By Joseph Manniello
Four weeks after swimming their last laps at Alumni Hall, the St. John’s men’s and women’s swimming teams sported their red and white swimsuits one last time at the Big East Championships this past weekend at the Nassau County Aquatics Center in East Meadow.
An emotional weekend ended with the Red Storm men finishing sixth overall with 262.50 points, while the women settled for 10th overall with 106 points.
For the eighth consecutive year, the Pittsburgh men (746 points) and Notre Dame women (725.5) captured Big East titles.
The Red Storm set six school records in its final meet, breaking marks in the men’s 50-yard freestyle, women’s 400-yard medley relay, men’s 200-yard freestyle, women’s 400-yard IM, men’s 200-yard breaststroke and women’s 200-yard medley relay.
With emotions high, SJU swimmers admitted there was more pressure going into the event, since it was the team’s last Big East championship.
After an in-depth 18-month review that began in 1995, St. John’s officials decided in December 2002 to cut swimming, football and men’s track and field.
With the program finally coming to an end after a 39-year existence, St. John’s coach John Skudin couldn’t say enough about his team’s performance.
“Proud is an understatement,” said Skudin, who has served as the third coach in SJU history for the past 14 years. “They accomplished all this knowing that the school is going to make their pool a weight room and they are going to start work only one week after the season’s end. They kept their chins up. These are student-athletes that the university and community should be proud of.
“It’s not an excuse but it can’t help a person’s performance when they feel that the school doesn’t care about them.”
Junior Christine Myers said she wanted all the records gone prior to the Big East.
“You want to go out on top,” said Myers, who did exactly that, breaking a 24-year-old school record in the 400 IM on the second day of competition by two seconds with a time of 4:32.03. “I smashed it (the record).”
With just eight men and nine women qualifying for the Big East, St. John’s battled valiantly but succumbed to the deeper and more talented programs.
“It’s like the fastest meet ever … ridiculously fast,” said Myers, noting how only the top-16 people make it back from each event. “It’s almost impossible to make it back the second day.”
Myers was not the only SJU record-breaker on Friday, as Pawel Sokolowski broke an individual St. John’s record that he previously held in the men’s 200-yard freestyle.
His impressive outing earned him a first-place finish, posting an NCAA B Cut time of 1:37.30.
In other action, the 200-yard medley relay team of Maya Ziolkowski, Melissa Anette Hoye, Gosia Rodzik and Caitlin Rainey finished in eighth place overall but broke an SJU record set in 1998 with a time of 1:47:56.
On the final day, SJU was anchored by Arkadiusz Znachowski, who demolished the school record in the 200 breaststroke, breaking it in preliminaries with a time of 2:03.7 and then in the finals, finishing second with a time of 2:01.29.
“The record was 10 years old and that was my last chance to break it,” he said. “I’ve tried to do it the last two years. I was happy to break it.”
Adding to the emotions, former St. John’s swimming coach Dick Krempecki (1964-1985) and St. John’s administrators Rick Cole, Erin McDonnell and Annemarie Carey presented Skudin with a plaque recognizing his impressive accomplishment of winning his 100th career meet on Jan. 30 against Villanova.
“I owe them (the swimmers) for all their hard work,” said Skudin, an elementary school physical education teacher in Suffolk County. “I was also sad because I was receiving an award for accomplishing something good, yet the school was eliminating the program. I am grateful but I also find it ironic.”
Added Myers: “Oh, my God, it was unbelievable. Everyone gave him a standing ovation. We tried not to cry but it was just a sad moment.”
The women will swim this upcoming weekend at the ECAC Championships in Pittsburgh, but for Skudin, this entire season and his devoted swimmers will be something he remembers for a lifetime.
“I could not be more proud of them even if they were my own children,” he said. “As for how I feel — empty. I feel as if a part of me is gone. I have always been known as Coach Skudin. I guess I will just have to be known as John Skudin now.”
Reach contributing writer Joseph Manniello by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.