Jack Kelleher (22C) was only two years old when he started to swim. His mother, nervous about Kelleher drowning in the ocean, started his lessons at a young age. But the precautionary measures soon transformed into a passion for swimming.
“I lived in New Zealand, and my parents were scared that if I did not know how to swim, I would drown in the ocean,” Kelleher said. “So I began to learn how to swim when I was really young.”
Now a sophomore on Emory’s swimming and diving team, Kelleher competes in individual medley events.
Kelleher’s hometown of Auckland, New Zealand lies over 8,000 miles away. He knew from a young age that he wanted to come to the U.S. for college, and that competing at the collegiate level would require him to narrow down his sport of choice. At the time, he was an avid participant in basketball, rugby and swimming. He was 14 when he decided to pursue swimming, in which he displayed the most skill. It was one of the toughest decisions of his life, because he enjoyed playing all three sports, but he has not regretted it since.
In 2015, Kelleher was selected to compete on the New Zealand Junior National team, an experience he enjoyed and took pride in as a national representative. As Kelleher approached graduation from Rosmini College, his high school, he faced another tough decision of selecting an undergraduate institution.
College swimming works differently in New Zealand than in the U.S. in that only club teams exist. To compete on a varsity-style team, Kelleher knew he would have to swim in the U.S. For this reason, he never gave much thought to the many offers he received to swim at schools in New Zealand. In the end, Emory was the best fit.
“Emory provided the best balance between great academics and a really good swimming community,” Kelleher said.
Transitioning from New Zealand to the U.S. was easier than he expected. The team welcomed Kelleher with open arms and made him feel at home from the moment he stepped on campus. In a team of upwards of 70 people, he was able to find his fit.
Kelleher’s experience as a New Zealand swimmer differs little from those of his teammates who grew up in the U.S. One visible difference, he noted, is that swimming is treated as much more of a team sport in the U.S. than in New Zealand.
“Even though I’m swimming and do a sport that’s extremely individualized in terms of racing, I love that we also see ourselves as this big team and big family,” Kelleher said. “In New Zealand, it’s all individualized and the whole focus here is contributing to the team, whether it be in the pool, good friend or good mentor.”
The Auburn University (Ala.) Invitational, which took place Feb. 7-9, was Kelleher’s best moment on the team so far. Though only half of the team swam at the meet, every teammate drove out on the final day to support the competitors.
“That really fueled me and made it a special experience, to spend that with all my friends whether they were actually swimming at the meet or not,” Kelleher said.
At the Auburn meet, Kelleher qualified in three separate events for the NCAA Men’s Division III Swimming and Diving Championships. He recorded times of 1:51.28 in the 200-yard individual medley, 3:55.95 in the 400 individual medley and 2:02.40 in the 200 breaststroke.
He was also named University Athletic Association (UAA) Athlete of the Week for the week of Feb. 10 because of his qualification for nationals. Kelleher said he is “happy and honored for recognition” and hopes to keep up his results for the remainder of the year.
Swimming and diving Head Coach Jon Howell commented on Kelleher’s positive energy and contributions to the team.
“He’s somebody who’s the complete package,” Howell said. “He has a great work ethic, incredible attitude, and is supportive of the people around him. He’s somebody that adds a lot of value and is fun to be around on a daily basis.”
Emory’s swimming and diving teams train 20 to 24 hours a week. “The grind,” as Kelleher calls it, presents challenges such as balancing academics, athletics and social life. However, Kelleher has allocated the right amount of time to enjoy swimming while not overdoing it.
Kellen Stillman (21B), one of Kelleher’s teammates on the Emory swimming and diving team, says that Kelleher’s intensity and hard work make him not only a great swimmer but also a great person.
“As much as Jack contributes in the pool, he is also just a great guy to be around,” Stillman said. “He keeps everyone laughing and motivated in practice, and I am lucky to have a teammate like him.”
On Feb. 13, the Eagles went to the University of Chicago for the UAA Championships, for which Kelleher failed to qualify due to his times.
“He took in stride not making the conference team, and he made nationals,” Howell said. “It was a nice breakthrough performance from him.”
The Eagles competed exclusively against Division I schools at Auburn, which meant that they faced a much higher level of competition than at the Division III level. Kelleher saw this as an opportunity to prepare for nationals, where he will swim against some of Division III’s best.
“We want to be swimming against the best people so when we get to nationals we are ready to swim against the best in Division III,” said Kelleher.
Kelleher will compete at the NCAA Men’s Division III Swimming and Diving Championships in Greensboro, N.C., from March 18-21.