Our Stories

Not Just Jocks: Swimmers Are Role Models Outside the Pool

The Willamette University men's and women's swimming teams include seven seniors who are providing leadership not only in the pool, but also in the classroom. As squad members prepared for individual events and relay races this season, they were inspired by the seniors, whose guidance extended beyond fast-paced heats, rapid flip-turns and personal-best times to include academic success.

"Because there are so many seniors, they are a huge part of our team," says Willamette Head Coach Al Stephenson. "The different roles and capabilities they have shown -- mentoring, handling their homework, leadership qualities -- exemplify the whole team."

In the pool, the team has three senior captains -- Greg Henselman '08, Shannon Gima '08 and Brittany Thiemens '08 -- who provided the motivation and teamwork that helped nearly every swimmer achieve career bests this season. "The seniors have set the bar as far as what the expectations are," Stephenson says. "They understand my thinking process better than the freshmen or sophomores."

What makes the teams' seniors even more special is their commitment to success beyond their sport. The senior swimmers include three student-athletes who have studied abroad, plus three others who plan to attend graduate school. "They have shown the capacity to understand time management, realizing they may not reach their full potential as athletes, but understanding the importance of an education to the rest of their lives," Stephenson says.

As juniors, Lindsay Mumm '08, Bridget Sutherland '08 and Chelsea Hollingsworth '08 each spent one semester studying abroad. Mumm went to Nicaragua through a program with the School for International Training. She studied Spanish and Nicaraguan history and culture in the classroom and conducted interviews with youngsters to learn about their political and community awareness. "It was incredible," Mumm says. "I'm much more self-confident now. I was able to connect with people, even though I came from a different mindset."

Mumm will travel to Chile in March 2009 to participate in a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship program. She will learn in a university setting and will coordinate community service projects involving Rotary Clubs in Chile. (To read more about her scholarship, go to http://blog.willamette.edu/stories/archives/2007/09/expanding_world.php.)

Hollingsworth also lauded the advantages of meeting new people from different cultures. She was a resident student at the University of Western Australia, where she immersed herself in the local culture and traveled to various scenic and historical locations. She didn't meet only Australians at the university -- the school also included students from Africa and the Far East. "We had large classes, so we had to find our own motivation, which was different from what I was accustomed to in my smaller classes at Willamette," Hollingsworth says.

Henselman, Thiemens and Pete Kahn '08 all plan to attend graduate school after they leave Willamette. Henselman is majoring in classical studies and mathematics, Thiemens is completing a major in exercise science, and Kahn is majoring in physics and Spanish.

Kahn interned last summer at Oregon Graduate Institute in Portland and hopes to head there to work on a doctorate in environmental science and engineering. With his physics major, he faced tough challenges balancing his frequent science labs with his swimming practices. Even so, he's managed to maintain his academic standing while competing. "I have to create a schedule and stick to it," he says. "I try to get all of my homework done right after practice so I don't have to stay up late and I can be ready to practice the next day."

Thiemens also acknowledged the importance of time management. "Our coach told all of us since our freshman year that we're here for academics. It just takes enough willpower to make sacrifices in order to do well in your classes. We have someone in almost every major on the swim team. So, if you're having trouble, it's like having your own private tutor."

Henselman was one of just two Willamette students selected as a Willamette Presidential Scholar last spring. He received a $2,500 academic scholarship to assist with a summer research project: "Extending the Diagnostic Applications of Graph Representations." He also received an additional scholarship to cover tuition for one semester or to help with graduate school expenses.

Henselman's research involved the study of polygons, figures that can range from a simple square to a complicated shape with hundreds of sides. Henselman sought appropriate mathematical approaches to determine the characteristics of shapes created by connecting the sides of polygons with even-numbered sides (2, 4, 6, etc.). Although his research was complicated and time-consuming, Henselman says the experience was valuable and left him with an even greater interest in mathematics.

"When you do first-hand research, you encounter all of the problems that undergraduates typically don't deal with," he says. "A big part of the project was coming up with the right language to convey what I was talking about."

Thiemens says she plans to work toward an advanced degree in physical therapy. She has already advanced to the interview stage with one graduate program and is waiting to hear back from another. "I hope to be starting this fall," she says. "My only regret is that we can't have our athlete eligibility start over. I would love to swim again."