The Profound Difference

Auburn coach knows very well the difference between first and second.

It's a moment relatively few college athletes ever get to experience.

It's that moment when you know, when everyone knows, it's over. It's that moment when you know you have done it, that all the hard work, all the sacrifices, all the parties you couldn't attend, all of it was worth it.

You have won a national championship.

It doesn't matter if you are a Miami football player, a Duke basketball player, an Arkansas sprinter, an LSU baseball player, a Florida soccer player or an Auburn swimmer. It doesn't matter if the crowd is numbered in 10s of thousands or in hundreds. What matters is that the ultimate goal has been reached, that a team of individuals came together to accomplish something great.

And that's just what Auburn's women's swimming team did last weekend in Austin, Texas. They reached the pinnacle of their sport. For the rest of their days, they will have that delicious night when they ruled their world.

The Auburn swimmers receive their national championship trophy on Saturday night in Austin, Tex.

No other Auburn women's team ever won a national championship, though the golf team is ranked No. 1 and could win another one a couple of months from now. Back in Auburn, Joe Ciampi must have felt a little twinge. He took Auburn's women's basketball team to the NCAA championship three straight times from 1988-90, only to be denied three times. The women who won Auburn's championship were in elementary school then, probably just starting to swim in youth leagues. But they should stop and, at least for a moment, thank Ciampi for showing the way. It was Ciampi who proved that women's athletics could work at Auburn, could compete at the nation's highest level.

That's not lost on swim coach David Marsh, who has also coached two men's national championships. "Joe was the coach I wanted to be like when I came here," Marsh said. "I mirrored some of his style."

Marsh can appreciate, too, how painful it must have been to come so close and not take the final step. It's the goal of taking that final step that keeps Ciampi energized to this day. "Having been first, then second, the profound difference between first and second is unreal," Marsh said. "It's kind of sad, really. First vs. second is like a win vs. lose situation."

There is something special and pure about women's athletics. Ciampi realized that long ago and rejected numerous opportunities to move to the men's game, even once as Auburn's head coach. That was driven home to Marsh as he and Auburn's swimmers took to the pool in Austin to celebrate their championship. He has had the unique opportunity to win championships with men and women.

"It's a whole lot more fun winning with the women," Marsh said. "I say that because the women want everybody involved. They want the coaches involved. They are much more free with emotions and more willing to hand you part of it. On the men's side, it's almost the opposite. It turns internal and becomes testosterone-oriented. This was an absolute treat."

The women who won Auburn's championship shied away from personal credit. Even spectacular Maggie Bowen, who shattered her own American record in the 200-yard individual medley and won two individual championships, wanted to talk about the team. "I think we've grown to care about each other so much as people," Bowen said. "We've seen what we go through every day and that we go through it together. We respect that. I think there is a lot of respect and a lot of caring and we want to swim fast for the rest of the team. That's really nice to see. It doesn't happen everywhere."

It happened at Auburn. That's why they'll wear championship rings, why they'll celebrate next Monday at Toomer's Corner.

What Marsh has done as Auburn's swim coach is nothing short of remarkable. Auburn has won four national championships in its history. He has three of them. But it's not the winning, not even the championships, Marsh says, that makes it special.

"I guess you'd hear this from a lot of different coaches who have been part of championships," Marsh said. "You figure out quickly that it's not about winning titles. It's about helping young people accomplish things that, without your involvement in their lives, they wouldn't reach. Through the process of being stretched as an athlete, the hope is that they would translate this into their lives and carry the lessons they learn with them."

At the beginning of every school year, Marsh reads the Auburn Creed to his swimmers and asks that they live by it. "I believe these women have lived by the Creed," Marsh said. "And they have gained their reward."

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