Swimming and Diving finished their season Sunday, competing in the Midwest Conference Championships at Grinnell where the women placed eighth of nine and the men placed ninth of nine.
The women dropped to eighth, in part due to one of their top competitors, junior Madeline Bruce, falling ill with Norovirus the second night of the Championships.
Despite such low rankings, Head Swim Coach Jonathan Powers and his swimmers are pleased with the progress made this past season, individually and as a unit. With restricted facilities available to them, expectations may vary compared to other conference teams.
“Having a four-lane pool, there are no expectations that Knox will win the Conference Championship in swimming,” Powers said. “In fact, if Knox were to win the Conference Championship in swimming there’d be eight other swim coaches in the Midwest Conference who would probably lose their job that next day.”
With certain competitive pressures lifted, swimmers are allowed to work at their own pace. Powers continually emphasizes the idea that swimming is an individual sport.
The men and women’s teams train together in two separate practice slots determined by each swimmer’s schedule. Beginning each day with an identical warm-up allows for swimmers to assess their bodies and abilities regularly. Powers has recently begun adding race pace drills to practice in which swimmers must hit their goal time for each lap, using repetition for results.
“[Freshman] Halle Gerash dropped an incredible amount of time,” Powers said. “We had three consecutive meets one week after another, where in the 500 freestyle she dropped over five seconds each time she swum the event in consecutive weeks.”
The large freshman class has proven to be a huge asset to the team’s success this season, with many young swimmers shaving off seconds from their races multiple times over the course of the term.
Powers is in a unique situation as a tenured professor of economics at Knox as well as both the men and women’s head swimming coach. Being tenured, there is less pressure to produce a high success rate each year, as his job is not on the line. This lenience, matched with his knowledge of Knox academics, gives Powers insight into his athlete’s workload. He stresses that his swimmers are students first and athletes second.
This translates into more relaxed and productive practices, as everyone present is ready and willing to work; those bogged down with academics are allowed to miss practice whenever they need to, enforcing Power’s belief in the student-athlete.
Some may argue that this lenience to attend practice is what holds the team back from improving individual and team scores. While Powers acknowledges a more assertive and rigorous practice schedule may produce faster teams, he also pokes fun at the fact that his team would be significantly smaller. Sophomore Harry Carpenter agrees, pointing to other programs as examples.
“If J Pow [Powers] pushes his swimmers when they’re not feeling like it, then it causes dropouts to occur,” Carpenter said. “That connects to Track and Field, because the coach there pushes his runners very hard to give 100 percent, no matter how they’re feeling, and last season many runners dropped out. With swimming our numbers stay the same.”
A mutual respect between Powers and his team is what makes his coaching style successful. Giving his teams space and the capacity to choose to practice as hard or as often as they are able makes his swimmers want to work hard for him. Many players view Powers as a father figure on campus, all referring to him by his given nickname, J Pow.
“He does a fantastic job of being playful, fun and showing that he cares about us while still maintaining authority as a coach,” junior Megan Binkley said. “What he inspires people to do just with how understanding he is, and the fact that he doesn’t require you to give your all to this sport, but give what you can, makes you want to give more.”
Powers’ relationship with his swimmers is something not many coaches have. Staying in contact with those who have graduated and even being invited to multiple weddings shows the impact he has left on his swimmers, impacts he makes through his actions, like the ones he displayed this weekend for a sick swimmer.
“Jonathan treated me like I was his own daughter when I fell ill this weekend,” Bruce said. “Between patting my back as I waited in considerable pain in the ER, to watching over me as my color came back as I could finally start drinking water in the procedure room, to finding me a blanket in the hotel room and saying ‘Well, only if you want it or need it,’ I don’t think I could ever fully express my gratitude to Jonathan Powers.”
Powers’ compassion and understanding combined with his knowledge of the sport and training techniques help in looking forward to next season. Watching the freshmen class in particular grow and improve while the upperclassmen hope to set aside more time for their sport, Knox can anticipate an even more profitable season next year.