By Andrew Tomsky/NAU Media Relations
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – For the last three years, four swimmers from the southern hemisphere have rewritten the record books nearly 8,000 miles away in a snowy mountain town. The four non-Americans were all CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-Americans last year and together have been a part of 10 school records as they have led the NAU swimming & diving team to new heights.
For senior Fi Connell and junior Jordan Burnes from Australia and juniors Emma Lowther and Rachel Palmer from New Zealand, the three years that they have spent together come to a climax this week when they will compete together for the last time Wednesday through Saturday at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Swimming & Diving Championships in San Antonio, Texas.
"My feelings are kind of all over the place right now," said Connell, who ventured to NAU on her own in 2009 before her three mates from down under joined the program the following year. "I'm happy that I've had the opportunity to spend four years here but at the same time it's sad that it's ending. I'm excited because it's finally our chance to show what we've got at the end of the season."
The only other international member of the team during Connell's freshman year was Canadian Chalene Dirks-Ryan, who had a shorter distance to travel to get to NAU than other American teammates from Hawaii and Alaska. While Connell was able to make the adjustment and perform exceptionally well as a freshman, winning WAC titles in both the 100 and 200 backstroke, she was thrilled when Burnes, Lowther, and Palmer joined her for the 2010-11 season.
"I look back to freshman year and think that I adjusted really well considering that there weren't any other internationals from my area of the world, but they made it easier," Connell said. "When you're having a hard day you can talk to them and they know exactly what you are going through as far as distance and being away from family and everything."
Burnes and Connell had known each other since their early teens, and knowing that her country mate had made the successful venture to Northern Arizona gave Burnes the confidence to join her.
"I'd competed against Fi for multiple years," Burnes said. "We raced each other at country and state meets since we were 13 or 14. Knowing Fi was here helped me make the decision the most because I knew that I would have someone to relate with and talk to, kind of like family."
"I heard that Emma and Rachel were coming from New Zealand," continued Burnes, "but I didn't know them so I wasn't expecting to get such a good friendship as we've had."
There is an implicit rivalry between the two neighboring countries, especially in athletics. In sports such as rugby, cricket, and netball, the countries clash for supremacy and bragging rights, but when the two pairs got together at NAU it was their common bond that prevailed.
"There's a rivalry between Australia and New Zealand when were against each other but we will usually always back each other if we're against someone else," Palmer said.
"We more banded together rather than competed," Lowther said. "I think we have more of a companionship just because we all have the same background and we know where we all came from."
Palmer and Lowther lived just five minutes apart in the neighboring New Zealand areas of Auckland and Manukau and swam for the same club team growing up, having established a strong friendship before they came together to NAU.
"We kind of downplayed it a little bit," Lowther said. "We didn't want Andy to know that we were best friends at home. I was still talking to three schools and when Rachel texted me that she signed I called Andy and said 'I'll do it!'"
Burnes, Palmer, and Lowther joined Connell as All-WAC honorees during their freshmen and sophomore seasons, and last year the trio combined to record 11 NCAA 'B' standard times and they were each named CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-Americans, earning the honor together for the first time.
Connell (backstroke), Burnes (breaststroke), Palmer (butterfly), and Lowther (freestyle) have been among the best at their strokes in the conference over the last three years and hold individual program records in each of those events. The four swam together to break the program record in the 400 medley relay at the WAC Championships last year, a memory that sticks out among a plethora of accomplishments for each swimmer.
"I remember standing there before the race and a girl from New Mexico that's Australian said 'they should be disqualified, they're all from the southern hemisphere!'" Lowther said. "That gave us some pride as we were representing NAU but also our home countries. It is a memory we will always have together."
Seeing their names peppered among the NAU record book and displayed inside Wall Aquatic Center helps remind the four of their successes and will serve as a memory of their superb collegiate careers.
"It's great to look up there every day and see your name and think 'I wouldn't mind seeing it in a few more spots,'" Palmer said." It's awesome to know that you're leaving something behind that other people will come in and see. If the New Zealand team comes and trains here again they can see our names up there and that is pretty cool for us."
The American college experience as a whole has been more exciting and rewarding than any of them ever expected.
"I don't think anything can really prepare you for this experience," reflected Connell. "Our countries don't have college swimming and we don't look up to college swimmers unless you know someone that's come over. It's more of a trend now but when I first signed I didn't know anyone else that did."
"The team atmosphere is so much better than I ever anticipated," Burnes said. "Everyone being behind you and having so much support from academics, coaches, and staff has been incredible."
The next step, and the singular goal, for the group and their teammates is to win a conference title. After placing second at the WAC Championships last year, the four are confident that their last time competing together will help bring their team a title.
"We've got so much depth this year compared to where we were before," Palmer said." I think this is definitely our year."
Burnes, Palmer and Lowther will return for their senior seasons next year, but things won't quite be the same without Connell completing the quartet.
"She was the person that I spoke to before I came here," Lowther said. "I feel like I've known her for four years rather than the three years I've been here. I signed in the fall and she was my only contact so it's going to be weird without her."
With their time together dwindling, the four from down under have left an indelible mark on the NAU swimming & diving program while creating lifelong friendships. They came to NAU without having seen the campus and without any family closer than a full day's worth of travel away, but they had each other.
"These friendships you can't make in any other setting; going through training we just get so close because you know everyone is going through it," Lowther said. "I think any time there's a rugby game between Australia and New Zealand I'll be messaging these two. This group will always stay in contact because of everything we've gone through together."