BOISE, Idaho-The Boise State University swimming and diving program may not be steeped in tradition, but the path it has taken to find success mirrors that of a trail with a much richer history-The Oregon Trail. More than 150 years after covered wagons roamed through Boise to discover the frontiers of the West, a new group of pioneers set out to establish a different kind of fresh beginning.
Under the guidance of a visionary coach and seven strong-willed student-athletes, Boise is no longer a stop along the way. Supremacy in Western Athletic Conference swimming and diving is now firmly supplanted in Boise, and the group who started it all is determined to keep it in the Treasure Valley.
In July 2006, Kristin Hill was hired as the first head swimming and diving coach at Boise State University. With recruiting wrapped up nationally for the coming fall, Hill had a choice to make: start the program from scratch, or recruit for a year before putting a team in the pool.
"I did consider asking the administration if we could look at backing everything up a year and waiting to start in the fall of 2007 after I had a year to recruit," Hill said. "But there was so much excitement in Boise and within the department to get started that it was clear we should just go for it."
With the help of 11 hard-working and selfless women, Hill fielded a team. Though the Broncos struggled through a 0-10 season, the pieces were starting to fall into place for what the first-time head coach knew could happen in Boise.
"I had these girls who enjoyed what they were doing and were willing to help build," said Hill. "When recruits came in, they were able to host them and show them what they love about Boise and Boise State. The great thing about those girls was they came here because of the city and the University. So I sold the swimming part, and they sold Boise."
Seeing the Future
Seven of those recruits who visited the first-year program as high school seniors would go on to become the foundation of one of the fastest ascensions in modern collegiate athletics. Denise Green, Tara Hahto, Rachael Meisner, Kim Nelson, Jenny Nowatzke, Erin Stotts and Andrea Thiltgen all saw the same thing Hill could see.
"It was mostly Kristin and the way she sold the program," Hahto credited as being the reason she left Victoria, B.C., for the Boise foothills. "She had a vision and that's what we bought into. Basically that's the only thing we could go off of. We didn't even know who our teammates were going to be, so it was all a vision."
That vision was to win a WAC Championship in the program's fifth year. In 2006 it was crazy, but every accomplishment starts somewhere and Hill found the right mix of people to make the dream a reality. That group included a class of recruits who wanted to take on the challenge of being leaders.
"We got to start something," Green said excitedly. "Kristin put it in our heads that it was going to be big, and we were going to be part of the inaugural recruiting class."
Location, Location, Location
The travelers on The Oregon Trail may have rolled through Idaho with sights set on the Pacific Ocean, but all seven swimming pioneers agreed their visits to Boise revealed a special place. Hill already knew that.
"What allowed me to see the possibility of building a winning program was the success the athletic department had across the board," Hill pointed out. "At any given point, every team here had experienced success."
What really stuck with the recruits was how much the community latched onto that success.
"The community support for athletics as a whole was a big selling point," Green said.
Hahto mentioned attending a football scrimmage on her recruiting trip and seeing 10,000 people in the stands. For a girl from Canada who had never seen a football game before, the public outpouring overshadowed the culture shock.
"I was appalled at the amount of people who came to a scrimmage," Hahto laughed. "That was a big thing, how into it the community was. Also, how successful the other athletic teams have been."
Less than four years later, the community had a new champion to cheer. The Broncos went into the 2010 WAC Championships their eyes on the big prize. Still it was unthinkable that a fourth-year program could take home the trophy. At the end of the three-day meet, the pioneers guided Boise State to 587 points, outdistancing second place New Mexicio State by 93 points. The Broncos became the fastest program to win the team title at the WAC Swimming and Diving Championships. With the crown, they also joined the ranks of the 1981 UAB men's basketball Sun Belt Conference champions and the 1998 Florida women's soccer national champions as programs to reach great heights in the first four years of existence.
"I remember Kristin telling me in five years we were supposed to contend to win conference," Nowatzke reflected. "We were never supposed to actually see it. So, to be a part of winning it was really cool."
Making it all the more special for Nowatzke and her classmates was the tireless work they put into realizing their goals. It has been a long road to find success, but the Bronco pioneers have taken it all in stride.
"We've always been proud of what we accomplish," Stotts said.
The first two seasons on campus were filled with a lot of silver linings and moral victories.
"We didn't measure our accomplishments by wins and losses," Green said. "We measured them based on what was an accomplishment for us."
Those individual achievements began to pile up. Meisner reached the podium at the WAC Championships in the 1,000 freestyle as a freshman with a fifth-place finish. Green, Hahto, Nelson, Stotts and Thiltgen also advanced past the preliminary rounds at the 2008 conference meet. At the 2009 WAC Championships, the Broncos earned a silver medal with its 400-yard freestyle relay team.
Through their determination to never settle, many of the feats still stand. Green is the school record holder in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstrokes. Hahto and Stotts combine for the top three times in the 50-yard breaststroke, while Hahto claims the top spot in the 50-yard butterfly. Meisner owns six top-10 times in the distance freestlye events. Nowatzke joins Hahto with two of the top four times in the 50 fly. All seven pioneers can be found on the relay top 10 lists.
Still none of the school records equaled team breakthroughs as the Broncos defeated only one WAC opponent in 2007-08. Eventually the moral victories amounted to tangible success and confidence was brewing by the end of the 2008-09 season.
