If you walked into Northwestern swimming and diving’s afternoon practice on Oct. 25, you may have seen a whiteboard with golf scorecards written all over it.
No, a putting range was not installed inside the Norris Aquatics Center. And despite the flood of golfer photos that were sent to the team GroupMe in the days prior, the Northwestern swimmers were not going to be playing golf. What really went on was a competition in the pool that was scored golf-style. Each swimmer had a par value that was 95% of their best 100-yard freestyle time, and they went through three rounds of swimming to figure out their score. The first round was a 75-yard freestyle and another 25 yards, the second round was two 50s and the final round was four 25s. To determine a winner, swimmers added up their times from each racing segment and subtracted the total from their par value after each round.
This golf game was more than just mixing two sports into one. It was a reflection of head coach Rachel Stratton-Mills’ philosophy that athletes should be swimming at 95% of their maximum swimming velocity in practice, plus a way of making training both productive and fun.
“We can have this environment where [the swimmers] are excited to show up every day,” Stratton-Mills told Inside NU. “But when they come in, they still know that [what they practice] is something that’s really based in physiology and really based in a principle that we believe is going to help them get better. And I think they’re starting to learn that about us and enjoying that.”
Stratton-Mills, who was hired by Northwestern as the team’s head coach in August, was given a program that was starting from a blank slate. On the women’s side, all but one individual NCAA Championship qualifier from the previous season had either transferred, graduated or redshirted. Meanwhile, the men were coming off a subpar season by their standards, where they finished second-to-last in the Big Ten, and they received a promising but inexperienced first-year class that could become the backbone of their team.
Given all this, Stratton-Mills has still set a lofty goal for both the men’s and women’s programs to finish top ten in the NCAA in the near future. And she knows getting a program to that level starts with implementing small things that make big differences.
How does Stratton-Mills know this is possible? The answer is that she’s seen it happen all before.
Up until Athletic Director Derrick Gragg hired her at Northwestern, Stratton-Mills had practically done everything besides heading a college swim team.
She served as an assistant coach at Dartmouth and Maryland. She led age group-level teams such as the Santa Monica Swim Team and Asphalt Green Aquatics, and in her time at the latter club, she helped Lia Neal make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. She’s been named a Team USA assistant at international meets like the 2011 World Junior Championships and the 2012 Short Course World Championships. She traveled the country for 15 months with her husband Glenn for his business, GoSwim. And most recently, Stratton-Mills worked under Bob Bowman at Arizona State University — as an assistant coach from 2017 to 2019, and then as an associate head coach from 2019 to 2023. In Tempe, she primarily coached women who raced short-distance events.
Bowman is best known for being the head coach of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, but what he’s done for ASU might just be the most impressive feat of his career. When he took over the program in 2015, the Sun Devils’ men’s team was the worst program in the PAC-12 and scored zero points at its most recent NCAA Championships. Eight seasons later, the team won its first-ever PAC-12 Championship and finished second at the 2023 NCAA Championships, the highest concluding post in program history.
During Arizona State’s rise to success though, Northwestern was experiencing something very different.
In June, Katie Robinson, Northwestern’s head coach for the past three seasons, unexpectedly left Evanston for an open associate head coaching position at Stanford. This departure followed that of two former NU coaches: associate head Andrew Hodgson and graduate assistant Kim Williams. With several of the team’s stars in the portal and a very depleted coaching staff, the Wildcats were essentially a shadow of their former selves. And that was when opportunity struck for Stratton-Mills.
Two months after Robinson’s departure, Stratton-Mills was hired as her replacement. Following seven years of working under Bowman, the time finally came for Stratton-Mills to lead a program herself. Running a Power Five collegiate program was the biggest task she had ever been assigned, but she was ready for it. After all, she didn’t spend all that time under one of the greatest coaches of all time for nothing.
“The best thing I learned from Bob is knowing the chances he took in that first year and how far he came, knowing from Day One where he wanted to be and not deviating from that,” Stratton-Mills said. “And I think for me, I’m in a space where I’m so pleased with the type of athletes on this team, and just knowing it is very possible to be top ten if we’re building the right way.”
