There’s at least one on every team: the oddball swimmer (or diver) who dresses up in funny outfits at major meets and cheers on the rest of the team with emphatic zeal, livening the mood and siphoning some of the stress out of the air. Some might remember Zach Harting at Olympic Trials wearing a Batman mask and onesie. Mavericks like Harting enjoy a lot of laughs and attention since they’re usually one of only a few athletes to ditch team warm-ups in favor of something whacky, but in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, or MIAA, team costumes and MIAA “themes” are the norm for Kalamazoo College.
Before we go any further, I’ll just answer the first question many people have when the name Kalamazoo comes up: yes, Kalamazoo is a real place. Dr. Seuss might have mentioned it once or twice, and Lizzie McGuire’s dad is supposedly from a small dairy farm outside of Kalamazoo, but I promise you, it’s a real place. Also the hometown of Bell’s Brewery, Derek Jeter, and University of Louisville’s Mallory Comerford, Kalamazoo, Michigan really does exist and it’s awesome. OK, moving on.
Every year since 1993 the Kalamazoo College swimming and diving teams (meaning men’s and women’s teams) have participated in MIAA themes, meaning the entire men’s and women’s teams dress up in unusual Halloween-like attire for the meet and construct a narrative around how the theme fits their quest for the MIAA Championship. The inaugural men’s theme in 1993 was envisioned by men’s team coach Bob Kent. The theme that year, “Hunters,” was modeled around the team’s quest to snipe the MIAA title from rival Hope College. However, the Hornets finished 2nd to Hope in those ’93 MIAAs, but placed 6th at the NCAA Division III National Championships. 1994’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” MIAA theme wound up being quite fitting since the men, like the Light Brigade, got slaughtered at MIAAs where they placed 3rd, and then settled for a 54th-place finish at the NCAA Championship. The reveal of Kalamazoo’s theme at Thursday night finals has become a tradition at the MIAA Championships–an event eagerly anticipated by Kalamazoo parents and bemusedly awaited by the other teams in the MIAA.
Throughout the years other notable themes for the men include the “Gang from K Block” (1999) where the Kalamazoo men defended the MIAA title for their 5th-consecutive year and finished 10th at the NCAA Championships; the “Quest for the Holy Grail” (2011), where the Kalamazoo men reclaimed the MIAA championship for the first time in 7 years and the first time in Coach Kathy Milliken‘s career; and “Star Wars” (2013) where the Kalamazoo men defended their title and won the MIAA championship for the third-consecutive year.
Concerning apparel, the earliest themes included little more than custom t-shirts showcasing the subject, some of which included “Top Gun,” “Men in Black,” or even the 2011 “Quest for the Holy Grail” theme which made use of intricately-embroidered warm-ups. Some themes have had staying power throughout the years, as evidenced by the large black terrycloth robes worn by the Kalamazoo men at all swim meets (and around campus). The robes, which are now tradition, are given to freshman swimmers early in the fall of their first collegiate season, though were originally used by the Kzoo men for a boxing theme at the 2008 MIAA Championships.
The women’s team participated in the MIAA themes for years, celebrating the championship season with their own style independent of the men’s team. However, the women’s team took a hiatus from incorporating themes into their MIAA Championships in the early to mid-2000’s. Since revival of women’s themes, some of the more notable include “Hornet Surf School,” from 2011; “Apollo XII” for 2012, fittingly; and most recently “Welcome to the Zoo” in which the women’s team dressed in colorful animal onesies, making for a very bright cheering section on the pool deck. By keeping the mood light the Lady Hornets nearly beat their rivals from Hope College for second-place overall at MIAAs, placing third, a mere 18 points behind Hope. Calvin College won the women’s meet by a commanding 201 points, making 2017 the 13th-consecutive year the Calvin women have been MIAA champions.
Team captain Ellen Neveux said that picking the 2017 MIAA theme was difficult, but Neveaux and fellow seniors Colleen Orwin, Christina Park, and Tristyn Edsall decided on a zoo animal theme because it tied back to Kalamazoo’s nickname “the Zoo” easily, allowed for a plethora of puns, and most of all was funny and fun for the team. Those who did not want to wear an animal onesie around the pool deck were allowed to be the zoo keepers and wear safari hats.
Training as a team, competing as a team, eating as a team, traveling as a team, and living together are the typical reasons swimmers grow close and swim teams become cliques or “cults,” depending who you ask on a given campus. Uniting the team around a theme other than just “swim fast and win” brings athletes together in fun and creative way, and perhaps more than anything it reminds athletes why they’re there in the first place–to have fun. If the sport isn’t fun and the team doesn’t create a good atmosphere for all its swimmers, then it’s awfully difficult to keep high levels of enthusiasm. Another benefit of the themes is that they make the conference meet more fun for swimmers that do not make the scoring roster and are swimming exhibition. During evening finals, those are the athletes that cheer the hardest and that wear the theme the most around the pool deck.
Neveux, Orwin, Park, and Edsall will compete at the Division III NCAA Championships next month in Shenandoah, TX, but don’t expect to see the foursome in their animal onesies on deck at nationals.
Editor’s note: Reid Carlson (author of this piece) is a Kalamazoo College alumnus and 4-year member of the men’s swimming & diving team (2009-2013).