The Book That Recounts the 112-Year History of Princeton Swimming, and the Origins of Intercollegiate Swimming

Princeton wasn’t the first American university to field a collegiate swimming team, that honor goes to Penn, but it is one of the few than can boast a 112-year history. And that’s just what Sanford “Sandy” Thatcher, who swam for Princeton in the 1960s, set about celebrating when he first published A History of Princeton Swimming and Diving, including the Story of How Swimming and Diving Came To Be an Intercollegiate Sport for Men and Women in the United States on the occasion of Princeton’s 110 year anniversary celebration in 2014.

After his graduation from Princeton in 1965, Thatcher had remained involved as the long-serving secretary of Friends of Princeton Swimming and Diving. In the 1970s he became interested in the lore of Princeton’s storied swimmers and coaches, about whom he wrote articles for the Friends’ newsletter. On the occasion of Princeton Swimming and Diving’s 100th anniversary, Thatcher (a former editor-in-chief of Princeton University Press and former director of Penn State University Press), gathered the notes he had taken over the years, added scores of new interviews, and published the book through Penn State Press, making it available free of charge to the public. You can download the book here.

The book is a fascinating read, whether or not one has ties to the institution itself. Thatcher begins by describing the formation of the Associated Metropolitan Swimming Clubs of London in February 1869, which formalized swimming as a competitive sport. He then recounts the very early days of intercollegiate swimming in the United States, when meets consisted of “50 yards swim, Fancy Dive, 220 yards swim, 100 yards swim, and the Plunge for Distance.” At that time, the New York Athletic Club was the team to beat in the east, while the Chicago Athletic Club was the west’s top team. Ivy League teams were among the nation’s most competitive in the 1950s and 1960s. “In 1962, for instance, Princeton placed 5th in the NCAA Championship while Yale was 8th and Harvard 13th. In 1963, Yale was 2nd, Princeton tied for 9th, and Harvard 10th. In 1964, Yale was 3rd and Princeton 9th.”

Thatcher spends a good deal of time outlining the development of women’s competitive swimming. One learns, for example, that female swimmers at the 1920 Olympic Games were the “first women to achieve full Olympic status” and that they competed in just three events: “the 100- and 300-meter freestyle races and a 400-meter relay.” Women’s collegiate swimming, along with other sports, got a big boost with the 1971 founding of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Princeton, in particular, had recently gone co-ed, and dedicated resources to developing women’s sports. Notably the university hired Merrily Dean Baker as women’s athletic director; she turned out to be a strong supporter of the women’s swimming and diving program.

The book delves specifically into the history of Princeton’s men’s and women’s teams and their coaches. Thatcher has gathered reflections from athletes and coaches that stretch, remarkably, from 1906 to the present. He quotes a member of the class of 1954 who says, “Swimmers today may not know that the team back in those days practiced in the nude all the time.” He includes Olympians (such as Jed Graef, Ross Wales, Dan Veatch, Nelson Diebel, Juan Valdivieso, Doug Lennox II, Brian Tay, Cathy Corcione, Sangeeta Puri, and Carwai Seto) and American record-holders (Charlie Campbell, the men’s 200 medley relays of 1989 -Mike Ross, Rich Korhammer, Ty Nelson, and Rob Musslewhite- and 1990 -Ross, Leroy Kim, Nelson, and Erik Osborn- as well as Corcione), and provides hyperlinks to many race videos.

Thatcher ends with sections on facilities, traditions, notable S&D alumni (such as diver Alan Routh, who was a member of the original Navy SEAL Team ONE), family traditions (marriages, siblings, and multi-generational families), and post-Princeton successes (such as masters swimmers and coaches).

Thatcher told SwimSwam:

  • This is likely the fullest and longest history ever written of any non-major college sport. (Books have of course been written about college basketball and football programs.)
  • Being online, it is easy to keep up to date–and I plan to issue a new edition every other year, whereas printed sports histories inevitably go out of date and are not often, if ever, updated.
  • Its being online also makes it possible to include hotlinks to many other web sources including videos and supplementary articles, so it is really a multimedia document.
  • It is unique in covering not just the history of the sport as a college activity but the history of what alumni have done in pursuing their interest in swimming and other water-related sports over their lifetimes not just as participants but also as coaches, administrators, doctors, businessmen, artists, soldiers, etc. Needless to say, these extra dimensions make swimming much different from other sports like basketball and football, which except for the pro leagues offer little opportunity for participation beyond college and, in any event, usually end as active pursuits when people get into their 40s.
  • Besides its special focus on Princeton, the history seeks to provide a wider context for understanding the development of the sport, for both men and women, by reviewing highlights of the growth of intercollegiate swimming as an organized sport and the special hurdles that women had to overcome in establishing their place in the sport.

A History of Princeton Swimming and Diving (2nd edn.)pdf

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Sandy Thatcher
5 years ago

Thanks for the great review, Anne! Just one caveat: the book was not published by Penn State Press, but self-published through the Penn State library’s “open access” institutional repository. It’s not the kind of book the Press would publish.

5 years ago

Google Fancy Dive–this is what you get…no worries…link is safe for all ages…

The Weez
5 years ago

Can I get some more cowbell? Fire it up!
Waiting to read this history. I wonder if it discusses the annual naming of the Turd?

Steve Nolan
5 years ago

Gonna definitely add this to the list!

But first, gonna Ctrl + F that thing for “Fancy Dive” because that has to be the best event ever contested.

Reply to  Steve Nolan
5 years ago

How about plunge for distance? Is that depth or distance?

Sandy Thatcher
Reply to  BaldingEagle
5 years ago

Distance. The event is still swum at Princeton alumni swim meets every year.

About Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant is the mother of four daughters, all of whom swam in college. With an undergraduate degree from Princeton (where she was an all-Ivy tennis player) and an MBA from INSEAD, she worked for many years in the financial industry, both in France and the U.S. Anne is currently …

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