For any team, senior days mark a memorable date in the season. They are events to spotlight, remember and thank the graduating class for their contributions to athletics. The celebration is something athletes prepare for their entire collegiate careers, when their four long years of sweat, tears, and aches are formally honored. Once the fateful day arrives for each season’s seniors, it is a day they have long been preparing for but maybe not yet ready for. Vassar’s Swimming and Diving (VCSD) programs celebrated their seniors at the Vassar Sprint Invitational this past Saturday, Jan. 29, with both the women’s and men’s sides coming out on top with a combined score of 1239 points. After four years with the team, Jesse Ecklund ’22, Abby Jenkins ’22, Sam Fujikawa ’22, Brandon Li ’22, Jake Mier ’22, Nikolas Pham ’22 and Max White ’22 were ready to reflect on their Vassar careers.
For all the seniors involved, their experiences as student athletes have differed from any other alums for one reason: COVID-19. For these swimmers and divers (as well as the classes of 2023 and 2024), the COVID-19 pandemic stripped them of one of their collegiate seasons. This meant they went over a year without official competition, had to restructure practices and were not able to connect with the teammates as they once could have. For the Class of 2022, their move into the role of upperclassmen coincided with the emergence of COVID-19, posing not only difficulties for their experiences as athletes but also as leaders on the team. “Junior year saw my class suddenly thrust into a leadership role and having to manage those challenges amidst a global pandemic in which no one from the department to the coaches really ever had a firm grasp on how to handle the situation,” reflected Li. He further elaborated on the impact of COVID-19 on their team experience, noting how the Class of 2021 and Class of 2024 missed out on competing with each other: “we would have accomplished a tremendous amount results-wise, but even more unfortunate to me were the missed opportunities to cement more lifelong bonds and create incredible memories as a large group.” Jenkins also commented on how their leadership roles changed during the times of COVID-19, especially : “With COVID, a lot of the team had never had a collegiate season before, so it has been really exciting to experience their first season with them and be an outlet for the support they may need at different points.
Connecting with and guiding underclassmen is a large part of what it means to be a senior even without the hurdles of COVID-19, and each of the swimmers and divers noted how they strived to cultivate a leadership style that is unique to them. For Pham, he expressed how he sought to be someone approachable in his guidance: “Adjusting to college swimming is a hard transition so I try to help my teammates when possible, knowing that I was once in their shoes.” Fujikawa knew he wanted to occupy a leadership position when he joined VCSD, and noted how grateful he was for the experience to lead, saying, “Being a team leader this year has helped me learn important communication and organizational skills, but more importantly, it’s helped me connect with my fellow divers, the coaches, and other VCSD members in a way that I had not done before. I’ll forever be grateful for this experience.”
Ecklund and Li remarked on how it is sometimes surreal that they are now leaders on their team, but embrace the new responsibilities. “There is a new pressure involved when you are a senior but it is good pressure,” indicated Ecklund. She continued, “I remember thinking that my upperclassmen were way smarter than me, but I find it hard to believe my underclassmen feel the same way. I think there is less distinction between upperclassmen and underclassmen on our team now. Everyone helps everyone and there isn’t really any seniority stuff.” In a similar sentiment, Li stated, “There are still moments where I feel daunted and even times where I get imposter syndrome having to address the whole team as one of their leaders, but at the same time I also channel some of my own unique attributes to put my own spin on the role, mainly by creating a lighthearted environment where people can feel comfortable being themselves, even if it is often a bit silly.”
Meanwhile, White was reluctant to think of himself as a leader, but rather someone that can share his experience with others. He said, “I learn and grow just as much from the underclassmen’s help. I had amazing relationships with my upperclassmen and those friendships motivate me now to do the best I can to recreate similar relationships with my underclassmen.”
Another bittersweet aspect of being a senior is the ability to look in retrospect. There was almost consensus across the teammates that if they could talk to their younger selves, they would tell them to embrace the small moments and to remember the joy from their sport. “I would tell myself to not worry so much about how fast your times are and that overthinking your times can hurt your performance. I would say just to try to have fun, and that good performances will come with having a good time,” explained Pham. White additionally emphasized how swimming is, first and foremost, a game: “The effort and commitment you have to give will come along if you’re willing to do the work because it’s fun.” Jenkins further expanded on these little moments: “It’s always good to work towards the final outcome you want, but the last four years have gone by so fast. It’s important to take in the smaller moments because ultimately, those are what will stick with me in the long run.” For Fujikawa, he reflected on whether he should’ve joined VCSD earlier (as he joined his sophomore year), but ultimately recognized that timing was right: “As much as I would’ve gained from that, I don’t regret taking the path that I did. If I could go back and say something to myself, I would say this: ‘Trust your instincts, and always remember that you’ve surrounded yourself with good people.’”
There are plenty of memories that the athletes shared throughout their years, from bonding in the Deece with teammates, to winning awards, to creating team handshakes and beating Montclair State in 2020 for the first time in 20 years in the last relay of the meet. It is these shared experiences that make competing on a team worth it, even when you’re spending hours at the pool, rebounding from missed goals and dealing with unprecedented times. “The most challenging thing about competing in three collegiate seasons has been finding ways to stay motivated through all of the ups [and] downs that are inherent with any type of collegiate athletics,” elaborated Jenkins. “I’ve found that the best way for me to get through those harder times when I may want to give up is to think about how I can be there for my team and also let them be there for me.”
Adding onto Jenkins’ statement, White further explained how the support system and bond of the team has helped him through his toughest times: “Early on, I struggled to emotionally handle failures because I was so competitive and only cared about winning. This team, specifically the people on the team this year, have helped me remember what matters most; enjoying being with my teammates and getting up and racing with them.”
The Vassar Sprint Invitational was the last competition for both sides before the Liberty League Championships, which will take place at Ithaca College from Feb. 16 to 19. From there on, NCAA Diving Regionals and NCAA DIII Championships will await. If the Invitational is any indicator, where VCSD broke multiple meet records, VCSD is ready to shine. After the season ends though, there is just one thing left for these Vassar seniors: retirement. While Pham, Fujikawa, White, Li and Jenkins mentioned how excited they are to explore other hobbies, exercises and new experiences, I think Ecklund hit on the most important benefit: “No more 6 a.m. morning practices! I am gonna sleep in every day that I can.” It’s safe to say that they deserve it. Cheers to being the new “washed up.”