Pulling the team together, the captains prepare to lead a cheer with the swim team, a tradition before every meet begins. They stand together in the middle of a huddle of swimmers linked together, arms around each other’s shoulders, excited to swim and represent their school.
The captains chant the spelling of the school mascot along with the rest of the team. Then, they finally yell out together: “Mundelein Mustangs!”
Followed by a chorus of cheering and screaming, the team applauds, ready to swim, ready to support their fellow teammates.
While swimming is often considered an individual sport, the individuals on the team rely on strong team chemistry for success.
This situation has been true for senior swimmer Mikayla Gruber who has been responsible for building that team chemistry as one of the captains this year and for welcoming the many new swimmers joining this year.
“When there’s a lot of new swimmers, they think that it’s just about being the fastest swimmer, or it’s all about time drops, but really when you come into a high school season, it’s about working together as a team, to get the points rather than just focusing on times,” said Gruber, who is in her second year as team captain.
Gruber, who started swimming club in 2007 and then joined the school’s varsity swim team as a freshman, has been interested in being team captain from the start, applying since her freshman year.
“I applied just because swimming is the main part of my life, and so it’s nice to have some sort of leadership probe where you can motivate other people and lead them somehow, so you kind of have a say in what you prioritize, such as what volunteer work we do, what activities we do, like team bonding, and it’s just fun,” she said.
As a team captain, Gruber is responsible for hosting team meetings, organizing captains’ meetings on Thursday mornings and leading cheers, but setting an example and being a positive teammate are likely the most influential parts of her job.
“Out of the four captains this year, I’m probably the more talkative, motivational one,” Gruber said. “I like being successful, and I want a team that’s successful, not just because of winning meets, but having that cohesiveness and unity on a team, which I think is really important.”
She works with her co-captains to pump up the team and get everyone more excited to practice, and she is known to leave a positive impact on her co-captains and teammates alike.
“She’s always super positive, and she always tries to bring out the best in people,” Senior Ella Krauss, co-captain, said. “Even when she’s having a down day, she tries her best to pick up her energy and keep people going.”
Her previous co-captains, Molly Mishler and Abby Lucas, who graduated last year, are Gruber’s inspiration for the season.
“I look up to them because they were co-captains with me my junior year, so they showed me the ropes and what it is to be a good leader, and I learned a lot from them,” Gruber said.
Rahul Sethna, head swim coach, has been another one of her biggest motivations, as he has coached her individually since seventh grade.
“She’s grown a lot as a leader and an athlete in terms of that at this point of her career she’s looking at the big picture, and that it’s more than times,” Sethna said. “It’s about the memories you create.”
Gruber said she has struggled to keep up her positive spirit at times, such as when she feels she’s having a bad meet or when she struggles with her ongoing shoulder injury.
“I was diagnosed with multi-linear bilateral shoulder instability the end of my freshman year from overuse and, ironically, too much swimming…. Getting used to this injury has been very hard,” she said. “I admit that even three years later, it is still disheartening knowing I will never be the same swimmer I once was. I am no longer able to swim in college, which crushes me. It is mentally and emotionally challenging having to sit out most sets in practice to stretch or roll out my shoulders.”
Coach Sethna has seen the effects of the injury but also sees the dedication she has to continue and be a leader for the team.
“She’s got really bad shoulders, and she’s gutted it out now for three years because she wanted to be part of the team…. I think that’s earned her teammates’ respect in terms of that she’s continued to swim and continued to be a team player,” Sethna said.
This year the team captains have put extra emphasis on team chemistry because some of the teammates said there has been a lack of unity in previous years.
“This year we have really good chemistry, which makes coming to practice every day for three months straight really easy,” Krauss said.
Team chemistry also allows for improved performances at meets. For example, the team won the Niles West Invite and several dual meets, too.
This season’s team has proved to be a winner in terms of team dynamics, Gruber said.
“We’ve become close, and it only [took] a month or so, where last year and previous years it takes a few months to get used to being with new people and swimming with new people,” she said.
In the end, Gruber feels as though having so much support from her team makes her feel better about performing in meets, whether the meet went great or not.
“It’s always great to feel as though there’s always a group of people there cheering you on at the end of the pool,” Gruber said. “If you have a close team, you know that there are people supporting you, and they have your back no matter what happens.”