'Fight for it'

Jan. 17, 2018

By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

In the countdown to his first practice leading George Washington swimming and diving, James Winchester literally bounced with anticipation on the pool deck.

At the precise moment the clock finally hit 3 p.m., the new head coach enthusiastically directed his Colonials into the water.

For Abigail Fusco, that September 2015 workout – with its punctual kickoff and palpable energy – offered an early sign that she was going to like working with Winchester.

“Just seeing his effort right from the start, that’s when I knew,” Fusco said. “I was like, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing. He’s got our backs, and if we have his, we’re going to be successful.’”

Fusco nearly transferred after a disappointing freshman season. Instead, the Connecticut native opted to stick around, and she has made the most of her fresh start with the Colonials under Winchester.

It’s been a good match: Fusco credits her coach for unlocking her potential and fueling her development into one of the Atlantic 10’s top sprinters, while Winchester praises the senior captain for buying in early and helping set the foundation for his vision for the program.

Heading into Saturday’s Senior Day meet against Old Dominion, Fusco’s impact on the program in its recent rise – both as a swimmer and a leader – is evident.

“Abbey’s someone who really trusts the process of what we’re doing here,” Winchester said. “She really loves and appreciates her teammates. She loves the sport. She’s passionate about where the program’s been going and is going. She’s just been phenomenal for us.”

Back in the spring of 2015, Fusco wasn't sure of her future. She’d started the process of getting her release to seek a transfer and was essentially one form away from getting it when Winchester was hired that April.

Fusco had heard the new coach impressed in his interviews by detailing a program built on a family atmosphere and dedicated work ethic, values that caught her attention.

Looking back, she’s glad she didn’t follow through with that final signature.

“Honestly,” Fusco said, “I call it fate.”

Over the past three years, Fusco has been at the center of Winchester’s efforts to transform the Colonials.

Now, cheers echo out of the Charles E. Smith Center Pool at every practice. Winchester wants the Colonials to support each other on during workouts, celebrating grueling sets with meet-level enthusiasm.

Listen closely enough, and Fusco’s voice often cuts through the din. Her favorite phrase in those spots is naturally borrowed from Winchester’s coaching vocabulary: “Fight for it!”

“I think that’s what makes the difference from where we were and what we’ve become,” Fusco said. “Just having that culture of being a family. I want my teammates to do just as good as I do, and I know that I can’t do my best unless they do, too.”

Morgan Birdy appreciated that mindset before her GW debut back in October. As the freshman waited for her first swim at the season-opening FIU Invitational, Fusco found her and delivered a quick pep talk that calmed her nerves amid the chaos.

There have been countless moments like that in her adjustment to college in which it’s helped to have a captain eager to help.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from her is to have confidence about your races,” Birdy said “Behind the blocks, any time you look at her she just looks determined and ready to go. That kind of inspires the whole team to be confident in our racing, no matter who we’re up against.”

Fusco's confidence is backed up by the work she puts in.

Although she’s a sprinter, she trains with the middle distance group, believing the extra mileage builds endurance that can pay dividends in lengthy meets. She adds in solo lifting sessions to make sure she doesn’t sacrifice the power and speed needed in events that are often decided by fractions of a second.

That attitude has an impact on everybody around the program, Winchester said.

“She’s on every day,” Winchester said. “With someone that’s so passionate, you’ve got to have your A-game every day. If I’m anything less than my best as a coach, then I’m not putting her in the best position to get everything out of her gifts and her talents.”

The results have followed for Fusco and the Colonials.

The men’s team jumped from seventh at the A-10 Championship in 2015 to fifth in 2016 before celebrating its first title last February, while the women have improved from 11th to sixth in the conference standings in that three-year span and rewritten the program’s record book.

Fusco has done her part, showing improvement with every season. The senior is the program record holder in the 100-yard backstroke (55.29 seconds) and currently ranks in the all-time Top 10 in three other individual events. She’s also had a hand in four record-breaking relays.

After three individual fourth-place finishes at last season’s A-10 meet, she’s set her sights on getting to the medal stand this time around.

“I was happy with how much time I dropped (last year), but at the same time, I need to break that barrier,” Fusco said. “I never want to settle. I always want to keep pushing forward.”

So far, Fusco seems to be on the right track. She’s consistently been about a second faster in most of her events compared to the same point last season.

Winchester has been quick to remind her of that season-ending goal whenever possible. All he has to do is flash four fingers to make his point.

Fusco has come to depend on that kind of motivation. She's glad to have found a coach that will keep challenging her and grateful for his guidance ever since that memorable no-time-to-waste start.

“I tell him all the time he’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to my college experience,” Fusco said. “It’s been three of the best years of my life. Not even just in-the-pool success with times and stuff but also having that sense of family. What he’s done for our culture and this team is something I can never thank him enough for.”



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