Aside from coaching under Bowman, there was also another thing that set Stratton-Mills apart: she was one of four women coaching combined-gender Power Five swimming programs, with the other three being USC’s Lea Maurer, Alabama’s Margo Geer and Georgia Tech’s Courtney Hart. Being a woman in a male-dominated field was something that made her stand out, but at Northwestern, she felt that it didn’t define who she was.
“The best thing about Northwestern is that since I was hired, I have never felt like I was labeled as a ‘female head coach’,” Stratton-Mills said. “I have just been coach…I think that speaks to the culture here.”
Although Stratton-Mills said she is honored to be part of such a small group of female head coaches in the Power Five, she feels that her gender is and should be viewed as merely a side note when it comes to her coaching. She’s here to take a program from the bottom up and build a culture of dedication, and that’s what she wants to be known for.
“I love this sport, I can’t believe this is what I get to do as a job,” Stratton-Mills said. “And we’d like to have that felt throughout our entire program.”
But Stratton-Mills isn’t just all words. There were very specific actions taken to back them up, many of which she took from ASU.
One thing that carried over from Tempe to Evanston was the implementation of training groups. From the get-go, Stratton-Mills divided her team into color-coded groups based on events that they specialize in. The red group was pure sprinters (mainly 50 and 100-yard freestylers), the orange group was sprinters that erred toward the 200-yard rather than the 50-yard distance, yellow was mid-distance, green was 400 individual medley-based training and blue was distance freestyle. Splitting swimmers into groups made it easier for Stratton-Mills to handle such a large team of various types of swimmers.
“Our sport is so interesting because you can have a male athlete trying to go 18 seconds in a 50 free and a female trying to go 16 (minutes) in a mile,” Stratton-Mills said. “There’s so few similarities training-wise, and I think what’s important is not trying to ask the same thing of all [swimmers] and understand that they don’t have similar training needs.”
However, it’s not all black and white. Sometimes, Stratton-Mills will combine two groups and have them do the same workout — the red and orange groups and the blue and green groups often train together. In addition, swimmers aren’t just confined to one group, and could switch things up if they felt that their event preferences changed.
A shift in training groups happened early on in the season with first-year Cade Duncan, one of Northwestern’s top new additions. On paper, the 50 and 100 freestyle are his bread and butter. Coming into college, he was one of the fastest in both events in the high school class of 2023 and was initially placed in the red group. However, he told Stratton-Mills that he wanted to put more of his focus on the 200 freestyle, so she placed him into the orange group.
The decision might seem strange at first, but soon, Stratton-Mills saw Duncan’s potential in the 200 free from how well his back-end speed was in the 100 free.
“I think that 200 free is going to be good as he continues to develop,” Stratton-Mills said. “He’s got some good endurance at the end of that.”
Going deeper beyond collective groups were Stratton-Mills’ philosophies that catered to individual swimmers. When asked about building a positive team culture at Northwestern, her answer involved one word: data.
It seems strange to relate statistics and math to culture, but the reality is that swimming is a data-driven sport. Data is making ripples throughout the swim community, and the forces have only gotten stronger since World Aquatics allowed wearable technology to be used in swimming competitions. Performance-tracking brands like TritonWear have exploded in popularity in recent years among teams across the nation. Three-time women’s NCAA champion Virginia even has a math professor, Dr. Ken Ono, dedicated to helping the team out in the statistical aspect.
There are so many variables that contribute to a swimmer’s final result, such as velocity and acceleration, and presenting that in the form of data, according to Stratton-Mills, brings a new layer of transparency to the sport.
For example, Stratton-Mills used data to help one of her swimmers figure out why she wasn’t hitting her best times. She told this swimmer that she was practicing at around 76 to 94% of her maximum velocity, which adds more to fatigue than it does to speed development. This data wasn’t the end-all-be-all solution, but at least it could help answer a part of why. And with this data, Stratton-Mills and her swimmers can figure out what types of physical techniques they need to implement to get better.
“I think it’s a start to take the guesswork out of how to improve,” Stratton-Mills said of data. “[For] some of our students who have in the past got very anxious about their swimmer or were worried they were going to not go best times, I think that’s really helped them take control of their training.”
