Prior to taking the reins at GW, first-year head coach Brian Thomas led the women’s program at fellow Atlantic 10 school St. Bonaventure for two years.
In his short tenure, Thomas helped the Bonnies set 11 program records in the 2017-18 season and coached sophomore Lina Kutsko, this year’s Most Outstanding Performer in the A-10.
He is currently the only swimming and diving head coach to have previously led another A-10 program.
At St. Bonaventure, Thomas was responsible for 24 swimmers and divers in the women’s program – 14 of whom were underclassmen. Now, Thomas will be overseeing a combined 60 swimmers and divers across the men’s and women’s teams at GW, including 18 freshmen.
Thomas admitted he tends to have the “blinders” on when leading a team, so during his time at St. Bonaventure he was focused on improving the swimmers in front of him and didn’t analyze other programs in the conference like GW.
Despite a shared conference, Thomas said he was initially skeptical of how much his time at St. Bonaventure would inform his leadership at GW.
“From a conference perspective everything’s familiar, but other than that that’s about it, probably,” Thomas said. “Everything is brand new.”
Thomas took the helm in July after three-year head coach James Winchester resigned to take the same position at Texas Christian University. The coaching change came on the tails of the second-straight A-10 Championship for the men’s team and a third-place finish at the conference meet for the women’s team.
Heading into his time in Foggy Bottom, Thomas said he knew the men’s side had a couple of conference titles under their belt and the women were “on the rise,” but he still tried to come into the program without expectations.
The Colonials opened their fall schedule at the College Swimming Coaches Association of America Open Water Nationals in Lawrence, Kan. Saturday. The women’s team placed fourth, and the men’s team finished in sixth place.
Junior Moritz Fath, whose 12th place finish paced the Colonials at the weekend competition, said the new coaching staff has a more reciprocal approach to strategy. Thomas said he wants the swimmers and coaches to “evaluate together and really form a partnership.”
“We can bring our ideas more to the team, co-create everything with him,” Fath said. “We have more to say, I guess, with where the program is going.”
Thomas said building working relationships with his swimmers and divers is important to develop a deeper understanding of what works in the pool and what can be improved. Thomas has already held team meetings to discuss long-term goals for the upcoming season since training began in August.
Senior Emily Zhang noted that the growing pains of a new leader have been more physical than psychological during the adjustment period thanks to Thomas’ intense workout program.
“I think they’re setting a good foundation right now,” Zhang said. “It’s been kind of exciting and really intense from the get-go, which really sets the tone for the season.”
Thomas said compared to his St. Bonaventure squad, the Colonials “struggle in the detail area” so he put the team through the ringer in the first few weeks of the season with a “back-to-the-basics” training regimen that includes drills to improve the swimmers’ starts, turns and underwater kicking.
“From the perspective of our schedule and dual meets, it’s set up to be very challenging,” Thomas said. “I do know we’ve lost a couple of influential pieces over the last few years, especially on the guys’ side, so it’s not going to be easy necessarily.”
The Colonials graduated a number of talented seniors last year, including NCAA Championship qualifier Gustav Hokfelt. The former swim captain placed 18th at the NCAAs in the 100-meter backstroke after winning seven gold medals and being named Most Outstanding Performer at the A-10s.
Zhang said the added depth from strong first-year swimmers may be the team’s key to securing another top-three finish at the A-10s.
On the men’s side, the ultimate goal is a third-straight A-10 title and a fourth-straight NCAA qualification, Fath said.
Though it’s early in the season, Thomas said he is confident that this squad’s adaptability in the face of change will be an asset moving forward. Eschewing the importance of racking up as many wins as possible, Thomas said he believes the devil is in the details.
“One thing I’ve learned throughout the years is that we’re not terribly focused or overly focused on trying to win necessarily,” Thomas said. “It’s putting ourselves in the best position every day to get better.”
The Colonials begin their dual meet schedule on Oct. 5 at the FIU Fall Classic in Miami.