Stony Brook to Induct Swimming Pioneer Leah Fiorentino (Holland) to Athletics Hall of Fame

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ross

Stony Brook to Induct Swimming Pioneer Leah Fiorentino (Holland) to Athletics Hall of Fame

Stony Brook University will induct swimmer Leah Fiorentino (nee Holland) to its Athletics Hall of Fame this year. Fiorentino’s aquatics accomplishments are all the more impressive given that she did it as a member of the men’s team, predating Stony Brook starting women’s swimming.

Fiorentino graduated from Stony Brook in 1976, three years before the formation of a women’s team. She beat a field of men to win the 1,000-meter freestyle at the 1973 Metropolitan Intercollegiate Swimming Association Championships and, with three men, was part of a school record 800 free relay in 1974.

Fiorentino spoke to Stony Brook Matters, the school’s alumni magazine, regarding her pending enshrinement. She swam and worked camps coached by the legendary Doc Counsilman at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania during the summers. When she looked into the possibility of swimming in college, Counsilman advised her to reach out to Stony Brook.

“When I came home for winter break my senior year, I called the athletics department at Stony Brook and spoke with coach Hank von Mechow, who was filling in for (Ken) Lee and invited me to campus to discuss the swim team,” Fiorentino said. “Afterward, he walked me to the admissions office and told them I was an excellent swimmer and that he wanted me on his team. He asked if it would be possible for them to enroll me in spring semester classes, and by chance, it was. And in January, I started classes and team practices.”

Fiorentino also played field hockey at Stony Brook. She found the conditions, before Title IX was put into effect nationwide, uniquely balanced between the genders but similarly gritty for both. She said she, “quickly became everyone’s little sister” and remains close with teammates nearly 50 years later. She shared memories about the field hockey team having to set up goals and bleachers before games, but also recalled that the football team did the same. (Ironically, the Seawolves only have women’s swimming now: The men’s team was never brought back after both teams were put on hiatus in 2012 during protracted pool renovations. The women’s team was reinstated in 2017.)

Locker room accommodations at swim meets were occasionally dodgy, but Fiorentino made it through.

“There were some places where I had to literally get dressed in the janitor’s closet, but others had accommodations for me,” she said. “When meetings had to be held in the men’s locker room, they would have to drape a towel over my head and walk me through to the team area. But those were pre-meet things. As far as actual competitions, most people knew I was swimming for the men’s team since it was all regional back then, so there were no surprises when I arrived. I never felt real animosity toward me — just friendly competition toward wanting to beat Stony Brook.”

Being the only woman in the pool has prepped her for post-graduate experiences. Fiorentino received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and elementary education from Stony Brook. She went on to earn her master’s and doctorate of education at Columbia’s Teachers College. She spent 14 years at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, including four as the dean of its School of Education, and since 2014 has served as the executive director of the National Collegiate Equestrian Association.

The parallels between her trailblazing in the pool and her fight for college equestrian seem pretty clear.

“I was a first-generation college student in the ’70s, when many women did not attend college,” she said. “But when I went to Stony Brook, I had everything my male teammates had. And today, my commitment to equestrian is to ensure these women receive the opportunities they deserve. But there is more work to be done. Many universities have club teams for women, but women would have many more opportunities if those teams were elevated to varsity.”

Leah Fiorentino will be inducted with seven other athletes on Oct. 21. Read her full interview with Stony Brook Matters here.

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