Commentary

Eyes of Texas focused on title defense

Originally Published: January 14, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Last year, getting ready for his NCAA championship race, Texas swimmer Austin Surhoff looked around at his fellow finalists and thought he was going to be sick. A freshman, he didn't really expect to win, still … he wanted to do that for his team. But how could he possibly beat a group of guys this good?

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UT Athletics PhotographyEddie Reese, left, and his veteran coaching staff have built Texas into a perennial power.

Seeing his nervous distress, a teammate advised that a better alternative than losing his lunch was to just get in the water, do a quick swim, and calm down. It worked, and Surhoff ended up with an NCAA title in the 200 individual medley. He was also sixth in the backstroke and scored the most points individually (40) for the Longhorns as they won their 10th team national championship.

So you'd think if he were in more NCAA finals this season, Surhoff would be pretty calm. Especially for the race in which he's the defending champion. Then it will be the other guys gripped with nerves, wondering how they're going to beat him. Right, Austin?

"That doesn't sound calming at all," he said with just a bit of amusement in his voice. "It just sounds like it will be seven guys who want my metaphorical head on a platter."

Well, that's rather gruesome imagery, but Surhoff then does concede that the "been-there" factor might ease some of his tension.

For that matter, nobody in this sport has "been there" more than his coach, Eddie Reese. He's done this not just since his current swimmers were babies, but since many of their parents were babies.

Reese started out as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Florida, in 1963. His first head-coaching job came at Auburn in 1972, and then he took over the men's program at Texas in 1979.

There he has stayed, producing those 10 NCAA team crowns, 42 individual titlists and 31 champion relay squads. Reese also has been the U.S. men's team head coach for three Olympiads (1992, 2004, 2008) and an assistant for three other Summer Games ('88, '96, 2000). Swimmers out of his Texas program have won 29 Olympic gold medals.

As the No. 1-ranked Longhorns pursue another NCAA championship in 2011, you might consider Reese like a chef preparing about three dozen different dishes, all of which have at least slightly different recipes. Some have the same ingredients, for example, but don't cook at the same temperature. The challenge is trying to get them all to turn out just right.

Don't think, though, that working in this "kitchen" for more than four decades means he's long since gotten bored by the predictability.

"It scares me to death every year," Reese said.

He's referring to the "recipe" for producing the most successful performances by swimmers at the time they most hope to achieve it. That's the process known as tapering, in which swimmers back away from their extensive training in order to be at peak recovery for their biggest competitions.

Reese has probably figured out a million tapering schedules for everyone from Olympic champions to guys just trying to get an elusive PR. But he says despite all his experience, it remains an inexact science.

"It's different every year, and different for everybody," Reese explained. "I call it, 'Your guess is not quite as good as mine, but almost.'

"Our big meet every year is the NCAA, and our second priority is the conference meet. We want to compete well in dual meets, but we've won NCAA titles after losing three dual meets in a year. I don't have a clue what my dual-meet record is, but I know how we get better. And that's what I worry about."

So with meets this weekend at No. 6 Auburn and No. 11 Georgia, Reese's Longhorns won't necessarily be judging themselves on their times or whether they win. The gauge is more arcane: how they compete despite the weariness of hard training for the past six weeks.

"It will just show me how willing I am to swim when I'm completely dead tired," said the 6-foot-4 Surhoff, who is from Cockeysville, Md. "This is more a show of toughness, instead of speed and good times. It's more about competing and beating the guy next to you, trying to get points.

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UT Athletics Photography Austin Surhoff helped guide Texas to the title as a freshman last season.

"That's the second half of what makes someone great at NCAAs -- you have the speed that comes with the taper, but also the toughness that's developed at the dual meets."

Surhoff has lots of parental support and guidance when it comes to competition. His father, B.J., was a longtime major leaguer for the Brewers, Braves and Orioles who played collegiate baseball at North Carolina. Austin's mother, Polly, was a swimmer for the Tar Heels.

Austin's two younger sisters, Kendall and Jordan, are elite high school swimmers who train, as he did, at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which is where Michael Phelps developed, too.

"They're both having breakthrough years," Austin said of his sisters. "They'll probably be better than me. I hope they are."

But big brother is blazing a pretty good trail himself, and he's just a sophomore. His parents got the name "Austin" from the nephew of a family friend, not because they had any premonition about where their son would attend college. But Austin truly does fit well in Austin, so his name is "a nice bit of serendipity," as he calls it.

Texas' capital city -- with its typically nice weather and diverse mix of cultures -- was the ultimate selling point for Surhoff in becoming a Longhorn.

"It felt bustling and lively, but also had that nice little weird feel to it," he said. "You know the slogan of the city is 'Keep Austin weird.' I enjoy the people -- hippies with Texas pride."

Longhorn pride was a major factor in Texas' title last season. The program had won nine NCAA team championships, but none since 2002. The schedule at the meet in Columbus, Ohio, in March was pushed back because so many swimmers there -- including some Longhorns -- became ill with the flu.

"Our guys had a meeting after the second day," Reese said. "And decided they had worked too hard; it didn't matter if they'd been sick. They were still going to win the meet. And they went out and did that."

Now Reese has won NCAA championships in four different decades -- his first was in 1981 -- although he jokes that only means he's old. At 69, he's still at full throttle. He said this year's Longhorns won't let him give them a break.

"I'm not very good at going easy -- and they're even worse," Reese said. "This group, I've worked them harder than any of the last few years. We've got guys that are on a mission to be really good, and they set the standard for work. So everybody else thinks that's the way it's supposed to be."

Surhoff is one of two returning NCAA individual champs for Texas; junior diver Drew Livingston won the 1-meter title in 2009. Among other Longhorns that Reese thinks are likely to have great performances in 2011 are sprint freestyler Jimmy Feigen -- "He's going to astound people" -- Dax Hill (breaststroke/freestyle), Eric Friedland (breaststroke/IM) and Nick D'Innocenzo (IM/breaststroke).

"Last year, we were driven by the fact that we were a team that had been on the cusp of greatness, but hadn't really tasted it since 2002," Surhoff said of the Longhorns' mentality. "Now that we're back on top, I think what drives us is that we don't want to be anything other than the best. Last year, it was a dream. And this year, it's more of a responsibility."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.