Campus Life

Pronghorns sprint way into national swimming spotlight

The common sports cliché says a typical season isn’t a sprint but a marathon — not so for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns swim program where every day is about the sprint. This niche focus on sprint distances has propelled the Horns to the top of the podium at the national level and served notice that the path to gold now winds through Lethbridge.

Pronghorns' swimmer Apollo Hess is one of the marquee attractions heading into the Canada West meet.

This weekend, the Horns will put their well-earned reputation as a new sprint power to the test when they serve as hosts for the Canada West Swim Championships at the Max Bell Regional Aquatic Centre.

“It’s exciting, and very different; we’re normally used to being the ones who have to chase people down and now we’re the team they’re all trying to chase down,” says fourth-year backstroker Chris Alexander, who won bronze in the 50-metre backstroke at last year’s USPORTS nationals. “The success we had last year, we were quite shocked with what happened. We showed up to the USPORTS meet with just four guys and there were other teams that had 18 guys and we were able to come out on top.”

Alexander, along with Apollo Hess, Raine Arden and Parker Brown, blistered their way to a national championship in the 4x100-metre medley relay and followed that performance with a silver medal win in the 4x100-metre freestyle relay, despite the fact only two of the four are freestyle specialists.

The Horns’ fate has them swimming in the Canada West deep end with perennial USPORTS powers University of British Columbia and University of Calgary. These are big programs in big cities that boast national team ties and complete rosters that compete across all swim disciplines. The Horns know they can’t match that quantity of swimmers, so they focus on the sprint distances — and they do it well.

“From a team ranking standpoint, we’re never going to be able to compete across the board because we simply can’t cover all those bases. If our team were to get to third or fourth in terms of points, that would be pretty significant,” says head coach Peter Schori. “What we tell swimmers when we’re recruiting is that ULethbridge is the right place academically and then we focus on what we can give them in terms of an athletic experience, whether that’s an opportunity to find success as part of a relay or in specific sprint areas. I think our reputation has grown in recent years and we’ve given kids in Western Canada another option beyond the big schools to think about.”

Sprinkle in the country’s fastest breaststroke specialist, lightning bolt Apollo Hess, and the Horns are garnering attention. Rookie swimmer Ryenne Katterhagen, who specializes in breaststroke, chose ULethbridge for many reasons. The Calgary product wanted to get away from home for her post-secondary experience and in addition to the smaller school, smaller city lifestyle she sought, the personal, individualized support environment appealed to her.

After winning national gold in the medley relay last season, the Horns are now the team to beat.

“It’s all about support and sharing here and the atmosphere around the team and the school is just a very supportive and fun environment,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot just from watching what Apollo does, how he trains, what he does in practice and then I try and incorporate that into my own work. To see the success he has had is really motivating.”

And now the bar has been set, both in terms of aspiring for excellence and the dedication, accountability and commitment it takes to get there. The Horns men’s team enters the Canada West meet ranked 5th in the country, while the women’s team is 10th nationally and has been consistently among the top 10 all season.

“In the past I think we’d had some issues with some people not buying into the goals we were setting as a team. Last year really set the standard and we’re seeing that picked up by everyone this year,” says Alexander, a Lethbridge Amateur Swim Club product who chose to stay home to swim for the Horns. “It’s not something that just happens, we have to stay on top of it but watching the rookies and how they’ve adapted, it’s exciting to see what they’re capable of and what’s coming.”

The Canada West meet begins Friday afternoon with sessions at 4 and 5:30 p.m. On Saturday, the sessions run at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., while Sunday’s closing session go at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Schori says the action for local fans begins Friday night with Hess as the marquee attraction.

“Apollo was the Canada West male swimmer of the year and rookie of the year last season and is the Canadian record holder in the men’s 50-metre breaststroke and he’ll be racing that on Friday night,” says Schori. “So, there’s a chance to see the fastest man in Canadian history swim that event, which is pretty cool.”

Alexander holds all the Horns backstroke records and he’ll also swim for gold Friday night, while Katterhagen and teammate Hunter Stewardson lead the women’s team as top-10 ranked swimmers in the 50 and 100-metre breaststroke. Saturday and Sunday late sessions present the thrilling relay events.

“Those events are when you literally need the earplugs because it gets crazy in here,” says Schori. “This place isn’t built to quiet the sound, it bounces off the walls and really raises the energy level of everyone. If we have a big home crowd here making some noise for our Horns athletes, that’ll be really awesome.”