Sunday, September 6, 2009


Division III (a.k.a. "D3") swimming is a breed unto itself. For those not familiar with this term, it refers to a particular category of U.S. universities under the umbrella of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or “NCAA” to those in the know… “NCs” if you want make it sound like you’re a college sports veteran.)

Anyway, the NCAA is divided into three divisions: Division I schools tend to be larger universities and, as long as they have the money (an increasingly shaky assumption), they can give out sports scholarships. Division II schools tend to be smaller public universities and they also can give out sports scholarship money, though not as much.

Division III is what I call the “Chariots of Fire” division: Its founding philosophy derives from ye not-so-olde days when sport was viewed as a lovely part of a well-rounded lifestyle for which monetary compensation was viewed with disdain (like in the movie “Chariots of Fire”). Where a student-athlete spent his or her day developing a research project to restructure a small East Asian nation’s debt load, completing a vigorous workout in the pool while discussing Emily Dickinson’s mid-career poetry between sets with the other sprinters, and then dining with local dignitaries on oysters, terrapin soup and roast duckling, whilst using the correct utensils.

There also used to be a requirement that coaches of Division III teams had to be academic professors. That died out a couple of decades ago, though there are a few genuine professor/coaches left, including Mr. Coach.

Division III as originally designed was a lovely sepia-toned vision of "mens sana in corpore sano” (that’s Latin for “a sound mind in a sound body”). But “D3” has pretty much gone Technicolor and High-Definition now in its pursuit of “citius, altius, fortius” (that’s Olympic Latin for “swifter, higher, stronger”). Consequently we’re left with a division that is peppered with programs where athlete-students don’t have the time to do anything other than eat, sleep, swim and attend a few classes.

But not all of them are like this. There are still a few Division III programs where you get an intriguing mix of overachievers who are determined to cram everything into their days they possibly can…and then some. About this time of the year is when Mr. Coach finds himself having many, many discussions about time management with his young charges.

“Do you think I can take four science labs this semester, Coach?” one will ask him as they sit in his office.

“Only if your goal is to have a nervous breakdown by Halloween,” Mr. Coach will reply.

“But only one of them overlaps with practice on Wednesdays.”

“Even if you weren’t swimming, you wouldn’t take four labs in one semester,” Mr. Coach points out. “If you do, then I have to notify Counseling Services.”

“OK,” the student-athlete will pause and reconsider. “How about three labs, one Habitat for Humanity house-building project on Sunday afternoons, and the first bassoon seat in the university orchestra?”

That’s when Mr. Coach reaches for the can of wasabi peas in his top drawer. It’s not easy, but somebody has to coach these kids.

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