Go North, Young Women

BORED with those endless sunny days in California, Florida, Hawaii or Arizona? Had it with white, sandy beaches and warm, inviting ocean waters? Need more options than simply walking, biking or driving to practice.

Are you an adventurous young woman, cut from a different cloth than most of your teammates?

Then perhaps you should consider swimming in Alaska – specifically, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Located only 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, it boasts the northernmost collegiate swim team in the country. That has its advantages: it is, after all, the only college swim team where you can walk, drive, ski or mush a team of dogs to practice.

College Swimming Returns to Alaska

Yes, college swimming has once again returned to Fairbanks, Alaska, and everyone involved believes that the third time will be the charm. The first collegiate swim team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), formed in the late 1960s, was an NAIA mixed men’s and women’s swim team. Since high school swimming didn’t exist in the state at the time, UAF swimmers were all from out of state. During the mid-80s, a second go around produced an NCAA Division II mixed team that ended up showcasing three of Alaska’s best high school swimmers. Both programs had significant success, producing nine All-American swimmers between them and, in 1987, the fastest Division II freshman in the nation.

Unfortunately, due to departmental budget constraints caused by economic downturns in the state’s economy, both programs were dropped within five years of their inception. With the worldwide price of oil consistently above $50 a barrel and the state’s “rainy day” account (called the Alaska Permanent Fund) currently valued at over $33 billion – that’s no misprint — the swimming community hopes budgetary concerns won’t adversely affect swimming at UAF ever again.

UAF started its current NCAA Division II women’s program a year ago partly in response to NCAA promptings – a tenth sport was needed for the department to retain its Division II status – and partly to comply with Title IX requirements. Even though the Fairbanks campus has only slightly more women than men, the financial resources devoted to fielding the men’s sports, especially a competitive Division I hockey team, required the addition of a women’s sport with at least eight scholarships. Though other women’s sports were considered, the quality and the depth of club and high school swimming in the state convinced university administrators that swimming held the greatest potential for long term success at the collegiate level.

The new team is proving those administrators right by getting off to a fine start; Nanook swimmers finished 11th out of 15 schools in their first Conference Championships. UAF is a member of the Pacific College Swim Coaches Conference, a loosely affiliated group of NAIA and NCAA Division I, II and III teams from Alaska, Washington, California, Colorado, Florida and Texas. This year, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) won the conference championship. Membership in the PCSC should easily provide UAF swimmers with the high caliber of competition necessary to bring the Nanooks back to the national stage.

As with many first year programs, half the team were freshmen and half came from an open tryout held during the first week of school. Though young and inexperienced, Nanook swimmers broke UAF school records nearly 100 times during the season. Then last month, swimming in a conference championship dominated by strong Division I and nationally ranked Division II and III teams, UAF swimmers qualified for several championship finals as well as a number of consolation and bonus consolation finals. With most of the team returning for another year, two of the fastest high school seniors in Alaska already signed and the probability of another three or four fast swimmers signing from Oregon and Washington, UAF will be even stronger next year.

The head coach of the new program, Scott Lemley, was a Nanook swimmer in the early 1970s and the architect of the Division II program reinstated in the 1980s. Last year Lemley was hired to build this new program and was given three full scholarships with which to start the recruiting effort. Three more scholarships were added to the total this year and he’s been promised an NCAA maximum of 8.1 scholarships when recruiting begins for the 2007-2008 season. A Fairbanks’ high school coach for 20 years, Lemley knows swimmers from the Far North are easily fast enough to fill at least half the available spots on Alaska’s only collegiate swim team. The real question is, do enough Alaskan swimmers want to stay in-state and help build a successful Division II program?

Enticing Swimmers North

Imagine you’re an 18 year old living in Fairbanks or Nome or Anchorage. You’ve endured eighteen long, cold, dark winters. You watch The OC on TV and the Internet is your backyard. You’ve swum in big meets in Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Fresno and Concord. Where do you dream of going to college as soon as you graduate from high school? Probably some place hot and sunny! It’s not surprising many Alaskan high school seniors have visions of white sandy beaches in their future, not more ice and snow.

To entice both Alaskans and swimmers from the rainy Pacific Northwest to commit to attending a college where temperatures can plummet to -40˚ F. in the winter, a great deal of importance will be placed on the creation of a competition schedule which includes regular visits to Southern California. Fortunately two of the best Division II women’s swim teams in the country are in San Diego and Bakersfield. Lemley notes: “Taking twelve swimmers and two coaches on the road four times this season was expensive. The travel budget alone this year was in the mid-five figures and with the cost of airfare rising by the month, next year’s travel budget will exceed that.”

