Oct. 22, 2015
By Curt Rallo
University of Notre Dame junior Catherine Mulquin admits that the first time she laced up the boxing gloves, she was wondering what it had to do with swimming.
Mulquin and the rest of the Notre Dame women’s swimming team are adding some punch to their training regimen, and it’s ushering in a new era with an impact.
Mike Litzinger, who was named the Fighting Irish women’s swimming head coach in April, has been a creative force in starting to craft what Notre Dame hopes is the foundation of a championship program during his tenure.
Since Litzinger arrived on the Notre Dame campus, Irish swimmers have been boxing, rowing and doing yoga in innovative dry-land training sessions.
“We’re not quite Rhonda Rousey, but we’re pretending to be,” Mulquin says with a laugh about stepping into the boxing ring. “At first, we were all thinking (coach Litzinger) was joking, like, ‘Oh, that’s funny. We’re going to box each other.’ Now, we have our own gloves and our own wraps. Everyone is really into it.”
After a few sessions in the ring, Mulquin sees more than physical benefits to working over a punching bag.
“I think it was huge for him to start the team with practices outside of the pool, because, when you’re in the pool, you’re looking at the bottom of the pool,” says Mulquin, who swims the backstroke and freestyle. “You’re not talking. You can encourage each other when you get out of the pool, but all of the time you’re in the pool, you’re not talking.
“It is different to be able to talking during training and encouraging each other. I think it’s huge in terms of team atmosphere. It was good for us to really get to know each other, and to get to know the coaches, because before, our coaches had never really come to the dry-land portions or the lifting or the training we did outside the pool, which was never nearly as much as we do now.”
As the Irish swimmers build strength and team chemistry, Litzinger says that the roots of cross-training can be traced back to legendary Irish football coach Knute Rockne.
“Knute Rockne is a great example of a cross-training innovator,” Litzinger says. “He started the boxing club as off-season conditioning for football. That’s one of many history lessons that I’ve learned since I’ve been here.”
Caught by surprise at first, Mulquin says the Irish love boxing, now. In fact, when a recent session was cancelled, the team was upset.
“It’s really, really hard, we sweat a ton down there, but it’s fun, and you can get some anger out, for sure,” Mulquin says. “It’s definitely fun to work outside of the pool and do something so different.
“We maybe get two or three weeks off throughout the year. It’s a lot of time in the water. It’s really good to get some cross-training out of the water, and everything we’ve done helps us prepare for the swim season. We’ve gotten a lot stronger in the past couple of weeks.”
Everything has a theme and a meaning in Litzinger’s preseason work as he helps his team forge an identity.
“One of the things I ask the women to do is come up with a hashtag,” Litzinger says. “The hashtag our women came up with is #noreturnpolicy. No return policy means we’re in all the way. Every time they tweet, #noreturnpolicy is on the end of it. Today’s social media catches a lot of attention, and it reminds everybody what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. Credit to the women for creating it and putting that kind of stamp on it.”
Litzinger, who has coached at the U.S. National Team level, spend 14 years as a head coach at Utah and St. Bonaventure’s, and has been at North Carolina the past eight seasons as an assistant.
Litzinger didn’t apply for the Notre Dame job when it first opened up, but after speaking with associate athletics director Jen Vining-Smith, who also serves as the program’s sport administrator, he was on board with the Irish.
“We talked at the Atlantic Coast Conference championship meet and had a great conversation,” Vining-Smith says. “I knew that he would be a great fit here. I was looking for someone with enthusiasm. It’s been a rough couple of years, with some ups and downs. The morale has been kind of low, because of various things that have gone on.”
Vining-Smith did extensive research to find a candidate perfect for the head coaching position, and perfect for Notre Dame.
“I really wanted someone who was going to make the girls love swimming again,” Vining-Smith says of revitalizing the program. “I thought that someone with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement would do the trick. That was one think I was looking for in a coach. Secondly, I was looking for someone who was a proven winner. I wanted someone who had a track record of working for winning programs, someone who knows how to win. And finally, I wanted someone who could relate to the girls, something they could have a conversation with, because, to me, that means they could sit in a living room and recruit, and they could relate and talk to the girls on a personal level.”
Litzinger says that as he was talking with Vining-Smith at the ACC Championships, he knew that taking the Notre Dame job was a rare opportunity.
“The reality of it is, it is Notre Dame,” Litzinger says. “It is a special place. Opportunities to coach at this level, with the expectations of academics and athletics and community and service ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ it’s a job that I would embrace and tackle.
“There has been some unrest in the program. There have been some very good things going on, and it’s a program with a lot of good tradition and history, but the coaching changes that have happened ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ the women needed consistency.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity. Where I am in my coaching career, I’ve seen an awful lot. I think I have the background and the experience to help this program be a consistent winner in the ACC, if not a Top 10 NCAA team. That’s our goal.”
Litzinger knows that Notre Dame has the support, facilities and culture to nurture excellence among its student-athletes.
“I think the overall aura of excellence that Notre Dame provides is a unique niche in college swimming,” Litzinger says. “The expectations are so high for every athlete on campus, and every program on campus, whether it’s architecture, business, which is phenomenal, or athletics. When I’m speaking with prospects, that’s an easy sell, because they’re such high achievers. They want to have an opportunity to pursue their academic option and their athletic option at the highest level. I think Notre Dame’s philosophy is certainly that, along with community and family and service.”
Although the Irish boasted an individual national champion in 2014 in Emma Reaney, the team fortunes have been less than championship caliber.
Litzinger said that he is eager to see the Irish excel.
“Notre Dame finished sixth in the conference last season, and for Notre Dame to finish sixth in anything in the conference ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ that’s not where we want to be,” Litzinger says. “There are various reasons for that finish, but we’re looking forward. We’re looking at what can we do down the road.
“The support here is tremendous. Speaking with Jen Vining-Smith and vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick, they want swimming and diving to be successful. I feel fully confident in their support. They are giving me the tools and support to get there. That’s very important, especially in today’s climate, where some are on the edge of survival, but swimming and diving are very healthy at Notre Dame.”
Litzinger is bringing passion into a demanding sport for the Fighting Irish. Swimmers endure a grind in the pool, and outside of it.
“The mindset is a little bit different,” Litzinger says of swimming. “I think that’s what’s nice about our sport and unique, you’re intrinsically motivated. The alarm goes off, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a beautiful morning or a blizzard, you’re on your way to the pool. You don’t necessarily finish your day at the pool, because you have class and a lot of other activities, but we’re spending 20 hours a week with each other. It’s tight quarters. I always like to say, ‘It’s 80 and sunny in the pool.’ It is a grind, but it’s a grind that we embrace.
“One of my mentors told me, that the worst thing you’re going to come out of with a swim program that is successful, is A. you’re disciplined; B. you know how to succeed as an individual; C. you know how to succeed in a team environment; D. you know how to demand from yourself excellence. Those are all pretty good traits to walk away with.”
According to Litzinger, the Irish are building close bonds. They’re relying on each other, and have accepted the new coaching staff. They have expressed excitement about what Litzinger and his staff and bringing in. There hasn’t been any hesitation on the part of the Irish.
“They’re open and they’re ready to have some fun and to be a great team,” Litzinger says. “I’m impressed with them. We want to win, but we want to do it with great people, great students, and do it the right way.”
Vining-Smith likes the vibes she’s picked up from the women’s swimming program so far.
“I’ve never seen the girls so excited about a season,” Vining-Smith said. “I think they’re ready to start fresh and let the past go. They’re ready to buy-in, and see where it takes them.”