The air in the Hockaday natatorium, warm and dense with the unmistakable smell of chlorine, echoes with rhythmic splashes as the swimmers make their way up and down the pool. Bobby Patten, head coach of the varsity swimming and diving team since 2001, sits on the edge of a diving board on one end of the pool to watch the students’ progress. After several minutes, more and more girls reach the end of the pool and stop, treading water in place and chatting amongst themselves.
“Let’s do 12-50, fast down, easy back,” Patten said once all of the girls have stopped at the end of the pool. The sounds of splashing fill the room once again.
During the weeks leading up to the 2015-2016 Southwest Preparatory Conference Winter Championships, which begins today, the Hockaday swim team has diligently prepared for the biggest meet of the season. As the swim team came away with a first place finish at last year’s SPC meet, the swim team faces some pressure to perform well again; however, for many swimmers, working hard on the team and having fun at the meet are more important.
Senior Ellie Tippen, one of the captains of the swim team, was surprised by last year’s victory.
“Last year, we all expected it to be a building year,” Tippen said. “It was really exciting when it all came down to the last few relays, and our diving team helped us a lot too.”
This year, Tippen believes that there is more pressure on the team to do well. Many girls have improved greatly from the beginning of the year due to a generally excited atmosphere in the swim team.
“There’s some people who, at the beginning of the year, didn’t know how to swim, and now they’re on the A relay,” Tippen said.
Rachel Grabow, assistant coach of the varsity swimming and diving team, also agreed that the whole team has worked hard all season, and thus the level of effort exerted by the team will not change significantly in anticipation of SPC. As the meet draws nearer, the team will transition to more speed work and sprint practice instead of distance and endurance work.
Until Patten and Grabow receive the SPC entry sheet showing which events everyone will swim and their seat times, Grabow believes that it will be hard to predict the team’s performance at SPC.
“In our normal season, we don’t swim against teams from Houston or Austin until we get to SPC,” Grabow said. “Until that time, it’s unfair to put pressure on the team.”
Instead, Grabow encourages the girls to personally improve their times. Especially in a sport like swimming, Grabow believes that competitors “can’t control what’s happening in the next lane.”
Patten agrees; for him, swimming represents a miniature version of life.
“You can’t control anything around you,” Patten said. “But what you can take care of is what you are ready to handle and how you respond or react to situations.”
The swim team’s current attitude is not surprising considering both the dedication of the team and the experience of its coaches. This year marks the 16th year Patten has been coaching the Upper School swim team at Hockaday. Patten is an off-campus coach who is at Hockaday four to five days a week during the swimming season. After the swimming season draws to a close, Patten will come to school once or twice a week.
In early January 2001, Patten received a phone call from a Hockaday parent. The former swimming coach had recently left, and the team needed a coach to help them finish off the season. Patten agreed to coach the team for the remaining six weeks.
“That was my commitment,” Patten said. “I didn’t think I would go beyond, but I really enjoyed it. Now, it’s 16 seasons later.”
During these 16 seasons, Patten has influenced the swimming careers of many Hockaday alumnae. Meaghan Watters Pedersen ’08 started competitive club swimming at the age of 8 and was captain of the Hockaday swim team her senior year. She later went on to swim at Yale University. According to Pederson, Patten’s approach on swimming was a focus on quality versus quantity.
“[Patten] really focused on shorter steps, pacework and sprints. My club coach really emphasized distance,” Pederson said. “I grew up swimming club, but with this alternate training approach with Bobby, I swam a little better. It reduced overuse injuries and was really refreshing.”
As a club swimmer outside of school, Pederson appreciated the opportunity to be a part of a supportive team at Hockaday and cheer on teammates at meets. Pederson’s sister, Keegan Watters ’10, shared this sentiment. Watters also swam competitively in a club throughout her Lower, Middle and Upper School years and continued swimming at Amherst College.
Watters remembers Patten as always having a stopwatch in his hand and challenging her to maintain her goal pace during difficult sets. According to Watters, Patten was able to successfully optimize the limited time and pool space the team had considering the large size of the team.
“[Patten] spent so much time planning, writing and executing different workouts for each lane,” Watters said. “He challenged everyone during practices, from the year-round club swimmers like me and my older sister to girls who had never swam before.”
For Patten, passion and simply enjoying the sport is a very important part of swimming successfully, and he keeps this in mind when coaching the Hockaday team.
“We’re pretty fortunate that swimming is something we’re able to focus and spend time on, and I think our end goal should be to have fun,” Patten said. “I hope more than anything that the girls want to do it because they want to do it.”