From Zero Points to a Top-10 Finish: Inside the Auburn Rebuild


Auburn head coach Ryan Wochomurka was at women’s NCAAs when he began receiving texts from his male swimmers back home in Alabama. They’d all just bleached their hair blonde in anticipation of their own NCAA meet, happening a week later in Minneapolis, MN. 

The University of Minnesota’s pool has a lot of history for the Auburn men. It’s where they won their first national team title in 1997. They went on to win two more at the pool in 2005 (when Wochomurka himself swam for the Tigers) and in 2007. One of the hallmarks of the title winning teams in 1997 and 2007? Their bleached blonde hair.

Wochomurka admits their handiwork gave him pause. “I said, ‘okay you’ve done this, now you’ve got to live up to it.’”

And they did just that. Over four days of racing, the Tigers amassed 127 points for tenth-place in the team standings. It’s their highest finish at NCAAs since 2016. Not only that, but it’s more points than they scored at the last three championships combined.

Wochomurka says that while the swimmers themselves may have had a goal in mind for where they wanted to finish as a team, the coaching staff did not. Instead, they were focused on “improving the things that [they could] control.”

Even though a top 10 finish wasn’t their explicit aim, it shows significant progress for a team that didn’t put any points on the board just two years ago.

So, how did they do it?

Getting Started

Auburn’s rebuild began two years ago, when Wochomurka took over the program. One of the major season goals was to qualify all five relays for NCAAs, which both the men and women did, with the men only missing an ‘A’ cut in the 400 freestyle relay. Neither qualified any relays in 2021. 

Qualifying one relay for NCAAs can be a major turning point for a program. When a school qualifies all five, it’s a marker that they’ve reached a certain tier of the NCAA. That’s because it shows they have at least five really fast swimmers—they have depth and aren’t just relying on one or two stars to carry them.

Relays also score double, which meant that they were a point of emphasis for Wochomurka. If the aim is to build a national contending team, “you have to build around relays first,” he says.

The relays are part of what draws Wochomurka to collegiate coaching. “They’re a special part of the NCAA,” he says, going on to talk about how they exemplify team belief. You don’t do a relay by yourself, you do it with your teammates and for your teammates.

In 2022, the men went a step further than qualifying relays. Two of the relays—the 200 and 400 medleys—scored. To go along with their relay points, Auburn got points from three individual scorers.

They ended up 29th with 22 points; a big improvement from scoring zero points in 2021.

Despite getting back on the board, the team wasn’t satisfied. “We felt like we left some things on the table,” said Wochomurka, “but it was a good learning experience.” NCAAs is a grind of a meet, and the only way to learn how to handle it is by going through it.

Even though it wasn’t a perfect meet for Auburn, swimmers and coaches alike gained experience that carried over into the next season. Now that they’d been through NCAAs together, the team believed that they could do better.

 Keeping It Rolling

They didn’t have to wait out the time from March until the new NCAA season’s start in August. The Tigers continued to build on their yards improvements in the long-course pool, putting together a strong summer highlighted by their performance at U.S. Nationals.

Those summer successes helped establish the tone right away when the 2022-23 team assembled. Right from their start of the season team retreat, the swimmers bought in. It was clear to Wochomurka that they believed not only in themselves, but in the team.

The relays remained a focus this year. That was evident from the beginning of the season, when the quartet of Nate Stoffle, Reid Mikuta, Aidan Stoffle, and Kalle Makinen threw down a 1:24.54 at October’s USC Invitational—then a nation-leading time.

In our conversation, Wochomurka talked about how NCAAs is a meet where it’s important to be resilient and to “find and exploit opportunities.” The relays were one such opportunity.

The men’s team had a successful regular season, including big wins against conference rivals like LSU, Alabama, and Texas A&M. At SECs, Auburn continued to shine, vaulting to a second-place finish.

Like their finish three weeks later at NCAAs, it was the program’s highest finish since 2016. In the post-meet press release Wochomurka said “the exciting part is, it was nowhere [sic] perfect. There’s a lot of room for improvement. There’s a lot of room for growth. If we can clean those things up…we’re going to have a really exciting showing [at NCAAs.]”

2023 Season Finale

According to Wochomurka, “January through March is about continued performance.” For the Tigers, that meant that between SECs and NCAAs, they were working on replicating performance. In practice, that translated to lots of race pace, brokens, and relay takeovers.

They left the big results they’d achieved at conference in the rearview mirror with the conviction that their best was yet to come. 

