The ASU men’s swim and dive team is in its element.
Ranked No. 1 nationally by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America for over 10 months, the team is experiencing a level of growth and success unmatched by any other ASU athletic team — and arguably any other college swim team.
In March, the Devils won their first-ever Pac-12 Championship title. They also finished second in the 2023 NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships — the highest finish in program history.
Though the wins have racked up for the Devils lately, the team is still unsatisfied.
“We expect a level of excellence here,” said Grant House, an alum who swam with the Devils from 2017 until this spring and now swims professionally. “We expect to be the best in the world.”
House still trains with the team six days per week. For three of those days, practice starts at 6 a.m. The team works out in the water for 18 hours every week, with an additional three and a half hours set aside for dryland strength workouts.
“There’s this idea that when you work really hard and you move past a lot of adversity or challenges, you get to this peak,” House said. “But the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is when you get to that peak, an even steeper hill of adversity awaits you.”
The team faced the Georgia Bulldogs in its first two outings of the 2023-2024 season. In back-to-back meets, the Devils blew them out of the water 89.5-49.5 and 183-117.
But head coach Bob Bowman’s reaction?
“I wasn’t really happy with today’s meet at all,” he said.
Sun Devil swimmers Jonny Kulow and Jack Dolan echoed Bowman’s dissatisfaction.
“There’s a lot of room to get a lot better,” said Kulow, a sophomore studying microbiology.
“We just got to keep getting faster,” said Dolan, a graduate student studying sports law and business.
To Dolan, the meet was a “wake-up call,” as he believed the swimmers’ energy fell short of the pace they had set for themselves.
“There’s one meeting per year that matters in…intercollegiate swimming (the NCAA Championships), and last year we got second,” he said. “So we are maybe ranked No. 1, but we still haven’t won it yet.”
Bowman means business
The Sun Devil swimmers say coach Bowman isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
In his first short course swim meet as a Sun Devil, Ilya Kharun didn’t seem like a newcomer. The No. 4 swimmer in SwimSwam’s NCAA swimming recruits list for the high school class of 2023 ended up shattering ASU’s record in the 100-yard butterfly with a time of 44.88.
After a 1:40.68 in the 200-yard butterfly also secured him a first place finish against Georgia, the freshman studying sports business had more than one reason to celebrate that day: His time ranked as the third fastest in the Sun Devil swim program’s history.
But Bowman and Kharun were both left unsatisfied.
“While that’s a great swim for today, it’s not going to take us where we want to go,” Bowman said. “If (Kharun) wants to win at the NCAA (Championships), he’s definitely going to have to be four seconds faster.”
Bowman has been coaching professionally since 1996. Hundreds of swimmers — from decorated Olympians to local legends — have practiced under him. He’s seen what works and what doesn’t.
On the international stage, Bowman served as a coach for the U.S. Olympic team during five games, and in September, he was inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. His former protégé Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian of all time, was awarded alongside his mentor.
At ASU, similarly prestigious accolades have been bestowed upon Bowman. In June, he was voted the Sun Devil Coach of the Year.
Bowman is the kind of coach who is not shy about giving feedback, according to his swimmers.
It’s not rare to see him speaking with a swimmer after an event, his hands flying with emotion as he describes what he’s seeing and how he wants the swimmer to improve.
“He’s so mean,” Kulow joked after a meet.
Bowman, standing a few feet away, smirked and shook his head.
“He does a really good job of…keeping us in check,” Kulow said. “(He’s) making sure that we’re…not being too relaxed and…trying to be the best that we can.”
“Yeah, he keeps us humble,” Kharun said.
Bowman builds his relationships with his swimmers on a base of “tough love,” which House said allows the coach to foster a strong personal connection with each of the Devils while still being honest with them.
The key to Bowman’s coaching technique is his ability to pinpoint something that needs improvement in every swim, regardless if it was the swimmer’s best or worst performance.
“I don’t think it’s criticism,” Bowman said. “It’s feedback, right? What we want to do is keep moving forward.”
For House, that’s Bowman’s defining element: He always wants more from his swimmers.
