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By David Rieder.
All divisions of the NCAA swimming championships are filled with foreign-born athletes, but there’s only one school in the entire NCAA that’s actually located in another country: Simon Fraser University.
SFU is 32,000-student institution in Vancouver, British Columbia—less than an hour’s drive from the U.S. border but very much in Canada. Its student body and its swim team are both predominantly composed of Canadians. But all along, the school has been a little bit different.
From its onset, the school has competed in American athletic leagues, beginning with the NAIA. The logic, back in the 1960s, was simple—if SFU was going to compete in the Canadian league, its teams could face crosstown rival University of British Columbia but would have to fly across the Rocky Mountains for any other competition.
The other option would be to compete in the United States, where the teams could travel to any destination in Washington state and to Portland, Ore., within six hours on a bus. SFU’s early leaders chose option B and joined the NAIA.
Liam Donnelly had grown up in Vancouver, just off the SFU campus, but when he joined the swim coaching staff in 1991, he had some questions.
“What is this NAIA? What does it mean to compete in yards and be the only Canadian team?”
Almost immediately, Donnelly was sold on the combination of Canadian academics and American athletics. He was promoted to head coach in 1992, and his teams were welcomed at U.S. competitions. In recruiting swimmers to the school, he explained that SFU offered a traditional Canadian education as well as the American college swimming experience that many Canadians left the country to seek.
“There’s 15 to 20 really good universities and swimming programs in Canada. But we’re kind of unique in that we’re the only one that has the Canadian education that maybe they’re looking for to go on to law school or medical school or a career in Canada, yet we get that American experience athletically,” Donnelly said. “It’s definitely a draw.”
After more than 15 years in the NAIA, the school made the move to the NCAA after many of its geographical rivals, including Puget Sound and Central Washington, initiated the same tradition, leaving SFU without many of its old rivals to compete against in team sports.
So on July 10, 2009, the school was announced as the first non-U.S. member of the NCAA. Its teams would compete in Division II as a part of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, but since that conference did not offer swimming, Donnelly’s teams joined the Pacific Coast Swim Conference, consisting of teams from Divisions I, III and III, as well as the NAIA.
Upon arriving at SFU, most new swimmers and coaches are totally unfamiliar with one aspect of the program: the course in which they compete. SFU has a 25-meter pool on campus, but all away competitions are in 25-yard pools. Before college, most of the swimmers have no “best times” in short course yards.
“It’s great because it takes the emphasis away from best times,” Donnelly said. “You’re always focused on ‘What’s my time?’ You go from meet to meet, and you’re always comparing yourself to your previous times or maybe your future goal times. We move away from that because they don’t know what the times mean as much.”
Even to the coach. After more than a decade and a half at the school, his biggest struggle with the meters-to-yards transition is doing math in his head to “try to equate it back to what you do on a daily basis.” But as for coaching yards, Donnelly has found that to be almost equivalent to coaching short course meters.
“From a technical perspective, there’s a higher percentage of wall work into your swims,” he said. “But if you’re a fast yards swimmer, you really should be a fast meters swimmer. The difference is so minute.”
Beginning with the 2011-2012 season, Simon Fraser could compete as a full-fledged member of NCAA Division II, and that year the team swam at its first national championship. Since then, the women’s team has finished as high as eighth nationally and the men tenth.
In 2016, freshman distance swimmer Mackenzie Hamill became the team’s first-ever national champion, topping the field in the 1650 free with his time of 15:19.73.
Just as when the team was welcomed into the NAIA, SFU’s swimmers have been fully accepted at the NCAA level. Donnelly noted that Drury, now a national powerhouse in Division II, had only transitioned from the NAIA about a decade before SFU, so coming to the national championships now and seeing the Panthers at the top of the team standings is quite familiar.
These days, Donnelly considers Seattle University the team’s main rival, even if the Redhawks are a Division I program. The two schools meet for dual meets twice most seasons, typically once on each campus.
And finally, the swimmers travel to the national championships each year wearing Scottish Kilts. Why? Because it’s a team tradition dating back to the late 1960s and the school’s first swim coach, the late Paul Savage.
An unusual tradition, yes, but it’s a tradition just like any other NCAA swim team might have. The school might be located in Canada, but it’s team is not so different from any other.