Ultimate Teammates Trek to Atlanta to Support Miller

ATLANTA – How far will one Kansas swimming and diving teammate go for another? Well, it’s at least 842.1 miles one-way, or roughly 14 hours in the car. Pia Pavlic, Yulya Kuchkarova and Sammie Schurig surprised Kansas’ lone NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships participant Chelsie Miller by appearing in her Atlanta hotel lobby prior to Friday’s preliminary races.
They embraced, cried it out, then got to business at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center, where the trio screamed and Miller scorched, winning her heat and a berth in the 400-yard individual medley finals Friday night, KU’s first finals swim since 1993. Miller earned First Team All-America status after previously earning honorable mention with top-16 finishes the last two years.
It would’ve been sweet to share with just friends and family, but having teammates there for the first time made it more special. It’s the latest example of a supportive, encouraging team culture that has swept its way into the Kansas locker room.
Kuchkarova, a junior from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, came up with the idea more than a week ago and mentioned it, along with Pavlic, to Schurig, who said she immediately invited herself. The trip became a reality on Monday when they booked a hotel room, but even as they drove through the first of six states on Thursday it had only started to sink in.
“I didn’t believe we were actually going to do it,” Pavlic, a junior from Medvode, Slovenia, said. “Then in the car I kept saying, ‘Guys, we’re actually doing it!'”
The trio took turns driving and napping, and listened to as much of the KU men’s basketball win over Austin Peay in the NCAA Tournament as service would allow to pass the time. They stopped in Nashville, Tennessee, and explored for about an hour, eventually bumping into several other Jayhawks from Lawrence at a rooftop restaurant, before continuing on.
They arrived in Atlanta around midnight, then dropped in unexpectedly Friday morning as Miller and KU coaches Clark Campbell and Jen Betz were getting ready to leave for the pool.
“Chelsie stopped and her eyes got so big and she started crying,” Pavlic told Swimming World Magazine’s David Rieder, who featured the Jayhawks Friday morning on the publication’s website. “Then Jen, our coach, started crying behind her.”
Added Schurig: “We didn’t have much time so we were running and it was really hot outside and then she saw us and we all hugged.”
Campbell, in his 14th season as the Kansas head coach, credited Miller’s burst of speed Friday to both a decision to not swim the 500-yard freestyle and instead focus on the 200 IM Thursday, and to the added energy delivered by her teammates’ surprise.
“That’s what it’s all about, the team,” Campbell said. “We want to swim and dive for each other, not just with each other. Yulduz, Sammie and Pia were for Chelsie today.
“My big takeaway from this is how important the culture is when you’re coaching a team, it can really make it like it did today and has the last couple years. I’ve also seen how it can break it. For all the coaches and support staff and how the athletes have bought in, it’s really special, really shows you that hard work and dedication that you put in that area pays off.
Schurig, a junior from Topeka, Kansas, said the decision to make the trip was an easy one.
“The whole team wants to be here,” Schurig said. “We’re representing all 26 of us.”
An added bonus for KU’s juniors – part of the next group of team leaders for the Jayhawks – was a chance to experience the NCAA meet, something only Miller has been able to accomplish the last three years. Pavlic and Kuchkarova have both competed in World Championship type events for their respective countries, with the latter holding a FINA ‘B’ qualifying standard for the 2016 Olympics in Rio after representing Uzbekistan at the London Olympics in 2012. Still, the level of competition was inspiring.
“There is no bad swimmer at NCAAs, it’s the top of the top,” Pavlic said.
“It’s a huge encouragement for our team that it is possible to do,” Kuchkarova continued, “a huge inspiration for everyone to believe that we can do it and see us in the future as NCAA participants.”
Kansas turned in its best conference finish in school history with its second-place performance at the 2016 Big 12 Championships, scoring 650.5 points while improving upon its highest point total by 33.5 points. Though its losing a talented group of seniors that includes Miller, Laura Bilsborrow, Bryce Hinde and Haley Molden, proof of possible success has been made and the culture behind a winning team is evident in supportive efforts like Friday’s.
“A lot of other people drive too (to the NCAA meet), but they drive for their family,” Pavlic said. “I don’t think there were any other teammates (from other programs) that drove all the way here. I don’t think there’s a team in the country that’s as strong as ours.”
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