Press Release courtesy of Alex Brown, University of Houston
Time is useful in many ways. It can remind you of where you’ve been or how far you have to go. It can be a measure of greatness or a measure of failure. April 23 is a special day for many reasons. Hank Aaron hit his first of 755 homeruns, Lakers great Jerry West scored 53 points in a game, and the Apollo 16 Astronauts were exploring the Moon’s surface. This date also has special significance to all those involved with the University of Houston Swimming & Diving program, because on this a date there was a shift. A shift that changed the culture, raised the bar and shattered the ceiling of expectations for the Cougars. On April 23, 2015, Ryan Wochomurka was hired as the seventh Head Swimming & Diving Coach.
“The vision we set out with was to restore the swimming and diving program to the elite level and heights it achieved in the 70s and 80s,” said Wochomurka. “To put the University of Houston back inside the national and international arena, that includes moving into the top-25 of the NCAA dual meet and weekly polls. Overall, the goal when we arrived here was to create an elite level aquatics program that the University can be proud of.”
A collegiate swimming & diving season lasts approximately 273 days. That’s 273 days of grueling practices, mental and physical exhaustion, on top of thousands of miles of swimming that culminate every year in mid-March at the NCAA Championships. Houston has a storied history, dating back to the program’s inaugural season in 1977. Since its induction, the Cougars have produced four NCAA Champions, 46 All-Americans, 21 Olympians and countless conference champions. The Cougars have not only had success in regards to its athletes but on the coaching side as well, producing six conference Coach of the Year awards. In fact, the program was started by one of the most recognizable names in the sport, Phill Hansel. In 2015 when the head coaching position became vacant, Houston administrators knew they had a tall order to fill.
“The way that Ryan stood out to me was that as a student-athlete he competed at the highest level,” said Senior Associate Athletics Director for Event Operations, Facilities and Grounds Bruce Gregory. “Auburn is a national championship team and as a student-athlete he had already been there. The other thing that really stood out with Ryan is that he was a part of the Louisville program that, when he got there, was not a powerhouse. That program on the women’s side, grew into a top-five program and it fit what we were looking for to a ‘T’. We are in the Power Six and looking to operate at that level. He had taken part of a program and brought it from nothing to a powerhouse and that is what we wanted him to do here.”
Heading into his first 273 days on the job, Wochomurka had a laundry list of things he hoped to accomplish. His first order of business was to hire a staff with the same vision for the program as he did. Almost a month later, he brought Hannah Burandt on board, having worked with her at Louisville from 2013-14. One month after that, Bob Gunter was added to the staff as the Diving Coach after stints with the Woodlands Diving Academy and the US Diving Team.
“To me, it’s identifying the people who we know can make an impact and are able to meet our student- athletes where they are,” said Wochomurka. “People who are excited for the vision of what we can do here at this University with our aquatics program. I truly believe there is unlimited potential here. Identifying Hannah and Bob, who in the past three years have done so much to move this program forward, I think any head coach or person in a leadership position will tell you that you are only as good as the people around you and to hire people that are smarter than you. That’s one thing we did well, that was to hire people smarter than me. I think in the three years we have been here, you can see the impact Hannah and Bob have had on all facets of our program. As a women-only program with a small staff, we certainly want to expand. They touch every facet of our program, and you can see the advances that we’ve been able to make with them. I definitely think that is something we did right.”
DAY 153: Wochomurka and his staff faced their first test at the North Texas Relays against UNT, SMU and Arkansas-Little Rock. The Cougars notched 314 points and a third-place finish. Houston went on to post two third-place and one fourth-place finish in four invitational style meets during the 2015-16 season, an improvement from the two fourth-place finishes from the previous season. Three hundred and three days after taking over the Houston Swimming & Diving program, Wochomurka opened the first day of action at the American Athletic Conference Championships inside Houston’s Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. Prior to the 2016 championships, Houston had posted consecutive sixth-place finishes at The American Championships. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Houston posted 554 points, led by a 56-point performance from Eleanna Koutsouveli and finished third overall as a team.
With one season under his belt and his first recruiting class on campus, Wochomurka and his staff began its second set of 273 days at Houston. The Cougars traveled to Dallas to start off the season at the North Texas Relays. With a goal in mind and unfinished business at hand, Houston defeated SMU and UNT with a total of 386 points to win the meet. In its signature home event of the season, the Phill Hansel Invitational, Houston tallied 1,392.5 points to win the meet, the Cougars never looked back. Before the regular-season ended, Houston would defeat Incarnate Word, Tulane, North Texas, Vanderbilt, Rice, Southern Illinois, Illinois State, Little Rock and Northern Iowa.
DAY 664: At this point, not many people were taking notice of what Houston was doing as they prepared for its second AAC Championships under Wochomurka. Once again the championships were being held at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on the campus of the University of Houston, and defending champions, SMU, were favorites to win the conference title for the second consecutive year.
On the opening day of action, Houston accumulated 104 points after setting a pair of program records in the 200 Medley Relay and the 800 Freestyle Relay, to close the day in second place behind UConn. A little over 12 hours later, Laura Laderoute earned Houston’s first individual championship and set a new program record in the 200 Individual Medley. Podium finishes in the 500 Freestyle and 200 Freestyle Relay would help the Cougars hold on to its second-place position with 231 points. Sitting five-points outside of first place, Houston went into the third day of the conference championships with one thing on its mind, leaving it all in the pool. Two conference titles, eight medals and three program records later, Houston bolted into first place with 507 points.
