Alex Righi ’09 probably could have gone to any school in the country. The freshman standout was named National High School Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World Magazine and was likely to earn a scholarship to any Division I swimming program. He chose Yale.
But while Righi decided on Yale, many of the best high school swimmers looking at the Ivy League have found a home at either Harvard or Princeton over the last several years. Recruiting success has transformed the Crimson and the Tigers from merely top contenders to perennial swimming powerhouses. Why Yale lags behind is still up for debate.
Yale swimming once dominated the league. Robert Kiphuth, head coach of the men’s team from 1917 to 1959, posted an incredible career 528-12 record with the Elis, the best record of any college coach in any sport. Ever. Yale went on two incredible winning streaks in the last century, 163 straight dual meets between 1924 and 1937 and 201 between 1940 and 1961. And the Bulldog men were the first team in the country to reach 1,000 wins. Current head coach Frank Keefe’s Yale record is nothing to sneeze at either (382-179).
But something has changed. The women’s team has not won a league championship since 1978, and the men had their last conference title in 1972.
Something tangible did change in 1978. That year saw the inauguration of Harvard’s Blodgett Pool facility, a nine-lane Olympic-sized 50-meter pool, which can also be configured as 14 25-yard lanes, the standard for collegiate competition.
A newer pool does not automatically translate into faster race times, but it cannot be a coincidence that a Harvard men’s team that had never won a championship in at least the previous 17 seasons went on to win the first eight championships after training and swimming a full season in its new facility.
Instrumental in helping reel in championship victories, better facilities also attract stronger recruits. Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool is only 16 years old and rates among the best venues in the country, Alex Goldsmith ’08 said. Within years of the pool’s opening, the Tiger women reeled off a three-year streak and then a five-year reign as Ivy Champions.
Yale’s Kiphuth Exhibition Pool is innovative as well, boasting a 157-foot wide ceiling unsupported by columns. Innovative, that is, for 1932, when the pool was built. Some swimmers said the state of the pool could contribute to the hard time Yale has had in its recruiting process in recent years.
“Personally, I think it’s the pool,” former Yale swimmer Thomas Lopez ’05 said. “Kiphuth Pool was state of the art in the ’30s up to the ’60s. It’s old and crowded now.”
Yale’s pool supports six competition lanes, not enough to host league championships, which require eight lanes. Even more dangerous to the health of the team, both literally and for the championships, is Yale’s woeful practice pool. Air quality in the third-floor facility is bad enough to make swimmers cough, Lopez said, and Keefe has had to cancel some practices because of the problem. Conditions are so bad that some swimmers have even coughed up blood during practices, Goldsmith said.
Keefe himself said some recruits are turned off by the age of Yale’s facilities.
Lopez said the training pool’s deficiencies impact recruiting indirectly too. Yale’s “terrible” training pool has kept the Bulldogs squarely behind Harvard for more than a decade, he said, hurting the team’s status in potential recruits’ eyes.
“Once there’s a tradition, people in high school see that,” Lopez said.
The facilities’ effects hold true on the women’s side too, Katie French ’09 said. But she said other considerations come into play as well when recruits choose Harvard over Yale, including name recognition, seemingly an odd basis for choosing between two schools that rank among the most well-known in the nation.
“Yale’s obviously a big name,” she said. “But I know some people chose Harvard just because of the name factor.”
The difference in reputation is more pronounced the farther you get from the East Coast, Righi said. He said few Ivy League schools recruit on the West Coast, but Harvard can fall back on its more well-known pedigree.
But Yale’s lofty academic reputation can help it overcome its aquatic deficiencies, some swimmers said. Generally, the best high school swimmers choose stronger conferences than the Ivy League. Often, it is not Harvard or Yale’s prowess in the pool that attracts recruits, but rather the schools’ reputations for academic excellence.
Megan Bailey ’06, originally from Nevada, said she was not planning to look at any East Coast schools. But when Yale sent her a letter of interest, the University’s academic strength interested her enough to send in an application.
Bailey’s experience, however, may not be shared by the fastest swimmers. She said Harvard and Princeton tend to seek out the best swimmers more than Yale does. Yale generally waits for swimmers to contact it, Bailey said. Keefe echoed Bailey.
“I don’t think you sell the school,” Keefe said. “I don’t think the kids are sellable — they’re intelligent.”
Moira McCloskey ’07 said Harvard has begun to break from the Ancient Eight pack on recruiting, searching for the best swimmers while the rest of the league seems to “hang back.”
Even without overtly soliciting new recruits, and with the requirement that any potential recruit send in a transcript the summer before his or her senior year of high school, Yale swimming still lists about 650 to 700 high school swimmers in its database for each class, Keefe said. He pares this list down to 150 names based on recruits’ potential to be admitted to Yale, using his past recruiting experiences as a guide. Only then are cuts based on swimming ability, bringing the group down to 65 to 70.
Further decisions are made, Keefe said, based on the team’s needs and the level of interest a recruit has in coming to Yale. By the end of the process, Keefe can name 10 men and 10 women as recruits, though additional swimmers can join the teams as walk-ons.
But where Yale looks to fill out holes in its roster, Righi said Princeton tries to snag as many strong swimmers as possible, giving them the depth they rely on to perform so well in competition. Harvard College Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis said the Harvard coaches can endorse as many recruits as they want, though they tend to not be excessive when doing so.
While the Harvard and Princeton men’s coaches refused to discuss the recruiting process, some swimmers described it as more intense at Yale’s rival schools.
“I felt a little too pressured to commit early [to Princeton] while Yale was like ‘Take your time, it’s your four years,'” McCloskey said. “I was being asked [by Princeton] to basically commit even before my recruiting trip.”
Although Keefe has been the women’s swimming coach for 25 years and the men’s coach for even longer, all his experience is outweighed for some female recruits by one inescapable fact: his gender. Caroline Dowd ’08 said some women, though not all, are more comfortable with a female coach — such as Stephanie Morawski of Harvard or Susan Teeter of Princeton.
“I think for a lot of swimmers it matters,” Dowd said. “I always grew up with a male coach and liked that a lot. It was one of the reasons I was more attracted to coming to Yale.”
Team members said they think the academic standards are higher at Yale than Harvard or Princeton, and are only getting more stringent.
“What I’ve come to notice is that our standards here for getting swimmers in are tough,” McCloskey said. “We have to pull a lot more strings than Harvard and Princeton might. And by doing that we hurt the number of swimmers we can get.”
She said SAT scores of swimmers in the class of 2009 are 50 to 100 points higher than those in her class. Yale’s more academically-focused recruiting seems to pays off once swimmers reach college. Yale’s teams have GPAs that hover around 3.4, Keefe said, while Princeton women earned only a 3.08 on average and the men a 3.3 in 2004, according to the College Swim Coaches of America.
When it comes down to it, Harvard, Princeton and Yale may just be looking for different swimmers.
“Frank goes more for the student-athletes,” Tyler Scheid ’09 said. “They go for the athlete-students.”