, and he isn’t interested in making big changes to the things he knows are important when other coaches may be getting caught up in the latest and greatest new training techniques.

“It was so thrilling to see Texas A&M women at the top of the CSCAA rankings poll for the first time ever,” added Hill, who also serves on the committee that votes for the rankings. “It was a really easy vote that week because the A&M women had stood out so clearly at their fall invitational. It was fun to hear other coaches across the country talk about A&M’s outstanding performances, and I tried not to comment too much because most would know I’m pretty biased.”

While the program’s first No. 1 ranking was another great achievement, the team’s focus is squarely on preparing for the championship phase of the season in February and March. Bultman admits that to claim another first this season—finish in the top three or better at the NCAAs—they will have to challenge several top programs including Cal and Georgia, a team A&M tied in a recent SEC dual meet.

“Those two are a little bit ahead of the others,” he said. “Then there are five or six of us...who knows? It’s how you swim at the end of the year. If Cal and Georgia have a swimmer or two off and we’re really good, who knows what could happen?”

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