BSN Sports Swim Team of the Week: Emory University Eagles

Soaring from their eyrie in Atlanta, GA, the Emory University Eagles have established themselves as one of preeminent teams in NCAA Division III swimming.

Since head coach Jon Howell took over the program in 1998, the Eagles have been perennially top-five finishers at the D3 championships, and the women have won 10-straight titles, as well as 12 overall. The men’s team added a championship of their own in 2017, helped largely by breaststroker Andrew Wilson, who has gone to become a member of the USA National Team and has represented the USA at major international meets, making him arguably one of the most successful D3 swimmers of all-time.

BSN Sports Team Ambassador Jessica Hardy spoke with Howell to get some insight into how he’s helped Emory become such a powerhouse over the past two decades.

One of the things that’s immediately clear is that Howell focuses on a collaborative approach to help athletes’ achieve their full potential both in and out of the pool.

My philosophy centers around creating an atmosphere of collaboration that empowers each individual to explore their potential.  Emory Swimming and Diving is a development-based program, with a focus on identifying what each individual needs to move forward in this sport and to thrive in this incredible academic environment.  This is a collaborative process for us, rather than me telling them what they need to do.  I am surrounded by bright and motivated student-athletes who are committed getting better.  As a coach, I am always working with each individual to help them explore what is possible.

According to Howell, that athlete-centered approach is reflected in a strong team chemistry that can take a number of different forms.

Our swimmers and divers genuinely care about each other, and the culture is one where everyone is helping each other be better.  It is very common a swimmer to stay after practice to help a teammate work on turns, or for an upperclassmen to tutor a freshmen in a class that they have had in the past.  Our team is constantly learning from each other, and we believe that  lifting up a fellow teammate makes us all better.  The team also makes this experience fun.  Our team is at their best when they are having fun.  FUN=FAST is a core principle behind the success of our team culture.

One of the things that’s made Emory successful is how the coaching staff works to emphasize leadership, not just from the seniors, but from swimmers at all levels.

I really expect and encourage our student-athletes to lead through all four years in our program.  We need leadership at all levels to be at our best, not just at the senior level.  I want our freshmen to lead, and we empower them to do so.  We set up opportunities for our student-athletes to communicate with each other, and to collaborate.  We deliberately work to build these skills during their four years on our team.  By the time they leave our program, I feel they are set up to be successful leaders outside of our environment.   The success of our alumni certainly supports the work that we do with them on campus.

NCAA Division III competition is distinctive in that it really allows student-athletes to help keep the focus on academics. But when you have a university that’s as selective as Emory, it can present the coaching staff with a unique set of challenges.

Our team is made up of over-achievers.  They are very cerebral, driven, and have very high expectations for themselves.  This trait is great in the classroom, but it can get in the way of performing at their best in the pool.  We have found that the best way for our student-athletes to overcome this challenge is the team.  Working towards something that is bigger than themselves is fun, and supporting their teammates distracts them from some of the anxiety that comes with individual performance.  Again, when our team is having fun they tend to be swimming fast.

Despite the obstacles, Howell seems to have figured out the secret to keeping it fun and fast for the Eagles, and that’s been obvious in the results at the NCAA level. Unsurprisingly, Howell’s favorite coaching memory had to do with the NCAA championships.

I think it was when our men won the NCAA National Championships a couple of years ago.  There were so many generations of student-athletes who worked hard to lay a foundation for that success.  It was a team effort that extended so far beyond the group of men competing at that meet.  It was a special moment for our program.

With committed student-athletes and a coaching staff that understands how to help students balance the academic and athletic demands of competing a top-notch school, the Emory Eagles should continue to be a force in D3 swimming for years to come.

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