Last October the team traveled to Stockton, California, to swim in the UOP Invitational. Lemley recalls the trip: “Afternoon temperatures hit 85˚ F. that weekend. On the way back to Alaska the girls spent an afternoon in San Francisco sightseeing. Most of the team had never been to San Francisco before and it was a rare cloudless day in the Bay Area. The perfect end to a perfect day came when the team was able to spend an hour shopping at Ghirardelli Square for chocolates to bring home to friends and family.”

A month later, the Nanooks flew into LAX to compete in the Speedo Cup, one of the premier early season college invitationals in the country. The team spent one afternoon between prelims and finals basking in mid-80 degree weather as they watched episodes of CSI Miami being filmed in front of the pool.

During the holiday break, team Alaska reconvened in Los Angeles for seven days of intensive training. Temperatures were unseasonably warm in L.A. that week. UAF swimmers didn’t seem to mind.

Finally, last month Nanook swimmers flew to Long Beach to compete in the PCSC Conference Championships. The weather was gorgeous. Not surprisingly, UAF swam well. There’s just something about the feel of the sun on your skin that creates a positive atmosphere among team members who go to school 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

It only seems right that this group of adventuresome student-athletes who maintain a B+ team GPA, commit to swimming 20 hours a week and endure some of the coldest, darkest winters found anywhere in the world, can look forward to swim meets on the West Coast where they can gain back a little color in their skin.

Community and Campus Support

The success of this new program is very important to the Fairbanks swimming community. Last fall over 150 supporters showed up to watch the Nanooks’ First Annual Blue-Gold Meet. It was standing room only in the balcony overlooking the pool as the new team demonstrated their skills for a crowd that hadn’t seen competitive swimming on campus in eighteen years.

Early in the season a booster club was formed by a member of the earliest Nanook swim team. The Fairbanks swimming community responded to his calls and emails by quickly donating in excess of $10,000. Between the funds provided by the Athletic Department and the booster club, teammates were provided with everything they needed for the year including a brand new locker room, racing suits and practice suits, goggles, caps, a small swim bag for carrying training gear and a larger wheeled travel bag for road trips, two pairs of sweats – bright blue lycra sweats to wear when traveling and a pair of heavy duty cotton sweats to wear on deck — zoomers, center mounted snorkels, Tempo Trainers, a Vasa trainer and a Power Rack, mirrors for the bottom of the pool, an underwater speaker on which swimmers can either listen to music or through which the coach can make stroke corrections and a state of the art underwater video taping system. In short, no effort has been spared in providing this group of pioneering young women with the equipment and support they need to bring back a tradition of swimming excellence at UAF.

Lemley notes that UAF’s Chancellor Steve Jones and his wife, Judy, have taken a personal interest in the team, inviting the members to their home for dinner early in the semester. It’s even common for team members to be stopped while walking across campus and complimented on how many school records they’ve broken this year.

Though there are obvious differences between swimming at UAF and swimming on any other college swim team, there are also similarities. Says Coach Lemley: “Early morning practices are mandatory, grade checks occur regularly throughout the year, weight lifting is optional though highly ‘recommended’ and the food service on campus serves its version of mystery meat probably just as often as any other campus food service.”

At a time when college swim teams are disappearing from the scene, it’s refreshing to see a new program being created, especially one that’s not being brought forth simply to pay lip service to NCAA and Title IX requirements, but is being fully supported by a university administration and members of the local swimming community. Lemley says the attitude is: “if you want a program to succeed, you start by fully funding it and then support it unconditionally.”

The most famous sled dog race in the world, The Iditarod, has just concluded in Alaska. Known as the Last Great Race, this year over 80 mushers braved 1100 miles of extreme terrain to recreate the effort made in 1925 to bring serum to the town of Nome, which was being threatened with a diphtheria epidemic. Fourth across the finish line was DeeDee Jonrowe, one of 16 women to run the race this year. Alaska is known as a state which attracts women who are as strong-willed as the men who inhabit the Far North. Coach Lemley is depending on this as he works the phone describing his program to interested high school seniors looking for an adventure. As anyone walking by his office can tell you, he’s often overheard on the phone repeating the state motto in his recruiting efforts: “North to the Future!”

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