Inside the Positive Team Culture Accelerating Hawaii’s Turnaround

KNOXVILLE – After missing the NCAA ‘A’ cut by less than a second at the MPSF Championships in Utah last month, the Hawaii women’s 400-yard freestyle relay team had a decision to make: keep chasing an automatic bid to the national championships or head home to the beaches of Honolulu.

Still exhausted at 1 a.m. in the hotel lobby, first-year Hawaii head coach Mike Stephens gave fifth year Laticia Transom, senior Anna Friedrich, senior Gabby Scudamore, and freshman Holly Nelson half an hour to choose. They were already the fastest quartet in school history by nearly four seconds, but they still needed another .64-second drop to become the first Rainbow Wahine relay since 2005 to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

The decision was all the more difficult for Transom, Hawaii’s lone individual qualifier in the 50 free, 100 free, and 200 free. Attending Georgia’s Last Chance meet the next weekend meant more traveling and a tighter timeline before her last NCAA Championships.

“I think because I already qualified and I don’t do well with flying, my initial thought was, ‘I don’t want to go to Atlanta, fly all the way back to Hawaii, then come all the way back here in the span of three weeks,’” said Transom, a graduate transfer from USC who won a Pac-12 title back in 2020. “That just felt like a lot for me.”

Then Transom thought about what it would mean for NCAAs to be a team experience instead of just a solo trip. Scudamore wasn’t just her relay teammate — she was a former club teammate from Australia who grew to become her best friend. Scudamore was the main reason why Transom chose Hawaii as her fifth-year destination over Alabama, NC State, and Virginia.

“I thought, ‘What do we have to lose?’” Transom recalled. “I would rather go out giving it everything in the relay and being able to do something for the program. Our coaching staff this year, I got lucky this year. I came into Hawaii not knowing who was going to be there. I really wanted to do something for them. The thought of having a team here — not just me and the coaches — that was really exciting, especially Gabby. I really wanted to experience this with her.”

So the quartet decided to go for it, which involved a 5:30 a.m. bus ride to Las Vegas just a few hours after that fateful deliberation in the hotel lobby. The rest of Hawaii’s team returned to island life while Stephens took the 400 free relay group to Atlanta for a few days of training and eating their way through the city.

“We were clear: We could go to that meet and not go faster and that might hurt even more,” Stephens said. “But there is something special about putting yourself on the line and opening yourself up to failure for the chance of something really great.”

The Rainbow Wahine’s first two attempts fell short the following weekend in Athens, Georgia. Before their final opportunity that Sunday night, no words were exchanged between relay members on the way to the Gabrielsen Natatorium. They knew what needed to be done.

Buoyed by the support of other teams in attendance such as NC State, Georgia, and Auburn, Hawaii crushed its previous program record by nearly two seconds with a 3:12.76 — the ninth-fastest time in the country this season and a full 1.34 seconds under the ‘A’ cut. Each member of the relay posted a personal-best split between Nelson’s 49.07 leadoff, Transom’s 46.66, Friedrich’s 48.55, and Scudamore’s 48.48.

“We were thinking that we would scrape a 4:13.09 and get the cut by 0.01,” Scudamore said. “But touching that wall and seeing 3:12, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did we just do?’ That was the most surreal moment for me in my whole swimming career, let alone this season, because Mike put the NC cut into our minds a few months ago and to actually make it and believe that we’re good enough to be here was the most surreal moment.”

When Confidence Becomes Contagious

As a senior at last year’s NCAA Championships, Transom scored 12 points individually for USC with a 7th-place finish in the 200 free. She also placed 7th as part of the Trojans’ 400 medley relay squad. But after every day of NCAAs and Pac-12s last season, she called her mom in tears.

“I was swimming really fast but I just didn’t want to be there,” Transom said.

In the span of two years while at USC, Transom suffered four or five concussions caused by fainting from a condition known as Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which went undiagnosed for most of her career. Struggling with her physical and mental health, she told her parents that she wanted to transfer to Hawaii to reunite with Scudamore for her final collegiate season. Her priority would be her happiness, not the pool.

“I didn’t think about swimming or school at all,” Transom said. “I just wanted to have fun and experience my last year with her.”

The only problem? Her parents said no. They encouraged her to focus on swimming, so she took trips to Alabama, NC State, and Virginia. She leaned toward Alabama, then back toward USC, before ultimately settling on the option she knew would make her feel most at home.

“Once my parents said no, I was taking in all the opinions from coaches and family members and I wasn’t listening to myself and knowing what’s best for me,” said Transom, who had enough money saved up to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii despite her parents’ disapproval. “Knowing that this was for myself, I just am in a much better place mentally and physically as well. I think that’s made a difference this year.”

Transom was cleared to return to swimming during the third week of the season in September, and within a couple months she was helping the Rainbow Wahine break school records in the 200 free relay (1:29.63) and 400 free relay (3:16.45) at the SMU Invitational. That’s when Stephens first planted the seed about potentially hitting a relay ‘A’ cut this season — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in the past 18 years.

Transom credits Stephens for working with her during her comeback and allowing her to have input on her training. Their partnership culminated in her making the A-final in the 100 free (47.39) on Saturday night, tying for 7th place after placing 26th in the race at last year’s NCAAs. She became Hawaii’s first A-finalist since 2019, when Phoebe Hines placed 5th in the 1650 free (15:50.13).