Another “new-school” approach that Stratton-Mills has implemented for her team was quite literally taken directly out of the ASU playbook: the trend of wearing racing suits (called “tech suits” in swimming) in every single meet, and even sometimes in practice. In two out of Northwestern’s last three dual meets, Stratton-Mills has had her swimmers suit up.
In college swimming, athletes would typically go slower at regular-season dual meets by wearing standard training suits before putting on tech suits designed to make them go faster at midseason, conference and national championship meets at the end of the season. However, at the back end of the 2022-23 campaign, Bowman decided that his swimmers would be wearing tech suits at every single one of their competitions. It was an idea that captured widespread attention when ASU’s team superstar Leon Marchand shattered the NCAA record in the 400-yard individual medley during a January dual meet against in-conference rival Cal. At that point, championship season was still a month away, and someone was breaking an NCAA record. This wasn’t normal in swimming, but Stratton-Mills liked the idea.
Like with data, Stratton-Mills thinks wearing tech suits all the time removes another unknown in swimming. The presence of a tech suit can change so many things, from a swimmer’s speed to the number of dolphin kicks they need to take off a wall. Wearing one kind of suit all the time allows swimmers to focus on their actual swimming and not worry about whether their “uniform” influenced their performance. Besides, it builds confidence to swim at your fastest all the time.
“In a scientific experiment, you realize how many variables you’re going to change at once, and it shouldn’t be all the variables at once,” Stratton-Mills said. “Then you don’t know what’s effective… So for me, it’s really beneficial to take one variable out so we’re just keeping constant.”
The “tech suits at dual meets” trend is still a hot topic, with critics citing affordability issues for smaller programs and a possible inability to improve from dual meets to championship meets. But it wasn’t like ASU was going slower during championship season, either — Marchand shaved three more seconds off his 400 IM NCAA record at the NCAA Championships this March. In addition, other factors played a part in the increased speed from regular season to championship meets as well, such as shaving and tapering (a form of rest in swimming tailored towards prep for big meets).
Pro and elite club swimmers wear tech suits for every race they swim. Why then, is it so frowned upon for college swimmers to wear tech suits in dual meets? Shouldn’t we rethink this? Asking for a friend.— Bob Bowman (@coach_bowman) December 26, 2022
All in all, if this strategy is working for one of the top teams in the country, then there’s no harm in trying it out elsewhere.
So far, Northwestern has competed at three different dual meets and is currently competing at its midseason invite — the Purdue Invitational, which begins Thursday and ends on Saturday. Midseasons are often the first time of the NCAA season when teams suit up and rest, so there’s usually a wave of NCAA championship-qualifying times produced around the country.
Stratton-Mills’ biggest takeaways from these meets are not the results, though. She was happy with the closing speed and development of her swimmers, many of whom got progressively faster with every competition. In addition, she was also pleased to find out that her swimmers had the same driven mentality as her.
For instance, at Northwestern’s meet against Miami (Ohio) when the women’s competition was very tight, sophomore Hana Shimizu-Bowers volunteered to swim the 200 butterfly to help her team get extra points. She had already partaken in the 1000 free and 400 IM, two of the longest and most grueling events in swimming, but she was willing to do more.
“We have a lot of amazing student-athletes,” Stratton-Mills said. “They want to be great, and they want this program to be great.”
Right now, the focus of the team is on midseasons. However, Stratton-Mills also has a bigger picture of the season beyond that. Big Tens and NCAA Championships aside, it’s an Olympic year, which means that some of her swimmers will have aspirations beyond the college scene. She anticipates several of her swimmers to take the spring quarter off after NCAAs to focus on qualifying for the Paris Games, and took the Games into consideration when planning a training schedule for the season.
However, despite her giant future goals and her very detail-oriented plans, Stratton-Mills’ aspirations for her first year are quite simple. All she wants is for her swimmers to be proud of what they achieved.
“I think we’ll see a lot of them surprise themselves,” Stratton-Mills said. “And that’s something that’s really exciting for me. I want my student-athletes to touch the wall at the end of the season and just be floored at how great they did.”