Retrievers are making a big splash UMBC succeeds in pool, classroom

February 09, 1993|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,Contributing Writer

There was a time -- not too long ago -- when Sid Burkot would first have to tell a potential recruit exactly what UMBC stood for before mentioning it had a decent swimming team.

These days, however, the seventh-year coach is finding life on the signing circuit a bit more lucrative.

"When we go recruiting, UMBC is sometimes better-known in New Jersey than Columbia," said Burkot. "It's gained a reputation as a good school, and that's made my job a lot easier."

After going a combined 35-40 the past three years, the women's squad is 9-2 and the men's 9-3 this season. The nine victories are school records for both teams.

In their seventh year of competition, the Retrievers have beaten a number of high-level Division I programs, including Duke, Bucknell and Maryland, with the women's team knocking off Syracuse and giving North Carolina State a run for its money.

They even threw a scare into nationally ranked Yale.

It doesn't take a genius to see the Retrievers are making great strides in the pool.

But the biggest wave these athletes are making is in the classroom.

Last year, the women's team ranked second in the nation in grade-point average in the fall and spring semesters, according to the Collegiate Swimming Coaches Association of America. The women earned "superior" honors from the organization, and the men achieved "commendable" honors in the fall.

And this year, with a roster that includes four swimmers who turned down invitations to attend Ivy League schools, they're picking up where they left off.

"Our kids are motivated in the water and in the classroom," said Burkot. "For me, it's been a tremendous opportunity to work with them. It's rare that you'll find that."

Senior Loren Siebert is among Burkot's greatest finds. It was his anchor leg in the 400 freestyle relay that helped the Retrievers clinch a win against Duke in their opening meet, setting the tone for the season.

"It was just an incredible sense of victory," Siebert said. "It was one of the biggest rushes I've had in my life."

But it's his 3.9 grade-point average in computer science and his prestigious Marshall Scholarship that the middle-distance swimmer is most proud of.

After an extensive application process, Siebert recently was named winner of the scholarship -- which will pay for two years of advanced study at the University of Manchester in England -- making him the first student in UMBC history to win either a Marshall or Rhodes scholarship.

"I find that most student-athletes take their drive from the pool and apply it to the classroom," Siebert said. "But I think I'm backward. I take my drive from the classroom and apply it to swimming."

As have a number of other top high school swimmers, who have chosen UMBC over larger schools because of academics.

"Swimming is important to [recruits]," said Burkot, "but they want to find a school that fits their needs academically."

That was the case with middle-distance swimmer Jennifer Atkins. The sophomore was one of the top performers at Burkot's Retriever Aquatic Club -- the breeding ground for a number of collegiate swimmers -- while at Oakland Mills High.

"I looked at a lot of big schools," said Atkins, who said Princeton, Notre Dame and Virginia were among her final choices, "but [UMBC] had a good biology program."

Atkins is among a talented group of freshmen and sophomores that has helped the Retrievers make the turnaround.

One of the highlights of their season came in mid-November at College Park, when, after six tries, the men won 10 of 13 events and the women seven of 13 to finally knock off Maryland.

"Beating them was the highlight of our season," said Atkins, "but nobody knew about it. If the basketball team did that, it would be on front pages [all over] the state."

Today at 4, the Retrievers swim against Howard in their final home meet. Then they're off to the Eastern Intercollegiate Championships in Cleveland, where the Retrievers hope to make some real noise.

"If we continue on the trail we're going, we'll get some attention," said freshman David Miller. "We already have the framework for a great team."

And for a few more spots on the dean's list.

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