"When we got here, none of us had ever swum at the college level," said Hahto, keeping in perspective the task these pioneers took on. "So, when we lost it wasn't a big deal. Then we started winning, and it was like, 'hey, we should do this more often.' And we did."
Though the winning was seen as a novelty, the growth was instantly recognizable. The evolution of results and expectations when it came to the team's performances at the WAC Championships illustrates the attitude it took to lay the foundation for success.
"Our first year we were just so excited we didn't finish last," Stotts explained. "That season Rachael (Meisner) got fifth place (in the 1,000 freestlye) and we were all crying because we were so excited. Then the next year Stephanie (North) won the 100 (freestyle) and our (400-yard freestyle) relay got second and everyone was going wild. Then last year we won the WAC and it was like, 'we did it.'"
Growing the Family
That 'we' extends beyond the seven pioneers. Before the winning could begin in earnest, the recruited had to become the recruiters. Part of the building process was convincing new classes to join the expedition. Once again Hill leaned heavily on the team to sell prospective student-athletes on the vision.
"I can talk all I want but for recruits to really buy into it they need to hear it from the team," Hill said. "By the time they visit, my job is mostly over. Then it's up to the team. There aren't many recruits who don't leave here saying, 'wow, you have an amazing team.' So that part is really essential."
A key to the permeating team atmosphere is the close relationships that have been formed within the first recruiting class.
"Starting freshman year you could just tell how well we got along," said Hahto. "We were starting a big family. That's what this year's juniors bought into. That's all they had to buy into. They saw this was different than any other place, and if they wanted to get better in and out of the pool they knew this is where they had to be."
The pioneers may have sold the idea better than even they thought possible.
"We almost sold it too well," Nowatzke joked.
The fellow seniors laugh at her tongue-in-cheek comment, but they all know what she means. In essence, the women who started it all have been recruiting teammates who are supposed to be faster than them. For three years they have hosted high school girls who want to take their places in the record books.
Just as long as those new Broncos have been arriving on campus with flashy résumés and high school accolades, the veterans have been bettering themselves. They continue to lower their times and hold onto their spots in the all-time record lists, in turn, benefiting the entire team.
The Bronco Backbone
It is more than just low times and records. As the seven women have demonstrated since before they took their first classes at Boise State, they give everything they have to ensuring they accomplish what they set out to do as Broncos.
"This senior class is the glue that holds everything together," Hill remarked. "The challenge is going to be for our current juniors and sophomores to pay really close attention and observe a lot this year. They will have to determine what leadership roles they need to fill for this team to continue to be successful."
The senior class is so strong this year because they have been perfecting the leadership roles since they arrived on campus.
"We've been seniors since we were freshmen," Meisner said. "We had to be."
They also realize this is their final year with the program and, for the first time, the future will rest on someone else's shoulders.
"It's important that we make the transition easy for everyone else," Stotts said. "Building up the team is what this year is about."
In less than six short months, though, the seniors will complete their college careers and it will be up to a new group of leaders to carry the tradition into the next chapter of Boise State swimming and diving. The pioneers want to make sure the program is in safe hands.
"I've seen them start passing the torch," Hill explained. "It is unique because the seniors are not ready to be done with this team, but they are excited about the future of the underclassmen and they want to make sure someone will be able to take their place and continue the legacy."
Through Thick and Thin
While Hill and the Broncos are jubilant over the quick success and endless potential, not everybody is so happy for Boise State. This year will also be about proving the doubters wrong and that there is nothing suspicious going on in Boise.
"Some people can't handle the fact that Kristin and (assistant coach Justin Brosseau's) coaching is that good," Green said of the cynics. "They know how to talk to us. They know how to get through to us. They know how to coach us."
The shadow of doubt is nothing new to the visionaries who saw where this team could go. Few people outside of the program believed any of the goals were realistic.
"We've been beaten down so many times that we're professionals at getting back up," boasted Thiltgen. "We just keep on going and feeding off each other."
That support system is a special feature of the Broncos. When nobody else gave the team a shot at achieving their goals, they relied on each other to keep the dreams alive. The bonds also translate to different walks of life.
"We've had to learn how to deal with criticism and doubters," Green said. "Dealing with that adversity and having each other to lean on has helped me as a person. I think it has helped all of us get through tough times."
The ability to depend on one another and pick each other up is apparent in the pool, as well. Even as the coaching staff harps the importance of doing your best, sacrifices must be made for the team to maximize its success. Perhaps the most extreme example is Nelson, who has swum 15 different events in her time as a Bronco.
"It's hard knowing that you may not win an event even if you swim your best," Nelson admitted. "You just have to have a positive attitude. If you're in an event that isn't a favorite, but you have a good attitude, it will show and it will lift everybody else up."
Now with their college careers winding down and the reality of life's next chapter looming, the seven who started it all have an understanding of how special their accomplishments are. They also realize the impact they have had on each other.
"I've become a completely different person from my freshman year," Green said. "We all grew up really fast, and we did it together. I don't know what I'm going to do without these girls in eight months when some of us graduate."Before the pioneers hitch up their wagons for the next adventures in their lives, there is still a lot to for them to accomplish athletically. The road to repeating as WAC Champions continues Oct. 22 and 23 in Las Cruces, N.M. The Broncos will square off in dual meets against North Texas and conference-foe New Mexico State.