The Yale women’s swimming and diving team’s Ivy League championship victory on Saturday marked the Elis’ contemporary arrival into the premiere ranks of the Ancient Eight.
The Bulldogs’ 19-year hiatus from the top spot was largely characterized by a myriad of third- and fourth-place finishes, as Harvard and Princeton dominated the field. In the last five years, however, the Elis have ascended quickly. While talent is an obvious prerequisite to success, the Bulldogs point to culture as their X-factor.
Prior to the hire of head swimming coach Jim Henry in 2012, the Bulldogs were not able to get back to the pinnacle of the podium, where they stood following an Ivy League win in 1997. Not only did first place elude the Elis, they also failed to finish better than third in the Ivy League standings during that stretch.
Moreover, the championships that the Bulldogs did capture in the mid-1990s were in a different era of Ivy League swimming — one in which the Ivy League champion was determined simply by regular-season record. After the league transitioned to a postseason championship meet in 1997–98, Yale saw diminished success and subsequently diminished expectations — that is, until Henry arrived in New Haven.
“It was definitely a huge change when Jim came in,” Joan Weaver ’13 said. “I was captain my senior year, so I was involved in the hiring process. The second I met Jim I knew he had to be our new coach. In years past, Harvard and Princeton were always one and two in the Ivy League, so our expectation became to beat Columbia and get third. Jim came in and said … we can win this, and he immediately set the bar high.”
These expectations were accompanied by a keen attention to detail and a team-oriented approach that was passed along from Yale teams of the last five years to this one.
“Coach Jim Henry has built a team that is supportive, dedicated to the details, confident and hardworking,” said Eva Fabian ’16, a four-year All-Ivy selection for the Elis. “He has built a culture of success by focusing on each day as an opportunity to improve as a team, athletes and as students. I couldn’t be more proud of the success of the program.”
Following Henry’s first season in which the team finished fourth, the team’s expectations and culture quickly translated into success. This season, the first in which all four classes of swimmers were recruited by Henry, ended in the elusive Ivy League championship, a feat that is not surprising, alumni said.
Weaver said that after her senior year, she desperately wanted to swim four more years with Henry, believing the team would likely capture an Ivy title in the near future.
Mirroring the alumni, Henry’s current team frequently points to culture when asked about their successes. The aforementioned messages have become contagious and reverberated throughout the entire squad.
Tangible evidence of the importance of a team’s culture was prominent throughout this season in the Elis’ relays. Relays, the only events in which swimmers actually perform together, were a particular strong point for Yale throughout the entire year, and the Bulldogs’ selfless mentality allowed them to capture first-place finishes in each of the five relay events at the Ivy League championships.
Accountability was one of the major focuses this season, as Yale looked to avenge its defeat at the hands of the Crimson last season. The act of holding each other accountable was a cognizant daily interaction that took place between Yale teammates, according to Kina Zhou ’17.
“[It] is different for each individual on the team,” Zhou said. “Some people ask other teammates to hold them accountable to going to practice every day during captain’s practices when they aren’t mandatory yet. Something that I have asked my teammates to hold me accountable for is nutrition and trying to eat healthy during the season.”
Outside of actual practice and meets, Henry and other members of the coaching staff, including assistant coach Kerry Smith and head diving coach Chris Bergere, have also cultivated a program emphasizing academics. A collegiate swimmer and coach at Texas — a perennial national championship contender — Henry has adjusted to the academic inclinations of the Ivy League in an effort to make his athletes more comfortable.
With this in mind, classes have been placed on a level playing field with practice, and morning practices have been added for those who cannot make the afternoon time slot. In addition, yearly activities such as fall retreats and holiday dinners have become established traditions, creating an informal family atmosphere that is attractive to the team.
“Since we don’t have swimming scholarships, we get a lot of swimmers that value both academics and swimming,” Zhou said. “[Jim] still prioritizes swimming, but not at the cost of academics. For example, instead of organizing our class schedule around swimming, we organize our swim schedule around classes.”
As the members of the class of 2017 reflect on their Ivy League victory, the swimmers are reminded of the college recruiting process and Henry’s vision for the program.
According to Olivia Jameson ’17, the fact that every senior has recorded a career-best time at some point during their four years is a testament to Henry’s coaching prowess. She fondly recalls Henry’s confidence in Yale swimming and diving early in his tenure.
“When I was recruited during Jim’s first year, he definitely mentioned the goal of winning an Ivy championship before my class graduated, and I loved that he had big goals for the program,” Jameson said. “Ultimately, I trusted that Jim’s experience swimming and coaching at Texas would help me succeed, and when I met the team on my recruiting trip, I knew Yale was the place for me.”
Though the team will feel the loss of its senior class, the future looks bright for the Bulldogs. Next year, Yale will return Ivy League championship meet High Point swimmers Bella Hindley ’19 and Cailley Silbert ’18, prominent point scorer Destiny Nelson ’19 and others.
The Bulldogs’ talented roster, combined with Henry’s emphasis on team culture, renders them a series threat to hold the top spot again in 2018.