by Amie Canfield, MHC Sports Information Director
In our lifetimes, nearly every single one of us has achieved “that” moment. Whether it’s the moment you finally reached a goal, when you went a little faster or when you pushed yourself beyond expectation. For sophomore Cathleen Pruden, it has happened multiple times since her arrival at Mount Holyoke College, but never more prominently than her journey this season.
Thirty-seven victories, two NEWMAC titles, four Seven Sisters titles, 11 school records and the NEWMAC Rookie of the Year award. Pruden’s first year was most certainly filled with great moments.
Heading into her sophomore campaign, it was certain that Pruden had established herself as one of the program’s most prolific swimmers, but how would she sustain it? What would it take to get even better? The answer might surprise you.
“I didn’t approach this season thinking much about my actual swimming,” admitted Pruden. “For me, I was just excited to be back with my team. They helped shape my world as a first year, so I was excited to be back.”
While Pruden admits that not much changed, there were little things she adjusted in regards to her swimming. Be it extra time stretching or an extra 30 minutes of laps in the pool on certain days, she headed into the competitive season with a dominant edge.
“We did a lot more work with video this year,” Pruden explained. “Between the iPad at meets and use of the underwater camera at practice, I was able to pick up on a lot of little details. After a while, all those changes added up.”
Not only had they added up, but they also showed in the competitive numbers. By the time the Seven Sisters Championship rolled around, Pruden had already achieved 29 victories over the span of eight meets, helping her team to a respectable 4-3 dual meet record against a number of strong opponents.
Some may argue that the season began on November 2 and while they would be correct, the real start to Pruden’s amazing second year really hit the ground running on January 18 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The Seven Sisters Championship. As a first year, it proved to be a meet that Pruden would dominate. Four victories, three second-place finishes, two meet records and an NCAA ‘B’ cut. Fast forward to 2014 and the results would look nearly identical. Four wins and three runner-up finishes, but the difference was in the power of the times.
All four of Pruden’s victories not only shattered her own school records, but also surpassed the existing Seven Sisters records, including her own marks from a year earlier in the 400-individual medley and the 1650-freestyle.
“I was thrilled with Seven Sisters,” explained Pruden. “Probably more so at the fact that not only did I achieve lifetime best marks in the 500-freestyle and the 200-individual medley, but I did it over the span of 20 minutes.”
While Pruden’s marks at Seven Sisters were impressive, it was the energy and excitement of the meet that truly got her ready for her biggest test, the 2014 NEWMAC Championships.
Flashback to February 15-17, 2013, Pruden came away from her first conference championship in fine form. Dominant victories in the 400-IM and the 1650-free, five other finishes in the top six or better. Equally exciting, the honor of NEWMAC Rookie of the Year, an award never before won by a Mount Holyoke swimmer.
For the 2014 version, two things were certain. Not only would her fellow competitors remember her, but they’d never forget what she was about to do.
“I was bursting at the seams to swim at NEWMACs,” Pruden recalls. “In the back of my mind, I had a sense of what it would take to secure NCAAs, but honestly my focus was on the seven sessions and realizing that this year was going to be even faster than the last.”
Fast it certainly was as student-athletes from across the conference shattered times left and right. Pruden, who competed in seven events, went after each one with gusto. While her focus had been to not concentrate too hard on her signature event, the 400-IM, it was hard not to give that race in particular one’s full attention.
A season earlier, Pruden had won the event in a NEWMAC Open and Meet record time of 4:28.92. This year, she pushed beyond her own expectations, shattering the record with a time of 4:25.03.
“I was shocked,” admitted Pruden, whose reaction to the time was captured in the picture above. “It was two seconds faster than I wanted to be and a second faster than I believed I was capable of.”
The shock and awe of her time truly set in later that evening as the Division III national standings list for the 400-IM revealed that Pruden had the sixth fastest time in the country, all but securing her spot to compete at the NCAA Championships.
“I had this realization that night at NEWMACs that I was really going to the NCAAs,” Pruden recalled. “I remember saying to Coach [Dave Allen], ‘I’m really going to get to swim with all of those crazy fast people’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘you do realize you’re one of them too, right?”
While the realization of being one of the nation’s elite might have taken a bit to sink in, the following three weeks of training before Nationals gave Pruden a chance to really hone in on the little things and get ready for the chance to potentially bring home a National Championship title.
Pruden, along with head coach Dave Allen, set out for this year’s Nationals in Indianapolis, Ind., ready to compete in three events. She opened with a solid effort in the 200-IM, recording a lifetime best time of 2:06.98 – good for 21st overall.
As Pruden prepared for her 400-IM event, she realized that while it was going to take a huge effort, she needed to do it her own way.
“I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself,” Pruden said. “Mostly, I just wanted to hold my own in my heat and produce something fast enough to get me into the event finals that night.”
While upon review Pruden’s swim wasn’t the best she’d ever pulled off, the time she posted most certainly was. Her heat time was a 4:24.21, nearly a full second faster than the time she had produced at NEWMACs.
“After my morning swim and reviewing the video, I wasn’t remotely worried about the finals that night,” she explained. “My thought was ‘finish strong and you’ll be an All-American’, and that was all I cared about in that moment.”
Fast forward to the event final of the 400-IM, March 20, 2014, it was a moment Pruden wouldn’t forget. From the very start of the night, she can still recall every little moment. Between arriving at the ready room insanely early, to the walk onto the pool deck to race.
“I did my normal splash off, jumped up and down and stretched using the block,” Pruden said. “Finally, I smiled, which was something I vowed to do before each race. A coach of mine once said, ‘smile, you’ll swim faster’, and it really does help.”
The rush and the excitement of hearing her name and Mount Holyoke announced soon faded into the back ground as Pruden hit the water. As she swam, her mind catalogued all the little things she needed to keep in mind. Little things that soon added up toward success.
“As I turned into the backstroke, I knew that was the point where I need to keep fighting and get the little things right,” Pruden explained. “I turned into the breaststroke and still felt good. It was as I came out of my pull out and peeked to the right that I realized, I was actually ahead of some people.”
Not only was Pruden ahead of a number of racers, she was roughly fifth as the field reached the final leg: the freestyle.
“At that point, I just did everything in my power to be mentally tough and faster,” she recalled. “When I finished, I was very satisfied.”
Pruden touched the wall with a time of 4:22.84, good for fourth overall. It was a mark that eclipsed her own school and NEWMAC Open records and a mark that showed her just what she could accomplish, even when it’s beyond what she thought she could reach.
Her fourth place finish also put her in a spot of elite company in Mount Holyoke history, as she became just the second swimmer in Lyons’ history to earn National All-America, joining Katie Herrold ’00, who earned All-America Honorable Mention in the 1650-free during the 1997 championships. Pruden is also the first MHC swimmer to finish in the top eight.
A remarkable journey, highlighted by remarkable achievements, including 41 victories, 13 school records, a NEWMAC title, four Seven Sisters titles and a National All-America honor. For Pruden, the wins and records mean something, but not nearly as much as the pride she has for her team and most importantly for her school, whom she was honored to represent on such a big stage at Nationals.
“I absolutely love Mount Holyoke, anybody who knows me can tell you that,” she explained. “At Nationals, it was exciting because I know we [the college] don’t usually have representation on a stage like that, so it was that much more special to be there. But in the end, every day is special to me to be able to represent Mount Holyoke and my team.”