The ripple effect of Wheaton swimming

To honor the beginning of the 2018-2019 Thunder swim season, (84’) alumnus Mitch Wallin writes about his experience during his time as a swimmer on the Thunder Men’s team.

“I have fond memories of my years at Wheaton in the early 1980s as a member of the swim team. We were a unique sports team on campus. Our intense comradery and willingness to perform well was instilled by our coach Jon Lederhouse. His endless energy, commitment and desire for excellence was always apparent in his words and actions.

The assistant coaches for the team had similar attitude and coaching philosophies. As team members, we were passionate about our faith and swimming. We shared our stories of God’s regenerative work in our lives and prayed for each other. The swim team regularly won conference titles and many athletes on our team competed in the NCAA national meet.

The new swimming complex on campus was finished during my sophomore year, which provided a pristine venue for the swim program. Workouts were more focused and intense. They would move to two workouts per day during the core winter season. The 3K set, as it was then called, was something designed mid-year to help meet our final goals. With this set, we had a challenging time goal to meet and if successful we would be rewarded with team accolades and a 3K jersey. Morning workouts were accompanied by frozen hair during the cold Chicago winters. Even without coffee, the swim team was always alert and ready to learn during morning classes.

During the 1980s it was important to shave down the body and head to improve speed at the end of the winter season. Swimmers today use high tech suits and caps to do the same thing much more efficiently. These end of the season meets provided an opportune time for the swim team to create ‘spirit-filled’ study breaks in the library. Near or during Wheaton finals week, we’d pick a few high-level swimmers and perform our annual headshave fest with clippers and several cheers for the team on the library’s main floor. The bald heads and chlorine-bleached frozen hair were a badge of honor on campus.

Due to the many hours the swim team spent together in and out of the pool, we had a unique bond. This perhaps explained our odd dress, musical interests, haircuts and love for practical jokes. We brought our own creativity to the Wheaton campus and some argued that we pushed the limits of Christian behavior. One event we had fun participating in was the spring swim team parade. This would coincide with the Men’s Glee Club parade. While the Men’s Glee Club would have colorful banners, floats and a bright red fire engine, our parade would follow close behind with our end of season swim banners, old cars and a garbage truck. The Glee club threw out candy and the swim team threw out carrots and radishes. The swim team’s relationship with the Glee club was solidified when a swimmer joined this excellent choral group.

During the first half of my freshman year at Wheaton, I went through a challenging experience. I learned during the fall that my father had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. After a surgery and some brief medical therapy, my father died from this tumor three months later. While this was a difficult time for me and my family, my swim team friends and coaches gathered around me and were a major source of mental and spiritual support. Additionally, it was the swimming workouts and meets that allowed me to work through some of the emotions and questions I had after losing my father at a young age.

After graduating from Wheaton, I went on to medical school and trained to be an adult neurologist. My experiences while at Wheaton were instrumental in choosing my career path. Many of the lessons I learned while a swimmer remains part of my daily life. These include setting goals, maintaining a disciplined schedule, learning to lose and win and supporting team members in their faith journey and career. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Wheaton swim program and give my thanks to the coaching staff and my team mates! Athletics are a great way to learn life’s lessons.

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