By John Torsiello
You might think that Fairfield’s varsity swim teams would feel neglected, with all the attention paid to high profile sports such as soccer and basketball.
That’s not the case. When the Stags swim team hosts a meet in the Aquatics Center the pool is packed and the air filled with the blistering cheers of family, friends, and fans.
“We have an outstanding parents group,” said Head Coach Bill Farley, who along with assistant coaches Kim Matarese ’03 and Dan Vener has built a highly competitive program. The swim team supporters are a devoted group who bring more than just their enthusiasm to the meets.
“Before and during meets we have enough food to feed an army,” said Farley.
Farley is in his eighth season at the helm of the Stags’ swim program. He was an outstanding collegiate swimmer, taking part in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where he narrowly missed out on a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle. He has coached three NCCA National champion swimmers and 15 NCAA All-Americans during a career that has included stints at Princeton University and the University of Michigan. He’s having more fun than ever at Fairfield.
“The teams we have had the last two seasons have really improved the overall quality of our program,” he said. “We have the kind of kids who can and want to take it to another level.”
“The pool is a fun place for the kids to be,” he went on. “This year’s team, like last year’s, is exceptionally close. And they are a hardworking bunch. They get it and go after it.”
The team made the long trip to Hawaii during the holiday season break, with approximately 50 members and staff enjoying a week and a half together in Honolulu.
Last year, Fairfield recorded its first dual-meet winning season (6-4) in five seasons. As of this writing, the Stags are firmly ensconced in the middle of the pack in the competitive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference behind such powers as Loyola, Marist, and Rider.
Indicative of the rise in the quality of the program, Fairfield swimmers are breaking school records left and right, establishing well over a dozen new marks during the last two seasons.
Individuals on the team are making a significant impact in the MAAC. Michele Yoshida ’12 from Kaneohe, Hawaii, was Fairfield’s first-ever triple champion at last year’s MAAC Championships and holds the conference record in the 50-free, 100-free, and 200-free. Boris Romanovsky ’10 of Marblehead, Mass., is a two-time member of the MAAC All-Academic Team. Jonathan O’Connor ’11 from Norwalk, Conn., was named to the 2008-09 MAAC All-Academic Team.
The swim season is long, with practice beginning in late summer and running through the year-end championship meets in late February. When not competing at meets, the Stags practice twice a day.
While the quality of swimmers at Fairfield has improved, their quantity has also increased. The 2009-10 team boasts more than 50 student-athletes. The MAAC allows teams to bring as many swimmers as they like to meets, although 18 of them must be designated by the coaching staff as “scoring” competitors.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re almost on the verge of being crowded,” said Farley. “But with an eight-lane pool we are okay and able to do everything we need to do. How can I look a kid who wants to swim for me in the eye and say no?”
So, Fairfield packs its student-athletes into a bus and van and heads off to compete at away meets – one big rollicking family warmed by box lunches supplied by the parents’ group.
The Athletic Department has been supportive of the swim program, said Farley, although for the Stags to take the next leap forward they will need greater financial commitment: in short, additional scholarships.
“We have one and one half scholarships for the women and one scholarship for the men’s team. Schools like Loyola are offering four or five full scholarships for the swim team, and for us to be at the top of our league we will need similar funding. It’s that simple.”
He added, “We have so many pluses here that attract kids. But we need to be able to help them with tuition and other financial funding so they can make that final choice to come here.”
Swimming and Learning
Aly Criscuolo ’12 and Taylor Stecko ’10 are prime examples of the high quality of student-athlete attracted to the Fairfield swim program.
Criscuolo, a sophomore from Pittsford, N.Y., is one of the top butterfly swimmers in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and a member of two school relay record teams.
She has also quickly established herself as a campus leader. She is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the Fairfield University Students Association General Committee, as well as president of the Spanish Club, which she helped organize. She is also involved in the Green Campus Initiative and other groups. She is a business major with minors in Spanish and environmental studies.
“It was always a dream of mine to swim in college,” the 19-year-old said. “I was looking at several schools and I chose Fairfield after visiting. Going to classes and seeing the swim team made me want to be a part of it. Fairfield presents me with so many options for school and swimming. There’s a great atmosphere here.”
Criscuolo enjoys the sense of family she finds with the swim team.
“The men and women aren’t broken up and separate and I like that. I race against the boys in practice and it’s motivational. In some ways it relieves the pressure of having to go against other women when we race for times.”
On her service-oriented life, she said, “That’s one of the things I like most about Fairfield, being involved with service. There’s just so much to do here.”
Taylor Stecko ’10, a Class S Connecticut state diving champion while attending East Catholic High School in Manchester, holds the Fairfield 1-meter and 3-meter dive records. The 21-year-old senior placed sixth in both events at the 2008-09 Eastern College Athletic Conference Championships, recording the highest-ever finish by a Fairfield diver. He was a MAAC Diver of the Week during the 2008-09 season.
“Taylor is the kind of kid we can get to our school,” said diving coach Dan Vener. “He’s a state champion and has worked hard and had great success during college.”
Stecko is a marketing major with a minor in psychology. Diving, he said, is something that demands countless hours of practice.
“I do a lot of weight training, mostly core workouts. You need to have very good balance and body control to be a good diver. And it’s a lot more mental than you might think. You need your coach to be calling out your twists when you practice because it’s hard for you to see exactly what is going on.”
And, of course, you have to overcome the fear of injury. Diving is perhaps the only event in swimming where a competitor faces such a severe physical risk.
“The big fear is hitting your head on the board during a dive,” said Stecko. “I’ve seen it happen but I have never smacked the board. It’s always there, the thought of it. But it’s something you put way back in your mind.”
Stecko came to Fairfield because he wanted to compete on a Division I level and improve as a student and diver. He found almost immediate success in the pool.
“I won the first meet I competed in. I had set goals for myself about winning but I was surprised to win the first time out.”
Teaching Children to Swim
The swim team’s swim lessons program is a great example of the spirit of service that is so central to life at Fairfield University.
“We have over half the team take part in the lessons, serving as instructors and supervisors,” said Coach Dan Vener. “It’s the team’s prime fundraiser and is our main community outreach effort.”
The lessons, which generally attract about 75 participants, consist of five sessions and cost $150. Vener says the program draws primarily 3- to 9-year-olds, with some older children and a few adults.
“It’s a real thrill for the younger kids to have college swimmers instructing them and getting into the pool with them,” said Vener.
Sasha Campbell ’11 (Old Greenwich, Conn.), Allison Russoniello ’11 (Middletown, N.J.), and Marina Meliones ’10 (Wayland, Mass.) served as this year’s program directors.