Since Melissa Wood, senior, broke Knox’s Swim Team’s record in the 200 backstroke, Head Coach Jonathan Powers has to shave his beard for the first time in three decades. This bet is the type of goofy bets that coaches make with their athletes, especially the seniors that he coached for the past four years.
“It’s hard to, without crying; it’s a great group,” Powers said as he fought back the tears.
Powers has had a chance to witness his group of six seniors grow throughout their four years at Knox. He’s built the bond with them that coaches dream of having with their players. First place or last place aside, Powers has left his imprint on these seniors, and they’ve left their mark on him. The affection is felt in the nickname they’ve given him: ‘J-Pow’.
Being a part of a team lends itself to solidarity amongst the individual members. For the swim team in particular, they spend two hours a day, five days a week together. Since Knox is on the trimester system, the swimming and team often have to stay for an extended period over winter break. Those winters can be harsh. It’s always dark and gloomy outside. During this time, only the basketball teams and a handful of students who live too far to go back home remain on campus.
One of the many moments the senior Zuri Peterson is going to miss with Powers is the pregame.
“I’m going to miss his little inspirational speeches. He’s a quiet guy so before each meet, you know, we’ll all kind of gather up or even at the end of practice we all gather up, and we put our hands in the middle, and it’s just silent. We looked at J-Pow and he thinks for a second, hovers around, and he says, ‘Oh, have fun, swim fast,’” Peterson said.
Wood is going to miss Powers’ personality as a coach more than anything. A four-year swimmer, Wood has been through a lot in her Knox career. The Wisconsin native overcame two hip surgeries that derailed her during her sophomore year.
“J-Pow is unlike most coaches that I’ve had in the sense that he makes swimming fun. He doesn’t yell at us, he’s not that kind of coach, which was a breath of fresh air coming from very competitive programs,” Wood said.
That laid-back approach is comforting to players. There’s already an intense amount of pressure involved in a high-stakes environment like the conference meet. Powers having a calming presence helped his athletes, especially his seniors.
Zuri Peterson started swimming competitively as a freshman in high school. Peterson was attracted to swimming since it’s an individual sport with elements of team sports.
This helps a swimmer like Peterson, who occasionally dealt with mental blocks throughout the season. The senior from Littleton, Colorado was not getting the times she felt she should be getting since she felt that physically, she was getting faster. That feeling always comes around conference time.
“I’ve been working hard. That should be showing. So that gets really frustrating, but it has happened every year at conference. I think just like being in that mindset of like the last meet, you put on your tech suit and feel in your taper and ready to go, and I always drop,” Peterson said.
Wood also went through similar psychological blocks throughout her swimming career.
“Powers helped me work through like some of the psychology of things,” Wood said. “He helps me make it fun and go into without expectations and just try and do my best and see what I can do. He helped give me another perspective going into swimming that it wasn’t just about how fast he’s going, but it was about the experience.”
It’s bittersweet being a senior as well. The year is full of lasts: the last practice, the last swim meet and the last swim of your collegiate career. Emotions are riding high when you know, It’s the finality of something you’ve been doing since you were young.
Wood has been swimming competitively since fifth grade. She initially started swimming because of her big sister.
“My oldest sister’s friend was on the local summer swim team. And because (my sister) did it, I wanted to do it. She knows to this day that she got me into swimming,” Wood said. “I started swimming at the local conference, not competitive at all. Then I started swimming actually competitively with a club team a couple of years later. I started that just because I like to swim so much. It was so much fun. I love to be in the water.”
One of Peterson’s favorite moments this season encompassed both parts of swimming that she finds so endearing.
“In that last 400 free relays, me and Sylvie and we’ve been on the team for years and then we had two freshmen (Annika Miller and Kaitlyn Cashdollar) as well. I went off, and I swam, and I had a good time, and you know, hopped out, and I immediately started kinda crying a little bit and then we are cheering, cheering, and Sylvie went off, cheered for her, and then she came out of the pool,” Peterson said. “We had one swimmer left. I can’t remember who it was. I think Kaitlyn (Cashdollar) was the anchor. We were just like madly cheering and screaming for her as we were crying. I’ll remember that,”
This past season was Sylvie Bowen-Bailey’s 14th season swimming competitively. The moment that’s going to stick with Bowen-Bailey is the last practice before the conference tournament. The moment was “bittersweet.” Though she will return to the pool because she’s also a part of the water polo team, this would be the last time she’d be in the pool with this group of people.
“I think the last practice that we had this year – there were two different practice times, but all of the seniors ended up coming into the same practice time. There was something really special about the six of us, all swimming together and at the end, when we did a cheer, our coach was going to say something to us, but even he was feeling a little too emotional,” Bowen-Bailey said.
There’s something special about senior season. The athletes always give it their all, but there’s extra incentive when it’s your last year. One change for the women’s team was the lifting sessions with Coach Andrew Gibbons. The results showed in those who took the lifting seriously.
“We were lifting with Gibbons and the people who did that most consistently did well, but everyone did well at conference. This was the first year I had lifted with Gibbons, and this is the best season I ever had, I think it did help,” Bowen-Bailey said. Bowen-Bailey dropped 10 seconds in her 200 fly.
All of the work in the pool and the weight room was done specifically for the Midwest Conference Tournament. That was the end goal, and the swimmers who put the time in saw a significant decrease in their time.
For Peterson, she had never lifted before, so the experience was new to her, but she wanted to pull out all of the stops for her last season.
“I did weightlifting with Gibbons twice a week. I was more dedicated to going to like practices this year than I have been in the past. It was that same mentality of like, ‘Okay, it’s the last time I’m going to do it. I might as well do my best. Give it my all go for it,’” Peterson said.
Wood broke a school record of 2:15.91 in the 200 back with her time of 2:15.88. In her last race ever, she set the record that will cause Powers to shave his beard. Wood didn’t intend to break a record; she was just focused on improving her own time.
“On our Facebook swimming diving page, (we posted) ‘Last one, fast one. In (Wood’s) last swim, she set the school record.’ The first person who commented on it was Tory Kassabaum whose record she broke. That’s kind of fun. We’ve got a brand new record board this year, and I’ve got to replace one of the records, so I think I will get rid of my beard,” Powers said.