“(Stephens) never yells, or raises his voice even. I think for me, I need that because I’m someone who likes to be calm,” Transom said. “In terms of what we do in the pool, it was a lot more for me swimming-wise, but I think I really needed that after the six months off from last year. He did push me at times and say, ‘You need to do this.’ I’m really glad that everything worked out, and I think for everyone in our program, we needed something more than what everyone was doing last year.”

Scudamore agreed, adding that practice sets this season always felt like they had a purpose, as opposed to past years. Last season, there was a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the program as former head coach Elliot Ptsasnik was placed on an unexplained leave of absence in 2021.

“Anna (Friedrich) and I were talking last night, this is the first year we’ve not only enjoyed competition but going into practice everyday and just being with the team,” Scudamore said. “Mike’s always so positive. He has a plan behind why he’s doing these sets. Sometimes we’d get sets back in the day and we’d just be like, ‘What’s the point of doing this?’”

Nelson, who also hails from Australia, praised Stephens for his infectious positivity. In her first year as a Rainbow Wahine, she shaved more than a second off her season-best time in the 100 free with Transom as her primary training partner.

“I think he has this crazy optimism that gives you no choice other than to believe in yourself,” Nelson said of Stephens. “I think you need confidence in order to swim fast and I think it just rubs off. He’s so optimistic about everything.”

Stephens says he can’t help it — the former Boston College head coach genuinely loves what he does. At both BC and Hawaii, he quickly brought stability to rocky coaching situations. If Ted Lasso had a college swimming counterpart, it might just be Stephens.

“A lot of my positivity is because I really enjoy the people I get to work with,” he said. “I feel really grateful, every place I’ve coached, whether it be at BC or here, I love what I do. I really love the sport of swimming, but I really like the idea of trying to build a program into something better than it was. I felt like Hawaii, we had a really good start this year, but there’s just so much more to go.”

Continuing the International Tradition

The last time the Hawaiian women qualified a relay for NCAAs 18 years ago, the team was also led by a star from Down Under: future Australian Olympic gold medalist Melanie Schlanger. The all-foreign quartet of Nelson (Australia), Transom (New Zealand), Friedrich (Germany), and Scudamore (Australia) is continuing a long tradition of international swimming talent in Honolulu.

Friedrich theorized that long flights that dissuade some recruits from Hawaii may not seem as daunting to international athletes already traveling long distances for college.

“Since internationals already have to travel kind of far, the extra step across the ocean isn’t as daring as it might be for some Americans to make that trip,” Friedrich said. “The location is obviously amazing.”

Transom, for one, feels a special connection whenever she’s in Hawaii, which marks one corner of the Polynesian triangle along with her native New Zealand.

“I think there’s a grounded-ness about Hawaii that is very similar to Australia and New Zealand,” said Transom, who moved from New Zealand to Australia as a kid. “My family are Maori, like native New Zealand, so the Polynesian culture is very similar. I don’t know if it’s just me, but you feel different and relaxed when you’re in Hawaii. Australians, we love to banter, and I think all the internationals get around that. I think that’s where we bond.”

Stephens tries to take advantage of his surroundings by organizing beach workouts every other Saturday during the fall featuring open water swims. He talked about seeing pods of spinner dolphins and stingrays during his own open water swims.

Transom had a different highlight from their team trips to the beach.

“I’ll just say the girls love to tan, so that’s really our highlight of beach practices,” she laughed.

If you ask Stephens, there’s reason to believe the international pipeline to Hawaii has a bright future even without Transom returning next season.

“Most people dream of coming on vacation to Hawaii,” Stephens said. “We are incredibly lucky with the setup we have. It’s old, but it has incredible character. Everyday you get to wake up with a beautiful sunrise, beautiful sunset, you see rainbows everyday. It’s one of the best training atmospheres that I think you can be in. If an international athlete is looking like, ‘Hey I really want to come to the United States and train at a high-level program,’ I think we give you that, and plus, the atmosphere is unmatched.”

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Mele Luau
1 year ago

Thank you for sharing the insightful article about Hawaii’s turnaround in swimming and the positive team culture that has been instrumental in their success. It’s inspiring to see how Coach Elliot Ptasnik and his coaching staff have focused on building a supportive and inclusive environment that empowers their athletes to reach their full potential.
The emphasis on creating a culture of trust, communication, and accountability is a key ingredient in any successful team, and it’s impressive to see how the Hawaii swimming program has embraced these values. By encouraging their athletes to take ownership of their training and performance, the coaching staff has fostered a sense of responsibility and pride within the team.
Furthermore, the article highlights the… Read more »

Mike Anderson
1 year ago

LOVE seeing and hearing this! Way to go!

1 year ago

so cool! a big fan of articles like these, thank you for writing it!

and I love the international representation in NCAA swimming! makes for “friendly” or “known” faces during international meets, so more folks to cheer for! yay!

olde coach
1 year ago

Great job by Uof H this season. Enjoyed seeing them in action last week in Knoxville. Mike and the staff know what they are doing. CONGRATS on a great first season!

Rob Davis
1 year ago

Very inspiring! Congrats to the UH swimmers and coaches!

1 year ago

These long-form swimming articles have been absolutely fantastic. Keep it up! Great piece.

1 year ago

shows what a change in leadership can do for morale and performance

1 year ago

Loved cheering on Hawaii all meet long!!! Coach Mike and his ladies did a remarkable job!

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

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