Dec. 30, 2008
By Larry Watts
When it comes to swimming with sharks, even the best the Big Ten has to offer is no comparison to the real thing.
Wisconsin's Christine Zwiegers will attest to that fact. The Badgers' senior co-captain got an up-close look at the terrors of the deep, and it was by choice, not by accident.
Zwiegers came up with the idea when former Wisconsin teammates Jackie Vavrek and Hannah McClurg paid a summer visit to her home of Somerset West, South Africa. And with a great desire to be the perfect hostess for her two friends, Zwiegers wanted to come up with something memorable for their journey.
"Cape Town is close by and the great white sharks are a huge tourist attraction," she says. "Since they had come all this way, I thought it would be a lot of fun to go swimming with them. My father made it my birthday present."
Although she was a native of South Africa, this was a first for Zwiegers, who admitted being just as scared, and excited, as her friends.
"None of us had ever been with sharks before," she says. "I had no idea how big the boat would be, no idea about the size of the cage we would be in or no idea about the number of sharks we would see."
To Zwiegers' surprise, the boat and the cage were much smaller than she had anticipated.
"And the wires on the cage seemed to be pretty thin, which was also a little frightening," she says. "A woman tried to give us a pep talk, but we were still scared. Then before they lowered the cage, they threw some bait into the water to attract the sharks (and make them hungrier)."
According to Zwiegers, each cage contained four separate compartments. The cage was lowered into the water for three to four minutes before the swimmers rotated out.
"It happened so quickly, but it was an amazing experience," she says. "We saw about seven sharks, the biggest must have been around 3.2 meters."
Zwiegers has never been one to back away from a challenge. After one season at Miami University in Florida, she was ready to test new water elsewhere.
"All of the coaches at Miami were leaving and I didn't want to start over from scratch with a new coaching staff," she says. "We had a couple of decent swimmers at Miami, but I wanted to move on to a more established program.
"I didn't even know there was a state of Wisconsin, until one of the Miami assistants told me about (Badgers head coach Eric Hansen). I was told he was a very good coach and had a very solid program."
Luckily for Hansen, and the Badgers, Zwiegers made the trip to Madison in May. Had it been during the winter months, there may have been a different outcome.
"As you can imagine, we don't get snow in South Africa," she says. "The only snow I'd seen was on top of mountain tops or artificial. I had never seen snow falling before and I thought how beautiful it was. But now when I have to go out in it, I don't get very excited.
"I have yet to go tobogganing, not much time for that with studies and swimming. I did try to help build a snowman once, but my hands got too cold. Maybe next year, when I'm just helping out on the pool deck, I'll have a chance to get out and enjoy the snow more."
A math major at Wisconsin, Zwiegers says she will have another year of studies in order to earn her degree because a number of her credits did not transfer when she made the move from Miami.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do with that math degree, but I have another year to figure that out," she says with a laugh. "I might do some graduate studies back home. Maybe I'll go into teaching, but at the moment I'm not sure."
After a rough first season adapting to a new team and new environment, the waters have become a lot smoother for Zwiegers.
"It was tough coming in here and not knowing anyone," she says. "Plus this team is so much bigger and more competitive than the one I was on at Miami."
But it's the competition, Zwiegers says, that has made her a better swimmer.
After competing at the NCAA Championships in one event (200 freestyle relay) as a sophomore, Zwiegers came back to qualify in five events last year. Her 200 free squad placed fourth and she gained All-America honors.
A butterfly specialist, Zwiegers says she dropped five seconds off her best fly time last season and has already bettered that by one second this year.
"All that training is finally paying off," she says. "We've set some high goals for this year and we have become such a close-knit group, both the men and the women. I am so grateful for the support system, not just in the pool but also in the way we interact away from the pool."
Despite the weather, Zwiegers is quite happy with her decision to head to Madison, where everything seems to have snowballed into a great decision.
It's been like swimming with great white sharks -- scary at first, but an exciting and memorable experience.