Memories of Katrina as Sport Bonds Swimmers Following Sandy’s Savagery

To help those affected by Hurricane Sandy, you can text Red Cross to 90999 to make a $10 donation. If anyone in the New York City area has opportunities for displaced clubs to train, please drop me an email at [email protected], and we will pass along the information.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, I was a freshman at Texas A&M. Hundreds of thousands of residents along the gulf coast were displaced from their homes.

Many of these displaced residents ended up on our campus. The school’s ROTC program, the Corps of Cadets, ran a relief camp out of our 12,000 seat basketball arena. It was a beautiful demonstration of the human spirit. Among those who ended up on the campus were a few-dozen members of the Tulane women’s swim team (along with their men’s basketball, tennis, volleyball, and women’s soccer teams).

Our campus became their campus. Study lounges were converted into makeshift dormitories; athletics facilities were opened up to the visiting programs, and their competition schedules were listed on jumbotrons around campus alongside those of our Aggies.

What happened that fall made you proud of college athletics. Yes, there were much bigger issues facing the world, and those needs were addressed as well; but for the hundred-or-so athletes and support staff who were able to continue their competition and their studying, it was a staunch reminder among the rivalries and commercial competitiveness about the camaraderie that has made college sports survive for the last 100 years.

These feelings of pride once again welled up last week as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. Though not as deadly as Katrina, the damage from the massive storm will likely surpass it in its dollar value. There, though, sport again conquered tragedy, as we found out from Seton Hall Assistant Athletics Director Dan Velez, as well as Stevens Institute of Technology head coach Brad Thornton.

The two schools are both located in northern New Jersey, which was among the hardest hit areas, and just a few miles from New York City.

Coach Thornton got his swimmers in the water on Monday before the storm hit, but as news spread nationally about the dangers to Hoboken, where Stevens is located, parents began pulling their swimmers off of campus. This was no easy task, given that over 60% of the team is more than a 12-hour drive away. His team of 55 was whittled down to 8 who chose to stay on campus.

“The swimmers that stayed on campus throughout stayed because they wanted to, not because they didn’t have anywhere to go,” Thornton said. “It’s important to put everything in perspective.  Missing 3-4 days of swim practice is nothing compared to what others had to experience during this storm, or what they are experiencing now.  I understand that, and the swimmers do as well.  The safety and well-being of our swimmers and coaching staff are first priority, and we’re not willing to compromise that because I’m obsessed with ‘following the plan’.”

Still, that doesn’t mean that Thornton and his staff weren’t working hard to try to find somewhere for the remaining 8 to train. His first contact on Thursday evening was with Mohamed Abdelaal, the head coach of nearby St. Peter’s. Abdelaal was able to use some connections to get Thornton’s team into a practice in Garfield, New Jersey, about 15 minutes from campus, for Friday.

The next call went to Seton Hall University, a Division I, Big East school, and Dan Velez, their Assistant Athletics Director in charge of facilities. The Pirates were hosting a meet on Saturday, but they welcomed the Stevens team to come by any time on Sunday for a workout, opening their pool (and his own time) up to their neighbors. When Thornton showed up to his own pool on Saturday, he found that the school had hooked a large generator to the Athletics complex, so they were back in action, but Seton Hall played host to several other programs.

“We did host Monmouth Women’s Basketball, Wagner Men’s Basketball, and St. Peter’s Men’s and Women’s Basketball,” Velez said. “We had a request from Steven’s Men’s and Women’s Basketball teams but their power was restored.

“My single goal was to try to help them out anyway I could. I know how frustrated they had to feel due to not having practice space. While there are rivalries in sports, when something like this happens all that needs to be put aside. At the end of the day we all need to work together. I think that coaches in any sport are a tight fraternity and therefore would look to help each other.”

Don Wagner, coach of the New York Sharks, says not all teams are so lucky as to have regained that semblance of normalcy, however. “almost every swim team in the Metro LSC is out of the water…No power, no gas, schools are closed so no swimming and many are displaced. the people who got the worst of it are Staten Island and Long Island. For many of those people, they are out of their homes and some are gone. Every coach has found creative ways to train during this time because they are committed to the athletes and teams.”

As for how the disruption in training was going to affect his team, Thornton took a positive approach: “Very little. I look at it as a short recovery week, and who doesn’t like recovery? A few adjustments need to be made, but overall I’m not worried about it at all.”

Thornton viewed this as a great test for his team’s overall theme for the year: taking responsibility for your swimming.

“Since the coaching staff was not on campus running workouts, the swimmers had to get creative if they stayed, or motivated when they went home.  The majority of the team really stepped up (and a few failed miserably), which I was very happy with.”

Stevens will be back in action this coming Saturday, swimming at NYU. Stevens is a perennial top-10 team.

There is very little that sports can do in the event of natural disasters like this one, but the one outlet they provide is a distraction and a connection. They are so tightly woven into the fabric of our society that they provide an immediate social connection like few other things can outside of perhaps a common language.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!


About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

Read More »