SAN JOSE, Calif. — The time of Covid has brought tragedy and fallout. Yet, ironically, it has produced the silver lining of new beginnings and fresh starts, especially in the sports world.
The San José State women’s swimming and diving program is an example of this effect.
The team was without a facility for three years and needed an infusion of new faces to fortify its roster of returnees. Their diving program also required reconstruction.
“Very excited to rebuild our diving program in addition to bringing our swimming program back up,” 16-year head coach Sage Hopkins said. “The majority of our team had not had an opportunity to compete either since February of 2020 or competed at a very limited, nominal level last year due to the pandemic.”
One way to strengthen a team is to face formidable competition. Hopkins said they front-loaded this season’s schedule with a concentration of meets in the first six weeks.
The Spartans have swum against exceptional Pac-12 programs this year — Stanford, UCLA, Cal — and recently raced at the Mizzou Invite, locking up with Southeastern Conference’s Missouri, the Big Ten’s Nebraska and the University of Wyoming.
“One of the things we wanted to do was expose the team to some of the better swimmers in the world,” Hopkins said. “Definitely some of the better swimmers in the NCAA.”
He said putting their most competitive swimmers in these situations will help them in the postseason.
“If you’re standing on the block and you’ve got Regan Smith (Stanford swimmer) and Torri Huske (Stanford swimmer and Olympian who holds the American record in the long course 100m butterfly) on both sides of you … the Mountain West Championships probably isn’t quite as intimidating.”
The Spartans have focused on the technical and tactical aspects of their racing in 2021.
“The idea obviously that if we’re swimming the races the right way, we’re going to start to see a lot of improvement,” Hopkins said. “I was very happy with how the team improved through those first six weeks.”
The team’s stroke strength — at least currently — is lower middle-distance to middle-distance freestyle.
“We’ve got some tremendous members of the program,” he said. “We’ve got first-year Réka Kovács and Zsófia Muzsnay that are really leading the charge in that area.”
Kovács — a West Virginia University transfer — and Muzsnay are from Hungary, a country with a rich tradition of elite swimming that includes Olympic champions Katinka Hosszu and Krisztina Egerszegi.
Kovács finished second in the 200 butterfly at the Mizzou Invite. Her time of 1:59.05 is second on the San José State all-time list and one of the best times posted in the Mountain West this season.
“She’s broke pool records in practice eight or nine times … she’s a ferocious worker,” Hopkins said of Kovács. “I’ve had the fortune of working with a lot of good world-class swimmers over my career…and Réka has the highest work capacity of any athlete I’ve ever worked with.”
Sophomore freestyler Reagan Mathieson from Littleton, Colorado, and multidimensional local product Ela Freiman (Fremont High School, San Jose) are also key standouts.
“In terms of postseason prospects, we’ve got some very strong prospects in butterfly and middle-distance freestyle and potentially breaststroke as well,” Hopkins said. “Looking at it … we could have a group at the NCAA Championships, and we’d have a very large group at the National Invitational Championships as well.”
The Spartan diving team has experienced some challenges recently. The program was shuttered for more than a year during the pandemic and went through a coaching change. But Hopkins believes it’s on the right track and is optimistic about the latest recruiting class.
“I feel this is a great time to be with San José State swimming and diving. The other area we’re really excited about is our diving program.”
But the first-year team members have had the most impact throughout the first six weeks of the season, Hopkins said.
“So, I think that really speaks to the future of the program, and we have tremendous leadership, tremendous contributors across all four classes.”
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