I love the NAIA. I just finished covering my 6th NAIA National Swimming and Diving Championships and I still love watching those kids and their coaches, the parents, the officials (who are parent volunteers), the volunteer timers, and the NAIA staff, all of whom come together to put on a championship meet as exciting as any I’ve ever attended. It’s been two years since I have had a vested interest in the NAIA (my daughter, Caroline Lepesant, swam at SCAD from 2012-2016), but I still root for these athletes because of the passion and the pride they bring to their national meet. As a parent, as someone who covers all levels of swimming (from the Olympics to age-groupers) for SwimSwam, and as a swim fan, I just love the NAIA. And, apparently, I’m not alone.
I spoke with NAIA women’s team coach of the year, Eric Skelley (University of the Cumberlands, Williamsburg, Kentucky), Alicia Kemnitz (Lindsey Wilson College, Columbia, Kentucky), coach of the NAIA women’s swimmer of the year, inaugural-program coach and former Ohio State Buckeye Ryan Bubb (Midland University, Fremont, Nebraska), first-year coach and former NCAA D2 All-American Ksenia Gromova (Lindenwood University, Belleville, Illinois), and NAIA parent and NCAA D1 coach Matt Kredich (University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee). They all agree with me: we are lucky to have the NAIA, an organization that extends to hundreds of swimmers the opportunity to represent their school at a national level.
“I’ve worked with club swimmers my whole career, so I’ve seen from a distance that the NAIA has been incredibly important in the swimming world by providing a rewarding college swimming experience to swimmers who otherwise might not find that opportunity. Now I see it first hand, and I know that NAIA swimming has tremendous value in the swimming world. My son Miles found a college that is a perfect fit for him educationally, and is very specialized towards the arts. It is as different as it could be from any Power 5 school, and yet he’s getting a college competitive swimming experience that is as meaningful and impactful as I would hope that any NCAA institution could provide. He has outstanding and caring coaches, a great team focus, and has worked very hard with his teammates towards very meaningful goals. The national championship meet was intense, competitive, and team oriented, and it means the world to the people competing in it.
“The sport of swimming benefits tremendously from NAIA sponsorship. The schools are gaining financial benefit by driving enrolment and tuition, so swimming is relatively safe and stable, there are therefore more college opportunities for high school swimmers, meaning more incentive for club swimmers to strive to improve and pursue their unique educational goals. We’re incredibly fortunate to have NAIA support in swimming!”
Head Swimming Coach
University of Tennessee
“I think that the swimming experience within the NAIA is unlike any other. I’ve had the privilege of coaching at all levels and besides being the most fun, I’ve found that the experience at the NAIA National Championships is the most rewarding. The swimmers get to know one another and the coaches are always checking in and supporting other teams’ athletes. I got my first taste of the NAIA as a high school sophomore when the national championships were in my home town. Almost 30 years later, the NAIA is growing and stronger than ever. We allow those athletes that still have that drive to compete after high school, a chance to continue in the sport they love and build memories that last a lifetime.”
Eric M. Skelly
Head Swimming & Diving Coach
University of the Cumberlands
“I was the NAIA Swimming Executive Council President last year, and served on the council as past president this year and as VP two years ago. I have been the head swim coach at Lindsey Wilson College for the past 8 years. This year at nationals we crowned our first-ever 3-time champion, and NAIA swimmer of the year, Alexis Kessler.
“I think that Alexis is a great example of what the NAIA can do for talented athletes. Alexis initially signed with and swam for a DII college in KY. She got lost in the mix and became frustrated with the sport and her career. The NAIA gave her an opportunity fall in love with the sport again. With this new-found passion, her times improved and she proved herself as a worthy competitor, winning 3 titles at nationals this year. The NAIA gave Alexis a second chance to compete at a sport that she’d known since she was a child.
“The NAIA allows good swimmers to shine, where they may elsewhere get lost. We provide a fun, but competitive atmosphere for swimmers combining the best parts of small, private school education (most often considered akin to DIII) with a competitive environment where they earn athletic scholarship (often thought to only exist in DI & DII). Therefore, I strongly argue that we combine the best of two worlds: 1. that of serious academics, where small classes and liberal art education is the focus and 2. that of serious athletes, where swimmers are afforded athletic scholarships.”
Alicia L. Kemnitz
Head Swim Coach & Aquatics Director
NAIA Swimming Executive Committee President, 2016-2017
Lindsey Wilson College
“After attending our first ever NAIA National Championship, I was extremely impressed by the amount of professionalism displayed by the officials, NAIA staff, and Columbus Sports Council. As a former D1 swimmer, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an NAIA National Championship, but I have nothing but praise for the work that was put on to create a high-level, high-quality championship meet for the swimmers. There were National records set, and for many of the swimmers at the meet, it was their first time ever competing on a National Stage. I have found that the NAIA is extremely athlete-centered and it is more about the experience of the athlete instead of the high-level collegiate politics. This meet allowed for many athletes who may not have had a chance to make a championship meet at another level to compete on the national stage. NAIA is the place to be if an athlete wants to give themselves the best chance to end their season at a National Championship meet.”
Head Coach, Men’s and Women’s Swimming
“As a former NCAA DII swimmer and DI assistant coach I was surprised how well the NAIA Championship was handled and how many great swims we saw last week. I’d like to say that this 2018 NAIA Championship brought us 2 National Champion titles, 13 A finalists and 12 school records. It is beyond what I could ever ask for being a first-year college head coach. I greatly enjoyed the atmosphere as it was very comforting and welcoming.
“Lindenwood Belleville team doesn’t have a pool and has to drive to facilities 20 or 30 minutes away as we rent 3 different pools to swim at. Such experience can be discouraging and frustrating sometimes when kids know other teams walk 5 mins to practice. However, being at meets like Conference and Nationals, and experiencing the atmosphere there, they come back encouraged and motivated, craving more training, competition and fun that NAIA lets them have.
“Also I was surprised how many coaches were open to me. They welcomed me and were willing to help as it was my first year. I have been all alone all season, without assistants, so this really made the NAIA Nationals a great experience for me, too. I am originally from Russia and my family lives there. Two of my hometown (population of 300 000) newspapers wrote an article about me and my team as we came back from NAIA Nationals. All this can help us enhance recruiting and bring more people into the world of swimming.”
Head Coach Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving