Two years ago, Kara Fisher learned that her dad was terminally ill.
She learned something else: At Whitworth, you never swim alone.
Swimming at Whitworth may be the most successful intercollegiate sports program in the Northwest: The Pirates men have won 84 Northwest Conference dual meets in a row, plus nine straight titles; the women have won 41 straight duals.
That didn’t mean a lot to Fisher when she heard about her father back in Wenatchee; her college career hung in the balance. “I was 19 and I didn’t know how to handle that.
“I needed an outlet, something to channel all of the hardship and emotions I was going though,” said Fisher.
She learned about Relay for Life, a national organization that could help raise money for tests on her dad’s illness – if only she could raise her voice and seek help.
“I finally worked up the courage to tell my teammates,” said Fisher, who didn’t know what to expect.
That spring, her dad, Anthony, came over to watch as the fish figuratively jumped out of the water and put on running shoes, just for him.
The entire team ran laps, and later celebrated with the Fishers over dinner.
“That day,” Fisher recalls, “I truly felt like I wasn’t alone.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the Whitworth Aquatics Center is all business. Head coach Steve Schadt, stopwatch in hand, supervises a handful of swimmers in the first of two afternoon practice sessions.
The Northwest Championships are this weekend in Federal Way. Another win for the men would be their 10th straight. “That would be a nice round number,” says Schadt, in his ninth year in charge.
The rest of the team arrives before 3. Two practice pools aren’t enough for the school’s 43 swimmers, so they go in shifts according to class schedules. Counting morning practices that begin at 5:15, that’s 20 hours a week in the pool.
In the men’s locker room just before the second session, two athletes are talking about something urgent … like reminding a teammate to read the next two chapters for science.
That’s typical, says Schadt, a Whitworth swimmer in the 1990s, who worked as an assistant at Cal Berkeley before comng home. His assistants, Gary and Whitney Kessie, also swam for the Pirates.
“The kids are very hard working and disciplined. That’s part of the attraction of coaching here,” Schadt says.
And the winning, of course, and Schadt wants more. Whitworth isn’t exactly a big fish in a small pond – it’s a top-20 program – but still chasing Eastern powers such as Kenyon, Denison and Emory.
“You always want to take it to another level,” says Schadt. “You want to break into the top 10, then you want to win a national title.”
Schadt’s team finished 15th last year at nationals. Eleven different men have scored at the NCAA Division III championships since 1999. Nine of them earned All-America honors.
Schadt will be the first to admit that he inherited a winning tradition from his former coach, Tom Dodd, now at Cal Lutheran. “He had the snowball rolling already,” Schadt says.
Which brings up the question: how do you roll the recruits to snowy Spokane?
Winning helps, and so does the Whitworth facility, one of the best in the Northwest. That extends to recruiting, which isn’t quite the sharks-in-the-water affair of Division I. “We try to just keep it positive and tell recruits why they should come to Whitworth,” says Schadt.
“Still, it’s a numbers game, and if you work hard enough at it and you have something to hang your hat on – and we do – you can get your share.”
Sometimes it takes more than that though, says Schadt.
“I believe that God has blessed this program,” he says.
“Almost every year, when kids are going to graduate, and you wonder, who is going to take their place? And magically, they are coming, the right person at the right time.”
For the last four years, Rory Buck has been that person at Whitworth. A South Africa native who visited Whitworth almost by chance, Buck is the reigning Division III Swimmer of the Year, won a national title in the 100-meter breaststroke and set a national record in the 200 breast.
This summer, Buck will swim in the Olympics for South Africa, a dream that was derailed by a serious groin injury in 2006.
At a crossroads in and out of the pool, Buck was visiting relatives in the Northwest in 2008 when he heard about Whitworth, its swim program as well as its strong academics in kinesiology and business management.
“The way I landed here, it was meant to be,” said Buck. “My family is on the other side of the world, so these pople are like my second family. They know the stories and they’ve got your back.”
Buck could have landed at a Division I program, and while he acknowledges that all swimmers love the sport for its own sake, “There’s something special about swimming with people who may not have the top physical skills, but who really love the sport and who will do it for free.”
Melissa Barringer, a junior from Conrad, Mont., has been a swimmer since age 9. After high school, she was ready to swim for free, but there was the small matter of getting an education. And a sense of family.
“My visit I instantly had that family feeling; they included me in all their activities,” says Barringer. “Now being an upperclassman, I try and do the same thing.”
For Schadt, that means never having to worry about a kid forgetting to hit his alarm; the other swimmers will make sure they’re out of bed.
For Barringer, it’s knowing that swimming is a team sport, even if it’s an individual race.
“If you don’t have people cheering you on and supporting you in the races,” says Barringer, “then I think it becomes more of an individual sport. We make it more of a team sport.”
Kara Fisher is now a senior, and her collegiate career will soon yield to a career in education.
This week, at the conference championship meet in Federal Way, she’s hoping to crack the top eight in the mile.
Her dad is slowly dying, but he will be there to cheer her on. So will her mother, Kay. And dozens of teammates.
She won’t be swimming alone. For the last four years, she never has.