Sophomore Alex Popa and freshman Kaylin Burchell both swam career-best times in the 200 IM
Success in all facets of the collegiate athletics experience has been a constant for Alabama under Eric McIlquham, now in his ninth season as the Crimson Tide's head coach. Under his direction, Alabama has posted seven top-25 finishes including successive top-15 finishes for the men in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Falling records have been a hallmark of McIlquham's tenure as head coach. The current school records in 29 different events, including nine of the 10 relays, have been set since he took over the reins in the summer of 2003. One of the most impressive aspects of the Tide's record breaking ways is the variety of events. From the sprints to distance events and from the stroke to diving events, McIlquham has built a program that can score from anywhere in the pool.
Success in the pool has come at all levels under McIlquham - conference, national and international. Vlad Polyakov , a two-time Olympic finalist, won the FINA World 200 Breaststroke Championship in 2006, as well as the 2005 and 2007 NCAA 200 breaststroke titles and five Southeastern Conference titles. At the start of McIlquham's tenure as the Tide's head coach, Lane Bassham won the 2004 NCAA Platform Championship, the first national diving title by a member of the Tide women's team. A member of the United States National team, Bassham also earned NCAA Championships Diver of the Meet honor in 2004.
In 2010, senior Mark Randall, the school record holder in the 500, 1000 and 1650 freestyles, was an All-American and All-SEC performer as well as a U.S. Open Champion and top-10 finisher at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. Agustina de Giovanni, another 2010 senior, earned All-American honors, set the school 400 IM record and competed at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics during her career. And yet another 2010 senior, Aaron Fleshner, the school record holder in all three diving events, won a trio of SEC titles and finished as high as third at the NCAA Championships before competing for the U.S. National team at last summer's FINA World Championships and World University Games.
Sophomore Kristel Vourna also competed at the 2011 FINA World Championships after earning her Olympic "A" cut earlier in the summer. Vourna's international success came on the heels of an outstanding rookie campaign that included the school record in the 100 butterfly and a spot on the Freshman All-SEC team.
As successful as the Tide has been in the water, it has been even better in the classroom, where Alabama stands among the nation's best.
Last season, Alabama's men posted the highest team grade point average in the nation for the spring semester with a 3.44 while the UA women were second, one-hundreth of a point behind Yale with a 3.63.
Over the last seven years, UA swimmers and divers have earned a place on the prestigious ESPN the Magazine Academic All-American at-large team nine times, including Polyakov, a three-time honoree, 2009 senior Kevin Greer, 2010 senior Elizabeth Hughes and current senior Kyle Weeks in 2011. In addition, 16 members of the UA squad earned CSCA Scholar All-American honors last year.
The swimming and diving squad has also posted the highest team grade-point average of any men's team on campus three of the last seven years while the women had the most student-athletes named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll of any of the league's winter sports teams in two of the last three years.
McIlquham attributes much of the Tide's recent success to the stability of the coaching staff. He and associate head coach Sonya Porter have worked together for 14 years while he and diving coaching Pat Greenwell have worked together for 13 years now. McIlquham has worked with assistant coach Stefan Gherghel for nine years and assistant coach James Barber for five. All told, the Tide's current staff has coached a staggering number of collegiate All-Americans during their careers, with a combined total coming in at well over 300.
"I'm excited about the success we have enjoyed to this point," McIlquham said. "But it's just the starting point. We're going to continue to grow, move forward and improve. It's an exciting time to be a part of this program."
For McIlquham, moving forward means winning.
"We're going to be successful in all aspects of the collegiate experience," McIlquham said. "And we're going to win - not just want to win - we're going to win."
McIlquham brings that same fire to the Alabama deck every day as head coach. Success has been a constant, not just due to his hard work, but from the innovative way he trains his athletes and keeps his program on the cutting edge in all areas.
"This is such a special place," McIlquham said. "And because of that, we're never satisfied, we're always pushing to be better in all aspects. There's no better way to honor the rich tradition we have here at Alabama."
McIlquham's career has been moving fast ever since his days as a graduate assistant coach with the Tide in the early 1990s. After two years as a graduate assistant, he became a full-time assistant coach in 1994. In his first stint with the Tide, McIlquham helped UA post three top-10 and six top-20 finishes between the men's and women's programs.
He left Tuscaloosa in 1996 to become assistant head coach at the University of Virginia, helping turn the Cavaliers' sprint program into one of the nation's best, and helping lead the program to back-to-back Atlantic Coast Conference titles in 1998 and 1999. He also helped coach Shamek Pietucka to the 1999 NCAA 200 butterfly title. Another McIlquham protégé, Rebecca Cronk, was the No. 1-ranked 50 freestyler at the 1999 NCAA Championships.
After his three years with Virginia, McIlquham, at the age of 28, became head coach of the West Virginia University Mountaineers, where his teams broke a combined 28 school records, produced the men's first Big East champions, and gained the first individual NCAA appearance in 14 seasons, all in his first four years. While at WVU, McIlquham coached former Northwestern ace Amy Balcerzak-Field to an American record in the 50 breaststroke.
Internationally, McIlquham has been a part of the Egyptian National Team coaching staff since 1995, coaching former Alabama standout Rania Elwani among others. He was head coach of the Egyptian contingent at the 2000 Olympics, where Elwani made the semi-finals in two events, set three national records and one All-African record. He was also part of the Egyptian coaching staff at the 1996 Olympics as well as the 1995 Pan Pacific Games and 1995 African Games.
Seven past and present Alabama athletes competed at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, including four that made the semi-finals. In 2007, he helped former UA standout Arlene Semeco to double gold at the Pan American Games and the Pan Am record in the 50 freestyle.
As an athlete, McIlquham won 15 NCAA Division II individual and relay titles while competing for Oakland University. The two-time NCAA Division II 100 butterfly champion held the national record in that event and was part of NCAA record-setting 200 and 400 medley relay and 200 freestyle relay squads.
A standout in the classroom as well as the pool, McIlquham earned his bachelor's degree from Oakland with a psychology major and a history minor. He was a CSCA Academic All-American as a senior and earned a prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship which he put to good use at Alabama, earning a Master's degree in exercise physiology in 1996.
Because of his success in the pool and classroom, McIlquham knows the importance of balancing both areas of the collegiate experience.
"At Alabama, we bring in student-athletes who are going to work hard to be successful in all areas of their lives," McIlquham said. "First and foremost, they are here to earn their degree, because that is what is going to carry them through for the rest of their lives. We're going to be successful in all aspects of this program, there's just no doubt."
McIlquham married the former Sharon Dinkel of Pittsburgh, Pa., in the summer of 2004. The couple has a son, Brenner Brooks, and a daughter, Breanna Lynn.