Sophomore Jeff Echols wins second place in the 200m butterfly final at the 2022 UAA Swimming and Diving Championships on Feb. 12. (Natalie Sandlow/Staff)

Last season, the Emory men’s swimming & diving program won the NCAA Division III National Championship and the women’s team was the runner-up to Kenyon College (Ohio). The program on both the men and women’s side finishes at the top of Division III year in and year out. The men’s team has finished in the top five for 21 consecutive seasons, and the women’s team has finished fourth or better at nationals for 20 straight years. With outstanding performances all around the team last season, the Eagles are looking to use that motivation this season and to continue their strong record this year. All eyes seem to be optimistic that the promising program will continue its success. 

Jon Howell, the Emory swimming & diving head coach, has been the leader of the program since 1998. A highly respected coach at Emory, he is one of the most successful swim coaches in the United States. In 2021, Howell was named one of the 100 greatest swim coaches of the last 100 years by the Collegiate Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA). 

Howell shared how he prepares the team to transition to a new season following the excitement of a championship.

“I think it’s important that they spend some time recognizing what they’ve accomplished and celebrating that,” Howell said. “But, it puts a little bit of a target on them, and so as much as we are proud of what we did last year, there’s always that push to prepare for that the following year. And I think that’s really rewarding and encouraging, but we feel the potential to be successful this year as well.”

Senior Jack Wessell, one of the men’s team captains, echoed this sentiment by suggesting that the team always is eager to work hard and show a sense of humility.

“One of the big reasons why we won the national championship last year is because we really don’t take our space in Division III swimming and diving for granted,” Wessell said. “Last year when we won, all the other teams in the division were gunning for us and we used that as motivation. And also we ultimately have a love for swimming, so it doesn’t really feel like a job. We want to train and we want to do better, so it’s just kind of natural.”

On the women’s side, senior captain Holly Robinson mentioned that becoming the national runner-up in 2022 takes some pressure off of this year’s season but also provides some extra motivation.

“Obviously, for the women’s team, we were runner up last year, which was the first time in 10 years that that has happened,” Robinson said. “So I think it kind of took off some of the pressure going into the season and honestly motivated us to get back to that point.”

Coming into the season, senior Caroline Maki, the other women’s team captain, reflected how this season’s preparations are different and more consistent from last season.

“Here in Atlanta, we trained at their facilities when we weren’t able to train in 2021,” Maki said. “And I know a lot of people were putting in some work at home as well. Everyone always shows up to work just to get in shape before the season actually starts in September. So particularly this year, the motivation was high.”

Emory hosted the blue and gold invitational, an intrasquad tournament, to kick off their season. The following day, Emory played cross-town Georgia Institute of Technology and, despite the loss, put up a great performance against one of the top Division I swimming and diving programs in the country. Most recently, the program hosted the Emory Fall Invitational, and Emory came out on top. Emory will close out the semester with multiple competitions the first weekend of December, with half of the team traveling to Denison University (Ohio) and the other half to Savannah College of Art and Design (Ga.). Nationals do not occur until March.

Since there have been a consistent amount of practices and meets and nationals are a long way off, Wessell and Maki both want to have a concrete focus on one practice and one meet at a time. They believe that practicing hard everyday and performing well in the regular season meets will manifest success later in the season.

Members of the women’s swim and dive team celebrate with their runner-up trophy at the 2022 NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships on March 19. (Courtesy of Sarah Grace Byers)

Howell feels the same way as his captains, as he wants his team to be focused on each practice and each meet. He wants to lead by example and in using his experience, does not want his swimmers and divers to look too far ahead.

“There’s not a lot of thought about nationals at this point because I’m looking at working today to get a little bit better and how we carry that into tomorrow, and next week and focus on what we’re trying to get really well,” Howell said. “We’re excited to be here.”

As one of 34 seniors on one of the largest teams in Emory athletics with around 100 swimmers and divers, being the captain is a huge honor and responsibility. That being said, junior captain Will O’Daffer knows that there are plenty of other leaders on the team that do a great job in motivating the group.

Robinson mentioned the dynamic among the four captains and how they try to collaborate to be the best leaders possible. 

“I think the four of us worked really well together,” Robinson said. “I definitely won’t be able to do this role all by myself, especially with the team that big. Personally I do whatever they need, and also just being on deck every day with everyone. I would not be able to do it without the other three captains.”

Maki says she tries to lead by example outside of the pool deck, and makes sure her teammates can come to her for support.

Howell praised the leadership of the four captains, but again echoed how there are many other students in the program that also act as leaders. 

“Our captains do a wonderful job but just like I can’t do everything myself, they can’t do everything themselves,” Howell said. “They play a role but they’re by no means the only leaders on our team and their seniors are playing wonderful roles. When we have a diverse leadership, we’re so much better than if we’re trying to lead from the top.”

Howell concluded by emphasizing the importance of ensuring that they continue to learn more about themselves in and out of the pool during their experience on the team.

They are very much students of the sport,” Howell said. “But it’s also learning about time management, energy management and leadership. The hope is that it will serve them well beyond Emory.”