Like most swimmers, the members of the Hunter College High School boys’ swim team dream of things like perfectly executed turns, quick starts off the blocks and championship banners. Unlike most of their competitors, though, the Hawks also have a more prosaic dream: a fully equipped, regulation-size pool.
“Our pool situation is a very big disadvantage,” Hunter captain Gabe Yanez said. “We haven’t trained in regulation pools for the past two years. We’ve been training in an 18-yard, one-lane pool. It’s the best we can get.”
Up until last year, the Hawks practiced at the Hunter College pools. But recent renovations have made those facilities unavailable, and the team has been scrambling for a proper venue ever since. The Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) uses standard short-course pools of 25 yards, but the Hawks have settled for their current ignominious 18-yard puddle. There are no starting blocks, and the single lane is shaped more like a horseshoe than straight. Still, the team does its best.
“It’s not unheard of in New York City swimming,” said head coach Joe Schiappa, a six-year veteran. “There simply aren’t a lot of facilities, so you get your swimming wherever you can get it.”
More remarkable is how Hunter has responded to such an adverse arrangement: with its best season in years. The team finished the regular season 7-1 and won its first-round playoff meet over Midwood 55-46 on Feb. 2.
“The kids swam incredibly,” Schiappa said after the postseason victory. “They’re all fantastic swimmers and really pulled it together. This is by far the best season we’ve ever had in terms of talent and dedication. It’s been phenomenal. We’ve got a great group of new swimmers who joined, and the two captains are really strong. They motivate the rest to swim better. When I started out we could barely get 10 kids on the team. Now we have nearly 30.”
At press time, Hunter, the sixth seed in the PSAL playoffs, was about to meet No. 3 Brooklyn Tech in the quarterfinals. As always, the Hawks will begin with a deficit because they do not field any divers.
“We don’t have any divers, so everyone starts off seven points ahead of us,” said Guan Shi, Hunter’s other captain. “We try to make up for it, but we’re going to need some lifetime best swims.”
Shi, a freestyle sprinter, has a quick, analytical approach to meets. He quickly grabbed a pen and started writing down potential scores for the match up with Brooklyn Tech. He had faith that his squad can win most of the races but worried that opponents will gain enough points from second- and third-place finishes to make up the difference.
“Most schools have more students and more swimmers,” Yanez said. “We’ve always had a lot of talent. We win races, but we don’t have the depth to come in second and third.”
They don’t have a real pool either, but somehow Hunter makes it work. The key, according to the captains, is how Schiappa organizes practice. Because he doesn’t have the space to put his swimmers through a proper workout, he tells those that also belong to club teams to practice with them. So on most days, Yanez and Shi are more likely to be with their clubs than with Hunter. It hardly seems like the proper team-building strategy, but it delivers results.
“This way we still get a high caliber of training,” Shi explained.
After two seasons that ended with first-round playoff losses, the Hawks have finally broken through. They also achieved an early season highlight by defeating archrival Bronx Science for the first time in years. Yanez is Hunter’s top performer. He is the fourth-best 100-yard butterfly swimmer in the city and the 12th best in the 200 individual medley. Sophomore Ian Kunze is a standout competitor in distance events. He is the fourth-fastest 500 freestyle swimmer citywide.
Yanez plans to swim at Baruch College next year, while Shi will either walk on to the swimming team at Carnegie Mellon or join the handball squad at the University of California, Berkeley. Shi helped start the handball team at Hunter and has tried valiantly over the past several years to get it accepted by the PSAL. Curiously, he was once scared of the water. He originally took up swimming after watching the movie Titanic as a 7-year-old and deciding that he had better learn to swim just in case he ever ended up on a sinking boat in the North Atlantic.
“I know it was childish, but I was terrified at the time,” Shi recalled with a laugh.
Both captains have a big event scheduled for this weekend, when the PSAL Open (essentially the individual championships) will take place at the new Flushing Aquatic Center. Hunter is fielding 14 swimmers at the meet, by far the most in Schiappa’s tenure, and Yanez, for one, plans on bringing home a title. He thinks he can win the 100 butterfly, though he concedes that Dewitt Clinton’s Leonardo Dupres, a longtime nemesis, is the favorite. Dupres won bragging rights at the same event last year, but Yanez bested him in a club meet several weeks ago.
“It’s going to come down to the finish,” Yanez said. “We’re both seniors and we both want it, so I guess we’ll see what happens.”
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