Head Above Water

Erik Jepsen/Guardian

When senior Carianne Cunningham speaks, the UCSD swim team listens.

Once a timid freshman that let her stroke do the talking, Cunningham evolved into the team’s vocal leader this season. As team captain, she helped guide UCSD to a third-place finish at the 2010 National Collegiate Athletic Association National Championships in March.

That’s not to downplay her performance in the pool. Cunningham posted a third-place finish in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2010 Pacific Collegiate Swim & Dive Conference Championships on Feb. 13, and came in 14th in the 100-meter breaststroke at nationals.

Still, fellow senior Daniel Perdew said it’s Cunningham’s performance as captain that has been her crowning achievement.

“Before this year, she was more of a leader by example,” Perdew said. “This year, she has taken a more vocal role. She made that transition really well, and it’s not an easy transition to make.”

Cunningham was a natural candidate for the job. After making huge strides under the close tutelage of head coach Scott McGihon and former team captains Aubrey Panis and Shannon Simond during her junior-year campaign, Cunningham said she felt the need to pay it forward.

“I really appreciated the leadership from the upper classmen when I was young,” Cunningham said. “So I decided I wanted to be one of the ones who would be very helpful for the young guys on the team.”

She may not have made it without the same sort of help. Before the 2008-09 season began, Cunningham turned to McGihon for assistance. After a strong freshman year, her progress had stagnated. Although her time had improved slightly, she had once again placed fifth in the 200-meter breaststroke at the PCSC — and once again narrowly missed a trip to the national championships.

Cunningham trained throughout the summer, strengthening her stroke and mental fortitude so that when she returned to the PCSC, she wouldn’t suffer the same fate for a third time.

“After my second year, we got a new coach — Matt Macedo,” she said. “And even though he was a sprint coach, he really helped me improve my stroke and that really bumped up my time. I made a big improvement from high school to my first year, but I didn’t make as big an improvement into my second year, so I sat down with Coach McGihon and we talked about my goals. Then I just had to focus to really improve my time after that.”

Their efforts paid off. Cunningham finished third at the PCSC in 2009, shaving over two seconds off her time in the 200-meter breaststroke. And the improvement wasn’t limited to a single event: She also dropped her 100-meter breaststroke time by an impressive three seconds.

Slowly but surely, Cunningham had become a cornerstone of the women’s championship team. By her junior year, she began swimming additional events like the 200-meter butterfly and taking a greater leadership role — doing her part in the development of some of the younger swimmers.

With such a young team this season — including 11 freshmen and 11 sophomores out of a total of 28 swimmers — a more experienced captain was vital for support and guidance. McGihon said Cunningham took an active learning role in her own transition from team member to captain.

“The team votes for team captain, and Cari really showed why she should be captain,” McGihon said. “She cares so much for everyone’s success on the team — that is really one of her strongest attributes as a team captain. She stepped into her role as captain really quickly. She spoke with former captains about what to do, and she was able to tap into the resources of past captains and learned how to present herself.”

Freshman Katherine Tse said Cunningham was an invaluable asset to the newcomers.

“Cari knows how the team works and was very welcoming to all the first-years,” Tse said. “She always has a positive attitude, and she loves being there.”

Since beginning her swimming career at age four in her hometown of San Clemente, Calif., Cunningham said the sport has been a pivotal part of her life. Her older brother was the first swimmer in the family; from there, Cunningham said the water was contagious.

“Since my brother started swimming, I always wanted to be like him, and I loved being in the water,” she said. “I love swimming because it isn’t like other sports; it has an individual and team feel to it. You are in the water racing as an individual, but you are on a team working together.”

Cunnignham’s passion for the sport only continued to grow. She began swimming at the club level, and carried her competitive resolve into a career at San Clemente High School, where her team became the league champion.

From the very beginning, Cunningham said she made swimming a top priority.

“It was mostly about fun back then, but I always wanted to swim at the collegiate level,” she said. “It was always one of my goals through club and high school. I chose UCSD because I wanted to remain competitive, and it was great to be able to swim at the next level.”

The transition from the high-school waters to the collegiate pool is an uphill battle, Cunningham said. The training days are longer, the workouts are more intense and academics are on a whole new level. However, McGihon said Cunningham took on the challenge with ease.

“There is a fast learning curve for freshman,” McGihon said. “But Cari caught on real quick and was a fast learner. I see them all grow as students and as swimmers, and Cari definitely grew fast.”

It was during her junior season that she really took off. Besides making nationals for the first time, Cunningham registered UCSD all-time top-10 marks in four events and earned All-Conference and All-American honors.

Cunningham said she is looking forward to graduation, but is unsure of the role swimming will take in her future. For now, she said plans to travel Europe before returning to take community-college classes and shoot for grad school.

Though her love for the sport is still there, Cunningham said she is looking forward to a break from the strenuous workouts and exhaustive practices that come with such a high level of competition.

“I really don’t want to train 20-plus hours per week anymore,” she said. “But I still want to be competitive and to see how I can train by myself. I’m going to miss the team and San Diego, but I’m excited for the future.”

Readers can contact Tyler Nelson at [email protected].

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