“It’s always, ‘How can we be better?’” House said. “That’s really how he loves us.”
‘Different level of respect’
In early October, the Devils faced the University of Las Vegas in a dual meet, beating the Rebels 229-71.
Kicking off the event, a team consisting of Kharun, sophomore Hubert Kós, junior León Marchand and freshman Filip Senc-Samardzic won the 400-yard medley relay with a time of 3:04.67.
The quartet of Dolan, Kulow, Kharun and graduate student Cam Peel also won the 200-yard free relay, clocking in at 1:16.10.
The wins meant the Sun Devils achieved automatic qualifying times for the NCAA Championships in both men’s relays.
“At a dual meet? In October?” said Duncan Scott, a volunteer public address announcer. “Have you ever heard of that before? That is just special.”
Scott said it feels like he has announced every ASU home swim meet as far as he can remember — that’s since 1975. In his time there, he’s witnessed history unfold — he worked alongside the swim team back when head coach Mona Plummer rebuilt the women’s swimming program to be one of the best in the country during the late 1970s, and he remembers when the Tempe campus’ aquatic complex was named after her in 1985.
He’s seen the swim team peak and fall through coaching changes and funding issues. He was even there when the University entirely defunded the men’s swim team in 2008 due to its limited budget for varsity sports.
Bowman’s ability to inspire his swimmers has stood out to Scott ever since the head coach joined the team in 2015. Scott said Bowman treats every day as a fresh start for the swimmers under the philosophy that “if you miss today, you don’t ever get it back.”
In 2021, two Sun Devil swimmers, including Marchand, made it to the Tokyo Olympics. With the 2024 Paris Olympics on the horizon, Scott said it’s not unrealistic to fathom at least six Sun Devil swimmers making it to the games this time.
“There are times when people...have a dream out there, but it’s really way out there,” he said. “(Bowman has) got several people with realistic Paris dreams. “It’s a different level of respect this team has earned.”
Center of attention
After the Devils’ highly decorated 2022-2023 season, the media platformed the program as one of the best in the nation — a change of pace for a team that has long lingered in the shadows.
“Top-ranked Arizona State men’s swim remains one of the school’s best kept secrets,” an AZCentral headline read.
“Once dead in the water, Arizona State’s swim program is thriving,” another headline on SwimSwam read.
Despite the newfound attention, the team isn’t getting complacent.
“It’s hard when we had a good season last year, and everybody tells you how good you are and has these expectations for you,” Bowman said. “But the reality is that was last year. Today is today. We have to win today, and we have to do better tomorrow, the next day, the next day.”
To reach the NCAA Championships, the team will likely have to face schools like Cal and the University of Texas – teams that have challenged the Devils for years.
“There’s always a target on our backs,” House said. “Everyone wants to beat the person at the top.”
The California Golden Bears were the swimming champions of the Pac-12 for five consecutive years from 2018-2022 until the Devils dethroned them this year. A formidable foe for the Devils, Cal has placed first at the NCAA Championships in three of the last four seasons.
The Longhorns also measure up — since 2015, they have placed first at the NCAA Championships five times.
“I want (the swimmers) to feel good about what we’re doing here,” Bowman said. “But they also need to know that there are a lot of people out there…who are talented, and we’re going to be racing them. And we’re just going to have to improve every day if we want to really be the best team we can be.”
Now that ASU is fresh off a second-place finish at this year’s NCAA Championships, falling just behind Cal, Scott said the team is primed.
He said he’s noticed “significant” improvements in the team’s chemistry and communication, which will make all the difference at the championships next March.
“That’s the kind of thing that...can kick them over the top,” he said. “I think this is the year they got to do it.”
When asked if the Devils could take first place at the NCAA Championships, Scott didn’t even hesitate: “The answer is yes. They can win it.”
In order to swim their way to the top, the Devils just need to keep getting faster, according to Kharun. To him, the team’s objective for the championships is simple: “Just to get No. 1.”
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen
This story is part of The Element Issue, which was released on Nov. 1, 2023. See the entire publication here.