Sweet Briar Vixens Seizing Second Chance

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Photo Courtesy: Mary McDevitt

By Cathleen Pruden, Swimming World College Intern

When the Sweet Briar College Vixens dove into the pool on Monday, Sept. 14 it was for a practice that had seemed improbable the previous spring.

On March 2, 2015 the team had their end of season meeting, reflecting on their year and already refocusing on the one to come. Then, just hours later on March 3, the 114-year-old women’s college announced that it would be closing its doors at the end of the academic year, due to financial challenges, among other reasons.

Every Sweet Briar Vixen has vivid memories of the day the announcement was made. Coach Donna Hodgert, a class of 1989 alumna, was initially in shock, but quickly switched gears to focus on her swimmers and help them understand what this meant for their futures as student-athletes.

Mary McDevitt, a member of the class of 2017, “couldn’t believe [her] family of team members and professors was getting split up.” While now senior Caroline Shepard was immediately overcome with grief, she was able to lean on her teammates. They became her biggest resource, and continued to be a support network as they all navigated the transfer process together.

A Future Without Their Family

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Photo Courtesy: Mary McDevitt

As this team and the close-knit Sweet Briar community was being torn apart, alumnae were mounting a fight to save the school. With no guarantee of the outcome, everyone began making new plans for their futures.

When looking at her options, McDevitt decided she “wasn’t going to swim with another team that wasn’t [her] family.” Sweet Briar meant so much to her, swimming elsewhere simply was not an option for the current junior.

Initially, Shepard’s reaction was similar: “At first, I gave up on the idea of swimming. I hated the idea of swimming anywhere besides here. I didn’t plan on swimming after high school. But when I joined Sweet Swim, I fell in love with the sport again and gained a family in the process.” Eventually, Shepard chose Randolph-Macon College where she planned to swim for her senior year.

Coach in Limbo

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Photo Courtesy: Donna Hodgert

The months following the school’s closing were even more difficult for the head of the Vixen swimming program. For Hodgert and the rest of the faculty and staff on campus, the school’s closure not only meant the loss of a community, but the unexpected loss of a job. In the midst of supporting her swimmers, Hodgert considered her own future.

She had only been in the position at Sweet Briar for eight months. Her first season had not been an easy one. “I had [challenges] with getting the athletes to buy into my philosophy. I was doubting if I was the right coach for the program,” she explained.

Hodgert got excited about her new opportunities and worked with a co-ed team for three months. She enjoyed the new position, until she “was faced with one of the toughest decisions of [her] life” when after an intense legal battle Sweet Briar announced, at the end of June that it would reopen.

Hodgert explained that, “Ultimately, making the decision to return to SBC totally changed my approach to the team.” Returning to her team for the second year, she is more confident and excited. This journey has changed her, and she believes, better prepares her to move forward. “I feel now my team is ready to give me everything they have and I want to be at the top of my game this season,” she added.

Small Team, Big Fight

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Photo Courtesy: Mary McDevitt

Last season, Sweet Briar had 20 swimmers. This year they have a roster of eleven. Nine of the 17 eligible student-athletes chose to return to the school and two first years were added.

Coach Hodgert recognizes that winning dual meets will be a challenge with a small squad. “We have to commit to staying healthy and training harder because we don’t have that one person who is going to win three individual events plus contribute to a relay victory. We will earn our dual meet wins with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes so everyone will have to contribute,“ she explained.

In addition to the loss of student-athletes who chose not to return to Sweet Briar amid the uncertainty, on March 3, all recruiting efforts ceased. At that time, Hodgert stopped building her database of high school swimmers, so her recruiting efforts are now about a year behind. But, continuing the fighting Vixen spirit that established itself this summer, she is hopeful, stating that “our story is intriguing and people are now more interested in Sweet Briar.” The recruits she is working with now are confident in the school’s future.

This Season

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Photo Courtesy: Mary McDevitt

With a reshaped squad, comes “a breath of fresh air.” Hodgert believes that “each athlete is a little more thankful for what they have.”

Shepard echoes this sentiment, stating that she and her teammates are, “just grateful to be back and we’re not going to waste this opportunity.” The senior values the school’s achievement stating, “it’s my last year and I have been given the chance to complete my swimming career at SBC, so I’m going to make the most of it.”

“The goal for my team this year is for them to feel pride in their program. We want people to see us as a challenge to compete against not just a token meet on their schedule. We proved this past summer that Vixens are fighters and hopefully we can surprise a few people out there this year,” explained Coach Hodgert.

Her athletes are ready to rise to the challenge. For Shepard, “The goal is to strengthen our team in and outside the pool. We’re determined to not let the closing affect us and to continue to grow. Sweet Swim’s goal is the same as it always was: be awesome.”

Follow their awesome journey this year on Twitter @SweetSwimming.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Deb

    Go Vixens! Its all new again…..