Brenau University’s swim team has been on a tear the last two years, winning the Appalachian Swimming Conference championship and placing third at the NAIA Swimming & Diving Championships in back-to-back seasons.
Heading up the charge in those two successful campaigns has been Courtney Hayward, a native of Townsville, Australia.
The junior picked up her fifth and sixth individual national championship marks and earned All-American distinctions for third-straight season when the NAIA meet closed in Columbus on March 5.
Hayward’s fifth national title came in the 500-yard freestyle, where she broke her own school record with a time of 4 minutes, 56.34 seconds.
“I always want to break my own records,” said Hayward earlier this week. “I want them to get faster and faster because I want them to stand longer. It was always a goal of mine.”
Her sixth title came in the 400-yard individual medley. The Aussie was just a second and a half off her school record in that event.
“That was an exciting race,” said Brenau coach Nate Rhoads. “She knew it was going to be tough, but she literally edged it out on the last 50 (yards) of the swim.”
According to Rhoads, Hayward was somewhere around fourth or fifth when making the transition from butterfly to backstroke, but by the time she was finished with the breaststroke portion of the IM, she pulled within a body length of the leader. She won the race by a margin of .65 seconds.
“The swimmer who was in the lead, she busted it,” said Rhoads. “We didn’t exactly expect her to go that fast. Courtney chased her and got it to a body length. Courtney, she just closes. Especially in that freestyle, she’s tough.”
In the NAIA, the top three swimmers are deemed “All-Americans,” so Hayward made it in both races. Freshman teammate Lindsay Dowling made All-American marks in the 100-yard backstroke.
When she first came to Brenau three years ago, making All-American honors was at the top of Hayward’s priority list. In fact, it was her only goal. Now, she’s been able to consistently earn that distinction from freshman year through her junior season.
“Coming in my freshman year, I didn’t have any goals for myself in placing or anything like that,” said Hayward. “I came over and my first goal was to be an All-American. I didn’t know how I could get there, I didn’t know what the qualifications were or anything like that. All I knew is that I wanted to get an All-American. To be able to do that at my first nationals my freshman year and to consistently have that, it’s pretty exciting. Hopefully I can back it up next year again.”
First-year coach Rhoads said he got to see a side of Hayward at the national championships he’s never really seen before.
On March 4, the second of the three-day event, the swimmers didn’t perform as well as they thought they should have in the morning’s qualifying heats. Their demeanor set Hayward into action.
“That’s not normal for Courtney,” Rhoads said. “Courtney, in the past, has led by example. She’s very motivated and down to business in practice. She expects the most out of herself and really out of her teammates every day. She’s kind of that quiet leader. It took a bit for her to stand up and get these women going.”
After the team was back at the hotel, Hayward sensed something wasn’t quite right, so she said something. She called a meeting and made everybody set a positive tone for the rest of the meet.
“What I did at the hotel was like, you know what, we’re going to go around and bring everybody’s spirits up,” said Hayward. “We needed positivity that night for finals. I said, ‘We’re all doing good’ and I made everybody point out the good parts of their races, whether they had a good dive or their turns were good. I helped them try to adjust their mindsets. I think it really lifted everyone up and everyone kind of got motivated that night.”
Hayward agreed with Rhoads that her speaking out was a bit out of character, saying she’s usually more of a “sit back and let everybody do their thing kind of person,” but she doesn’t regret, as Rhoads put it, putting her foot down.
“When I saw something was wrong — I’m really passionate about the team, so I just wanted everyone to be motivated and keep working hard,” said Hayward. “When I saw something happening, I’m one of the oldest on the team, so I had to step up and go out of my comfort zone and speak to everyone directly.”
Next year, as the team’s only senior, Hayward said she hopes her sudden outburst spurs her to become a more vocal leader. After all, the faces looking up to her will essentially be the same.
The Golden Tigers are only graduating one senior from its swim team, a 3-time All-American in Mary Katherine (MK) Jabbia.
“She brought a lot of leadership to the team,” Rhoads said of his breaststroke swimmer. “She’s a great competitor. She’s been a strong breaststroke swimmer and is probably one of the best swimmers who ever swam here.”
With having one of the smallest teams — 10 girls compared to 18-20 — at the national championship, losing any member of the team isn’t ideal, especially a 3-time All-American.
“It’s going to hurt the team a little bit graduating our best breaststroker,” Hayward said. “It’s going to hurt graduating someone who brought so much to the team and brought a lot of points to the team.”
Still, in a group which just won the conference championship, which included winning all five relays at the meet, and placing top three at nationals for the second straight season, nine of the 10 will be back next season.
With that level of experience and talent returning, expectations will likely be high. But for an Australian swimmer who admittedly has to remind herself that second place is a podium spot, too, anything less than high expectations wouldn’t be good enough.