Stellar Strokes

SUNY New Palt swimmer Yuka Suzuka was named All-American at the NCAA Div. III championships.
SUNY New Palt swimmer Yuka Suzuka was named All-American at the NCAA Div. III championships.

Third-year swimmer Yuka Suzuka faced more challenges at the 2012 NCAA Division III Swimming & Diving Championships than overcoming the competition, Coach Scott Whitbeck said. She was the only athlete from her team at SUNY New Paltz that qualified for the meet. While Whitbeck said other athletes had large groups of friends in Indianapolis, Ind. to support them in the races, Suzuka sat with her coaches and swimmers from Geneseo that she hadn’t met before.

She also couldn’t stop slapping herself in the face.

“[It] turns bright red,” she said. “But I need it to pump up and not to be scared of other fast swimmers and do my best.”

In spite of the mental and physical tests set before her at the IU Natatorium, Suzuka left Indianapolis and the championships with All-America honors.

On Friday, March 23, Suzuka was awarded All-America Honorable Mention for finishing 11th in the 100 backstroke. This was the first All-America honor of any kind and the first for a New Paltz swimmer since 2008.

Whitbeck said although Suzuka seemed nervous at the beginning of the championship weekend, she settled in and began to relax and compete.

“I knew she had potential to improve this year, but I did not expect her to have dropped so much time and have been as fast as she did,” he said. “She’s always swam great at big meets —she’s actually won the 100 and 200 backstroke at the conference meet three years in a row, but her ability to compete at the National level
really came through this year.”

Whitbeck said Suzuka swam stronger as the championships continued, picking up on “the little things” like turns, underwater dolphins off walls and race strategy. The head coach of the SUNY New Paltz Women’s Swimming team said this allowed the “extremely valuable” member of the squad to advance her to the next level of performance.

On the final day of the championships, Suzuka earned All-America honors by finishing in eighth place overall during Saturday’s 200 backstroke event.

The swimmer qualified for Saturday evening’s final by finishing her preliminary heat with a time of 2:01.34. According to New Paltz athletics, Suzuka’s performance set a new program record for New Paltz in the event while ranking seventh among the morning swims.

In the championship final, Suzuka finished eighth with a time of 2:02.66. Her morning swim eclipsed her former program and conference overall mark of 2:01.60, New Paltz
Athletics reported.

Suzuka said she never expected to surpass her best time in that way, nor did she think she would earn national honors.

“Last year, I never thought about getting in All-American at all,” she said. “This year was a big surprise for me.”

The eighth place performance earned New Paltz 11 points in the Women’s team rankings on the final day of competition. The Hawks finished 34th overall at the meet with 17 total points.

Suzuka is only the fourth individual in program history to gain All-America recognition, according to New Paltz Athletics. Claudine Gruver (1999), Joanna Masterson (2006) and Michelle Coombs (2007-08) are the only other Hawk female swimmers that have placed among the top eight at the national meet.

In his four years as a coach, Whitbeck said the team qualified for the NCAA Championships three times, but this was the first trip where they had an All-American performance.

“It’s been a great pleasure to coach her and a relief to finally break through,” he said. “I was elated and excited for her. Yuka…possesses a combination of a great athletic talent, tremendous work ethic and a great attitude for the sport.”

While she said she will never get used to being so nervous at meets like the championships, Suzuka said she wants to swim fast and continue to improve in her senior season next year.

Whitbeck said he is proud of the entire women’s team this year, especially because they graduated six of 23 swimmers at the end of last season.

Although there were only 19 members of the squad in 2012, Whitbeck said they all stepped up — including Suzuka.

“She loves to race, and her focus and excitement for big races helps bring a calm and poise to my team in key moments, which has helped us succeed at the conference and national level,” he said.