Houston had taken over first-place the evening before and held a 69-point lead heading into the final day of the 2017 American Championships. Ksenia Yuskova, Zarena Brown and Koutosuveli each posted podium finishes to go along with a program-best finish in the 400 Freestyle Relay from Cait Horner, Brown, Laderoute and Yuskova. Six hundred and sixty-seven days after his arrival on campus, Ryan Wochomurka led the Cougars to its first conference title in program history. With a final day that saw 265 points scored, three program records and three podium finishes, Houston had reached a height it had never seen before and were crowned American Athletic Conference Champions.
“It’s humbling to set a goal and achieve it,” said Wochomurka. “Looking back on it, it was a watershed moment in our program. The first conference championship that the program has had in 42 years of existence. It was something we set out to do from day one. It was part of the process of creating a world-class aquatics program and is something we want to continue to do. We want to continue to be the premier program in The American. I think you can see across all sports right now, that if you are at the top of the conference that you can be in the top 25, top 15 or top 10. You don’t have to look too far to see what Coach Leroy Burrell is doing with the track program. If you can be the class of the conference, then you can be in the conversation to attract a higher level of student-athlete who really wants to pursue a high level of national competition.”
Heading into the 2017-18 season and fresh off of its first-ever conference title, Houston found itself favorites to win The American for the first time since the conference formed. With a schedule filled with SEC, Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West and American opponents, the Cougars knew defending its title would be no easy task. All those things coupled with the arrival of Hurricane Harvey and an unexpected ice storm did not deter the program from its original vision. Using #Fearless as its slogan for the season, Houston set out to prove the doubters wrong. For the second-consecutive season, Houston posted a convincing win at the Phill Hansel Invitational, finishing 405.5 points ahead of second-place finisher Rice. Houston raced through the season defeating competitor after competitor in dual meet action, ultimately earning votes in the TYR/CSCAA Coaches Poll for the first time under Wochomurka. Unlike last season, Houston went into March as the favorites to win The American Championships.
Day 1,028: Houston arrived at the newly built Robson and Lindley Aquatics Center in Dallas. Only three years earlier, SMU had capped off its second-consecutive title in The American by taking a jump into the pool at the CRWC on the campus of the University of Houston. Although, revenge may have been on the minds of some of the Houston swimmers and divers, competing fearlessly and closing out the season with its second-conference title was the main objective for the Houston squad. Two program records, two first-place finishes and one pool record surmounted to 105 points on the opening day of action at the 2018 championships. Once the Cougars dug in, they never let go and event after event featured at least one Houston athlete on the podium stand. The second day of action was highlighted by eight top-10 program times, two program records and two conference championships, as Houston tacked on 194 more points to its scoring total. With two days standing between Houston and its second conference title, Peyton Kondis broke one minute in the 100 Breaststroke, Koutsouveli bested her previous program record in the 400 IM, four Houston swimmers combined for a program-best time in the 400 Medley Relay and the Cougars continued to have a stronghold on the top spot. With only six events left, the Cougars closed out the third day of the meet leading the field by 151 points.
With a total of 826 points, 23 podium finishes and nine conference championships the Houston earned it second consecutive American Championship. Seven hundred and twenty-seven days earlier then-defending champion SMU had jumped in Houston’s home pool and 727 days later the Cougars returned the favor, signifying a program that had completed twice what it had set out to do.
“From my standpoint, there is nothing that we can’t do here,” said Wochomurka. “I think that the next phase is to further align our vision as a staff with the broader vision of the University and our new athletic administration, and to really continue to invest in not only this program, but athletics in general. I think this is such a phenomenal vehicle for our University and our student-athletes to feel supported and understand that they carry a banner for them that is bigger than themselves.
“To me as we continue to move forward as a staff, we do that on a daily basis. As we climb the ladder and continue to reach new heights, we reinvest. From our standpoint, that is how we continue to get better. I think you’ve seen that with Mack Rhoades, Hunter Yurachek and now Chris Pezman, as well as President Renu Khator and ChairmanTillman Fertita, the continued investment helps us continue to thrive and compete against the best in the country. We’re extremely thankful for that.”
Day 1,047: Two years, 10 months and 10 days to be exact. That is how long it has been since the University of Houston Swimming & Diving experienced a shift. This shift resulted in two conference championships, two American Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year honors, over 20 All-Conference selections and three NCAA qualifiers. Wochomurka and his staff, along with the limitless support of the university administration have revamped this storied program in only 1,047 days. According to Wochomurka, the potential for this program is unlimited and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.
When asked to summarize his first 1,047 days on the job Wochmurka said, “Long,” with a chuckle. “I can’t believe it. It’s gone by so quickly. I can’t believe it’s been three years already. I truly believe we’re just getting started. I’m surprised, but I’m not that we’ve been able to have a sharp improvement curve, maybe sharper than we imagined. When you look back at the people we have as far as our staff and student-athletes and understand who those people are and watch the work that they’ve done, it’s not surprising at all. It’s been a quick three years, we’re excited for the next three and the three after that.”