Chloe Larson visited Pullman during her junior year of high school and left with a firm sense that she would be back.
The swim team she would soon join wasn’t a spectacular one or even a middling one by the standards of its conference, the Pac-12: None of Washington State’s swimmers had won a conference championship in any women’s event, and more years than not the Cougars finished last or second to last in the annual Pac-12 championship meet.
But that trajectory has changed the past three years – and Larson is glad to say she was a part of it.
On Thursday, Larson won the 50 freestyle in 22.18 seconds to capture WSU’s first individual Pac-12 title. Her performance helped the Cougars finish with the program’s highest team total (533) at the Pac-12 championships.
“It’s definitely more satisfying to be part of growing a program and changing a culture, and leaving it better than you found it,” Larson said on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Larson was invited to swim in the 50 and 100 freestyle events at the NCAA national meet, scheduled March 17-20 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
She will be the second Washington State swimmer, after teammate Mackenzie Duarte in 2019, to compete at the women’s nationals during coach Matt Leach’s three seasons with the program.
Before Duarte, the program’s last NCAA qualifier was Michaela Ahlin in 2010.
“It’s gonna be a really cool experience,” said Larson, who grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. “(It is) something I’ve been hoping for and working for for my four years of college.”
Larson and Duarte are two of the four seniors on the roster – Samantha Howell and Pullman native Taylor McCoy are the others – who have shepherded a culture shift since July 2018, when Leach arrived on campus.
“This is absolutely part of the growth process and the process that we talked about Day 1 coming here,” Leach said of the team’s performance last weekend.
Leach, who grew up in Portland and was an All-America swimmer for four years at Indiana University, had friends who swam at Washington State. He knew the swimming program’s history.
“I knew it would be a colossal undertaking,” Leach said of coming to WSU. “But I look at my history, where I’ve been. That’s been a part of what I’ve had to do, (to) prove people wrong.”
After spending six years with the University of Wyoming swim program, Leach started the women’s swimming and diving programs at Indiana State in 2015. At the 2017-18 Missouri Valley Conference championships, the program had its first individual conference champion, and Leach was named the MVC’s Coach of the Year.
He moved the following summer to WSU, where he said he would love to be for the rest of his coaching career. Leach said he presented his priorities to the team: “Family first, academics second and competing at the highest level third.”
Larson echoed the importance of those priorities.
“He just really focused on a family aspect, changing the culture of our team and everyone being more inclusive,” Larson said.
“We’re trying to go on a different trajectory and at a higher level than before.”
There are some inherent challenges to doing that, specifically from a competitive level. First, the Cougars don’t have a diving team, which means that there are three events at the Pac-12 championships in which they can’t earn points.
Bringing back diving is a priority for Leach, and he said those conversations are happening now with the WSU administration.
Another challenge is sharing a conference with programs like Stanford and California, which have won seven NCAA team titles since 2009. There are eight teams in the conference that sponsor women’s swimming (this year one of those eight, Arizona State, opted not to compete). Even with that program-best point total, Washington State still finished seventh at the Pac-12 championships.
But those are challenges Leach and Larson said they are eager to face. Winning races like Larson did only serves to validate the process.
“It’s really reassuring that we’re doing the right things and that we are putting in the right work and doing things the right way,” Larson said. “The group we took to (the) Pac-12 (championships) are really positive and supportive and want the best for each other and create a culture of that support.
“We are a Pac-12 team, and this year we started to act like it.”
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