Thanks to Maryellen Newton for contributing this piece.
Over the last two years, I received the incredible opportunity to attend both the women’s and men’s Division I NCAA Championships. Last year I went to the women’s, and this year, the men’s. For me, as a former swimmer, the NCAA’s are one of three pinnacle swimming events, behind the Olympics and Olympic Trials. Without any friends or family who swimming in these meets my experience, though enthralling, remained completely unbiased.
The NCAA’s may be one of few meets where the fans dress to impress. And I don’t mean in their Sundaybest, or in just their team’s colors. Some go all out. Cal Berkeley’s faithful wear bear costumes. With the head attached. I have even seen an Alabama fan dressed as an elephant, and Stanford fans wearing small, fake trees attached to headbands.
These fans love their schools. An obvious fact that shows in not only the way they dress, but also in how they cheer. The fans interact with the swimmers on deck, participating in the same cheer or sharing cheers with the swimmers. For example, NC State has a cheer where one group yells “wolf” and the other yells “pack” and they repeat that over and over. This builds the energy within the complex, and you could see its impact in the competitive air that filled the stands. Each chant and cheer drives the athletes to strive for greatness.
The cheers are loud and constant, making the races enjoyable for everyone, even the supportive family member who knows little about the sport. Who could sit quietly and watch Kelsi Worrell be the first woman to break 50 seconds in the 100 Fly, or Caeleb Dressel go 40.4 in the 100 Free? The volume causes crowd-members with no team affiliations to stand up and cheer as well, not for an alma mater, but for the achievement. The swimmers in the pool can hear the enthusiasm from the fans, and they swim faster, making times that even they couldn’t have imagined before.
The best part of the NCAA experience is without a doubt the un-failing excitement. When Missy Franklin swam a 1:39:10 in the 200 free, the crowd erupted. It was the loudest crowd I’ve ever been a part of, and that aspect is unmatched over a live stream.
Excitement fails to translate to the computer monitor, or even the television, even when the most daunting records are broken. Breaking an American or World record is always exciting, but imagine what it is like to be in the crowd, sharing the atmosphere with the teams and champions who have worked hard to achieve those records.
One of the ways excitement is expressed is through immediate celebrations. The camera doesn’t always catch the swimmers slapping the water and holding up their school’s sign to the crowd. This seemingly small aspect can be one of the most exciting parts of the race because it really gets the crowd fired up for their swimmer.
Being able to witness the NCAA’s live is an unparalleled experience. You have the full 360 degree view, not just what the camera shows you. You can watch each swimmer’s walkout and pre-race ritual. You get to focus on whomever you wish during and after the race. But most importantly, you get to be part of an intense crowd filled with nonstop cheering and support. And you can say you’ve watched history, as 12 American records fell in the two meets I was able to attend.