Following NCAA sanctions, West Chester University’s men’s and women’s swimming programs defended their titles at the 2023 PSAC championship.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The interviews for this story were conducted in October 2022, two months before the NCAA imposed sanctions on the West Chester University swimming program. WCU officials were aware of the sanctions at the time, but they chose not to reveal them prior to the official December 9 announcement. For our take on the sanctions, see this month’s Foreword column.
If there’s an anecdote that captures the nurturing culture of West Chester University’s swimming program, it’s this one: At last February’s Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championships, Stephen Dow became the unlikely winner of the 200-yard breaststroke in the final race of his career. A walk-on, Dow chipped away at becoming the best breaststroker he could. Finally, it panned out for the fifth-year senior.
During the race, Golden Rams head coach Steve Mazurek ran the length of the pool, so frantic that he was cautioned by an official. Then he collided with said official and nearly missed Dow’s finish. The incident epitomizes one of many team mantras: Be the fastest in the morning and the loudest at night. “If we do that, no one swims alone,” Mazurek says.
No matter how you divide the waters, Mazurek is in deep as the sixth-year head coach of WCU’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving squads. He came to the job after two seasons as interim head coach and nine years as an assistant with the Golden Rams. Mazurek is also the university’s aquatics coordinator, overseeing two campus pools whose programs include one of the largest lifeguard certification programs in Pennsylvania and the university’s celebrated swim lessons. He’s honed his philosophy and approach to technical precision in the pool and personal development above the water. It’s one of the reasons West Chester has continued its decades-long Division II dominance in the water. The men’s team won the PSAC title 23 straight years, and it was a 15-year run for the women. Though PSACs were held in 2021, West Chester didn’t participate due to the COVID shutdown. But both teams won again in 2022, and recently defended their title by coming out victorious at the conference meet held this month in York.
A 2002 WCU graduate, Mazurek was a member of the men’s swim team. At the time, the university’s swim club was a recruiting tool for both teams—and that has since come back to bite WCU in the form of sanctions from the NCCA, which banned such clubs in 1994. A new assistant athletic director discovered the violation this past spring, and the university reported it to the NCAA. WCU faces a $25,000 fine and delayed swimming and diving recruiting for a year. According to the NCAA, the violation was twofold: WCU’s athletic department had “financial and managerial control” of the club and it also allowed a staff member to coach at the school.
NCAA sanctions also include two years of probation, during which time the school is prohibited from renting its swimming and diving facilities to local sports clubs. WCU must also cut its recruitment budget for the swimming and diving team by 25%. University officials won’t comment on the sanctions but did note that the school’s internal review is ongoing.
Individual recognition and records for both WCU coaches and swimmers abound. West Chester swimmers have rewritten the PSAC record books, and all but two of 18 conference records have coincided with Mazurek’s return to his alma mater in 2008. He’s been named PSAC Coach of the Year seven times. “You become what you give your attention to,” says Mazurek, quoting Epictetus, a favorite Greek philosopher and stoic. “We don’t lie to recruits. We don’t show them an easy practice. We tell them, ‘You‘re going to work for four years.’ It’s our culture to devote our careers and the rest of our lives to making progress.”
And from the philosopher Heraclitus: “No one steps into the same river twice.”
Mazurek’s adaptation: “Nobody dives into the same pool twice.”
At one team meeting this season, Mazuek wrote that on a chalkboard, then divided the teams into groups to discuss what it means. “It’s liberating,” he says. “It’s nice not to be doing the same thing. It’s nice to be in a state of change. It means you’re growing. And for athletes who are good at a certain level, chances are they’re willing to do more than their opponents.”
England’s Georgia Wright is WCU’s most decorated swimmer. She took home eight national championships and set the NCAA Division II record in the 1,000-yard freestyle on three separate occasions. Wright graduated in 2020 with 15 conference titles and three conference female swimmer-of-the-year honors.
On the men’s side, you’d point to current assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Victor Polyakov, who’s now instrumental in the school’s lifeguard and aquatic safety programs. He graduated in 2017 with five national titles in five different events. He’s also the only four-time PSAC Swimmer of the Year honoree.
These days, it’s swimmers like Ann Carozza, a West Chester native and West Chester East High School product, and Logan Brockway. Both are returning fifth-year captains who’ve continued to evolve and expand their talent. At the 2022 NCAA DII Swimming & Diving Championships, Carozza set two national records and won a national championship in the 200 butterfly. A 12-time NCAA All-American who holds six PSAC swimming records to date, Carozza is a defending PSAC champion in four individual and three relay events. She set two conference records last winter. “Swimming at West Chester has been the best experience of my life,” she says.
Brockway celebrates a homecoming at PSACs each year in York, his hometown. Last year, he made local headlines when he used the Heimlich maneuver to save a choking victim’s life at the mall. He’s a defending two-time conference champion in the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley, and as a member of the 200 and 800 freestyle relays. He’s also a former PSAC Freshman of the Year, like Carozza. “Culture?” he repeats as he ponders the question. “We want to work hard for each other. We really just like encouraging each other. A lot of that comes from coach Steve, but also from all of our mentors and leaders over the course of the program’s long run.”
That includes Mazurek’s mentor and predecessor, Jamie Rudisill, who spent 29 years at the helm before retiring in 2017, veteran assistant Scott Elliott, who died that same year after a battle with cancer, and others. Mazurek has carried the torch while adding his own touch, mostly in his interactions with athletes. “I feel like we talk a lot—my swimmers would say I talk too much,” he admits. “We use swimming as a vehicle for life.”
The pandemic may have interrupted the consecutive conference team title streak, but it also served as its own form of motivation. Once allowed on campus, swimmers trained on their own without the prospect of racing. “I thought, ‘This team is built for this,’” Mazurek says. “Last year, I didn’t have to say anything to get us up for a meet.”
During the gap year, Bloomsburg University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania won PSAC titles. “Our team did a good job of not letting it bring us down,” says Carozza. “It fueled us for the next year.”
Now there’s only time to get better—“and 100 ways to do it,” says Mazurek. “There’s a necessary emotional focus and a technical focus. Regardless, we have to get better in every single way.”
And that’s largely at the national level. The women have always excelled at NCAAs, finishing as high as third in 2019 and sixth last year. For the men, it starts with getting guys back to Indianapolis, where they haven’t been represented since 2020. To aid in that cause, there are training sessions like “Animal Lane,” a 6,000-yard invite-only set that takes over an hour to swim. “If this was easy, it’d be football,” says Brockway, a frequent invitee. “It’s been so awesome being part of this team. Seeing the end coming soon is hard.”