Oct. 21, 2014
When a team graduates a three-time All-American, and the head coach of nearly thirty years retires, those left in the wake of such departures could feel adrift and lost.
First year University of Notre Dame men’s swimming head coach Matt Tallman took swift action to avoid losing momentum on the team’s accomplishments in 2013-14, and in late September, he took his team north to Michigan not to swim, but rather to build the foundation for a new era in the program.
“I just thought with the complete change in staff, and trying to bring the team together, [we could] create an identity while we were there,” Tallman says. “The trip not only served as a bonding experience for the guys, but also it provided an opportunity to get serious about the upcoming season as well.”
The team traveled to Pretty Lake Campsite in Mattawan, Michigan, a campground that “provides activities that inspire, motivate, and challenge” participants according to their website. The Irish stayed overnight Friday and completed the ropes course Saturday, with the overall atmosphere serving as a bonding experience for the team.
“Everything about Pretty Lake, which is about an hour’s drive from Notre Dame’s campus, is conducive to fostering a sense of community amongst individuals,” says Claire VeNard, program director in Notre Dame’s Student Welfare and Development office. In her role, she has coordinated several trips to the campsite primarily with Notre Dame’s Rosenthal Leadership Academy.
After the team got settled in on Friday, they spent three hours in the evening enjoying the scenic campsite and discussing their goals – both individual and team-specific ones – around a bonfire. Both in small groups and as a whole, each team member had their chance to speak up and voice their hopes and concerns about the impending season.
“We went there to talk some things out about where we are headed, and what we wanted to do, and Friday night we did that really well,” says Tallman.
Part of Friday’s discussion enabled the staff and the team to establish its own “Five Pillars” for the program. The team’s five pillars – Integrity, Loyalty, Passion, Perseverance and Sacrifice – will hopefully stand strong throughout the 2014-15 season and into the future.
Waking up early Saturday morning, the team continued to bond as the student-athletes met with camp staff and participated in a variety of team-building activities. In the afternoon, team members and coaches tackled the ropes course and the challenges the course offered some 20 feet above ground.
Spread through the trees of the campsite, the course consists of tight ropes situated for walking, cables for swinging and nets for climbing. The team was split into pairs to complete the course and halfway through the session, the counselors called for partners to switch – giving each team member the opportunity to learn how to communicate differently with different teammates.
Even the coaching staff got in on the high ropes action, as head coach Tallman and new assistant coach Tim Lane worked their way through the course.
“It was a funny site to watch, they [the coaches] were bickering a little bit,” says senior Patrick Murphy, a captain on last year’s team. “They ended up finishing the course, but you could tell that Coach Tallman appeared out of his element up there – not that he would admit it.”
Murphy, a previous visitor to the campsite as a participant in the Rosenthal Leadership Academy, admitted he may have been a little overconfident due to his prior achievements with the Rosenthal trip, but seeing fellow senior and roommate Broderick Kelley overcome his fear of heights proved inspiring.
“He’s afraid of roller coasters, doesn’t like heights at all, but he went up there and was a stud,” says Murphy. “He said he was scared the whole time but he pushed through his fear. He was up on the course for an hour and a half, about twenty feet above the ground! It’s pretty cool to see someone overcome their fears and put up with it for the betterment of the team. We can do anything for this team, as long as we work together.”
In addition to being a captain last year, Murphy has enjoyed success in his three years on campus. Both he and coach Tallman agree the Irish can improve on their sixth-place Atlantic Coast Conference Championship finish at last year’s championship meet.
“We talked a lot about the goal of improving just one percent,” Tallman says, “and what that one percent can mean over what we accomplished last year. If we improve just one percent, that can help us to our goal of winning an ACC Championship.
“That is why this trip was so important – it gave the student-athletes an opportunity to connect with each other and with the new coaching staff. We really focused on talking about and establishing our goals for this year. We’re all excited to build off last year’s ACC finish and the NCAAs.”
“We want to qualify more guys for the NCAA meet than we have in previous seasons, but we also just want to grow together as a team,” Murphy says. “We want to set the foundation of consistently being a top-10 team moving forward.”
Murphy and Kelley are two in a class of 14 seniors, the largest in program history. Together, this strong senior class will continue to step up as leaders and guide the team in their second season in the ACC.
It is likely that the two days spent at Pretty Lake could provide a defining moment for the program — one where the team came together to establish its goals and embrace the challenges of the season ahead.