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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 2, 2006

UH women survive troubled waters

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer


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When the University of Hawai'i women's team arrived at the Western Athletic Conference Swimming and Diving Championships last weekend in Texas, it was as an object of curiosity and ridicule.

With but 11 swimmers and five divers almost half the number of swimmers and divers as the other teams "everybody was saying our team was a joke," recalls backstroker Nicole Mackey.

So, the Rainbow Wahine did what they have become accustomed to doing all season, pulling together a little bit more, especially, it seemed, when singing "We Are The Champions" on the awards stand afterward with a heartfelt fervor of several times their number.

In hoisting the school's first WAC women's swim championship trophy, the Rainbow Wahine could finally unleash the pent-up emotions from a season of turmoil turned deliciously triumphant.

They could, as Mackey, the WAC Swimmer of the Year, phrased it, "put it right back in all the faces of the people that said things about us. I think that's what made the victory so good is that everyone wanted it so bad."

Indeed, four months earlier UH could have been voted the team least likely to succeed. If not the most likely to implode. The Rainbow Wahine had gone through a turbulent off-season, having seen one coach, Mike Anderson, fired and a new one, Victor Wales, brought in from San Jose State with all the pressures that brought.

As coaching debuts go, the 36-year-old Wales had one perhaps unique in UH history. Last October, the day he stepped off the plane in Honolulu, Wales found himself defending his hiring in a finger-pointing 90-minute meeting with his team, about half of whom were poised to leave. Several did, as did two assistants.

"Putting out brushfires was putting it mildly," Wales said. "These were five-alarm fires (raging)."

"Everyone hated him (Wales) just for being the new coach," Mackey said. "No one liked him until we got to know him. Then we realized it was all bull that people were saying about him. He's a nice guy."

Wales loosened up the atmosphere and made changes, one of which was moving Mackey from distances to sprints, where she won the 200 backstroke and anchored the winning 400 free relay.

"The bottom line is that the kids who stayed, they believed in the program and loved Hawai'i and that was the most important thing," Wales said.

And when it was over, he and diving coach Mike Brown, holding the Coach-of-the-Year honors as the team passed around the championship trophy nicknamed "Victoria" by the swimmers Wales said, "we were all standing there with smiles on our faces. After all we'd been through, that was all that mattered."

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com.