Against the ropes (Women’s swimming)

Coley Harvey

For the second time in a week, freshman Katie Braun found herself strapped inside a confusing mass of ropes, climbing a 30-foot tree.

Braun, who has a fear of heights, participated in a New Student Week event earlier in the week. But this time around, it was all about team bonding.

In mid-September, the Northwestern women’s swimming team drove to Chicago’s south suburbs, where it participated in an outdoor ropes course at the Iron’s Oaks Adventure Center.

Braun said her second ropes course of the week was “scary” and “challenging.”

A season that started with a challenge on the ropes course will near an end this week with a challenge in the pool at the Big Ten championships in Bloomington, Ind.

Coach Jimmy Tierney said he and his coaching staff decided to take the Cats on this beginning-of-the-school-year excursion to mold team chemistry.

“(Building the team) is a long, gradual process,” Tierney said. “I just like to find unique things to do to get the team together outside of the pool.”

Because his swimmers had to learn to work together through challenging mental and physical activities, a ropes course was a good way to create team solidarity and unity, Tierney said.

“They had to communicate,” Tierney said. “They couldn’t do any of the activities by themselves.”

Several swimmers discovered they couldn’t be as vocal as they would have liked.

“For some of us freshmen, we were used to being the seniors and the more vocal leaders on our club and high school teams,” Braun said. “But sometimes you have to step back and let other people take charge and guide the group.”

During one of the course challenges, the Cats split into two groups. Each group had to guide a tennis ball, balanced on a ring, across an uneven brush of twigs, leaves and tree stumps. If the ball fell before it reached its final resting place — a pipe — the group had to start over.

“That activity was frustrating,” sophomore Leanne Dumais said. “One group had to start over and the coaches started putting pressure on us to get the activity done.

“They told us we all had 10 minutes to complete the activity. If not, one person would be blindfolded every minute after that.”

The Cats finished with about a minute left.

Braun said perseverance got the swimmers through that task.

“The first time we did the activity, everyone was trying to lead,” Braun said. “The second time around, there were only a couple of core leaders. Not everyone was bossing each other around.”

Tierney enjoyed watching his swimmers respond to the challenges, as well as some overcoming their fear of heights.

“Seeing different pairs of partners on the high ropes course and doing things they didn’t think they could was really impressive,” Tierney said.

This season the Cats (8-4, 4-2) have been doing things in the Big Ten they didn’t think they could do. They have beaten higher ranking teams, set career-best times and entered the Big Ten championships with five swimmers ranked in the top five of their events.

Who knew a tennis ball and a ring could have so much impact?

Reach Coley Harvey at [email protected].