That brings us back to the blonde hair. Even though it was a shock, Wochomurka said “it [meant] a lot to see them continue that tradition and embrace being part of that family.”

Auburn has a long history of success both on a conference and national level. Wochomurka himself has been a part of that legacy. He swam for the Tigers from 2002-2005, winning three national team titles and earning All-American status 21 times. The blonde hair wasn’t just a team bonding exercise—it created a direct connection between this team and the ones that came before.

NCAAs started with a bang for Auburn. Their 200-medley relay earned ninth (1:22.67), and their 800 free relay took eighth, resetting the school record they swam at SECs with a 6:11.64. It was the team’s first true All-American honor since 2018, and the first in that event since 2017.

Though they had more than double the individual scorers they did in 2022, about 64% of their 127 points (82) came from the relays. Additionally, they only had one individual ‘A’ finalist. As Wochomurka points out, “everybody played a role,” in the team’s success at the meet.

And given that they needed to beat Ohio State in the 400 free relay to secure their 10th place finish, every one of those finalists mattered.

 What’s Next?

I talked to Wochomurka less than 24 hours after he returned to campus from Minneapolis. It’s understandable that, coming off that kind of success, there wasn’t a concrete answer to the question “now what?”

For now, Wochomurka wants his team to continue getting a little bit better every day. Part of what makes their success so impressive is that all the relays scored and they doubled their individual finalists at possibly the fastest NCAA meet in history.

“It’s not going to get slower,” Wochomurka laughs. Continuing to focus on what they can control is important for the Tigers as they begin to think about what they want next. Breaking through feels great, and it makes new things feel possible.

In a league that’s constantly getting faster, “the only comparison you can make is to yourself.”

“I’m a strong believer that you make your own luck,” says Wochomurka. Therefore, he wants his team asking themselves questions about what they did to get better today and what they can do better tomorrow.

It’s one thing to talk about belief, and it’s another to see it manifest. Wochomurka began to see it snowball last year, especially after NCAAs. But now, it’s become a crescendo, bringing the Tigers all the way back into the top 10. Next season’s goals may not be set in stone yet, but whatever they set their sights on, Wochomurka won’t have to worry that the team won’t think it’s possible. The belief will be there, and the results will follow.

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Tary Gaylor
1 year ago

Gary Taylor deserves more credit for this transformation. Every single individual point was scored GT recruited swimmers

Rowdy Marsh
1 year ago

Amazing job so far by Wocho! Super proud alumni here. Let’s keep going…keep pushing!

Rada Owen
1 year ago

Rebuilding is so hard, but Wocho is the right guy for the job. Obviously the men had a larger jump than the women, but they will no doubt get there. We alumni are proud and can’t wait to see what the future holds. War Damn Eagle!

Lab counter
1 year ago

Like ASU, you have to look at the Women’s program too! Should they split these programs if they are just looking at the men?

Reply to  Lab counter
1 year ago

Auburn scored 0 points at womens NCAA the past 2 years, and scored 12 this year? Perhaps not as dramatic as the men, but still better.

The Portal
Reply to  Observing
1 year ago

Given how completely destructive Gary was to the women – not just their physical ability to swim well, but to their entire psyche and emotional wellbeing – I’d say Wocho’s progress with the women’s team has been just as impressive as the men in many regards, and it sure looks to continue this way.

1 year ago

Crazy what a culture shift can do for a team. War Damn!

1 year ago

When I met Ryan fall of ’21 on a visit, I called it.

They’re going places and fast!

We have deep ties to the SEC and Auburn holds a special place in my heart so I’m thrilled for them. WDE 🦅

I’ll DEFINITELY be cheering for my Hokies first, but I’ll also be a big fan of the Tigers!


Cathy Durden
1 year ago

Alumni are proud and excited to see this. Keep building it the right way, Wocho! WDE forever.

1 year ago

Ryan seems like a great coach and Auburn is a school with some of the best facilities and resources in the country. Not surprised he was able to do it this fast. Just shows how horrible of a decision Gary Taylor was

Reply to  Swimmer
1 year ago

Oh the things I want to say about this comment.

Reply to  Swimmer
1 year ago

Auburn hit rock bottom under Brett Hawke. Gary inherited a mess, but he didn’t make it better either.

Reply to  TweetMcTweeter
1 year ago

They were on the upswing and probably would’ve been a powerhouse if they had hired Sergio instead of Gary. It was definitely worse under Gary than every under Brett

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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