This article is reprinted from The Fresno Bee, as written by Marek Warszawski. Originally published January 21, 2017.
It’s only Day Two of graduate school for Hailee Baldwin, and she already has an assignment hanging over her.
Sometime over the next few hours, the co-captain of the Fresno State swimming and diving team needs to analyze a video for her speech-language pathology class, then write up a short reaction and submit it to the professor’s online blackboard.
Instead, Baldwin is sitting in coach Jeanne Fleck’s office talking to me.
And I’m starting to feel a little guilty for keeping her from her studies.
“It’s OK – I’ll figure it out,” Baldwin says. “It’s not due till midnight. But I’ve got to get it done before 9 because I have morning practice tomorrow.”
Ugh, morning practice. Can never forget morning practice, the bane of any swimmer’s existence. Four times per week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday – Baldwin and her Bulldogs teammates train between 6 and 7:30 a.m. at the school’s aquatics center.
That’s on top of the daily afternoon pool workouts, typically from 2 to 4 p.m., which are sometimes preceded by weightlifting. Add in the meets that take up most weekends during the six-month season, and you begin to get a sense of the time commitment required to be a competitive college swimmer.
For me personally I could not not work hard in the classroom after spending all day working hard in the pool. They go hand in hand.
Still, all that time in the pool doesn’t mean there’s no time to study. The Fresno State swimming and diving team proved that by having eight women notch 4.0 GPAs during the fall semester.
Overall, the team’s cumulative GPA stands at 3.533 with 17 of the team’s 29 members at 3.5 or above.
No Bulldogs program besides women’s tennis, whose roster is less than a third the size of swimming and diving, can boast better marks.
Besides Baldwin, who graduated with a 3.97 GPA and is taking classes toward her master’s, the other seven 4.0s were turned in by seniors Kali Conlon and Tarryn Rennie; juniors Katelin Britton and Casey Kennemann; senior diver and team co-captain Shelbie Holden (a nursing major); plus Danielle Powers and Natalia Nienaltowska, who are no longer on the team.
“I like the feeling of getting good grades,” says Kennemann, an interior design major. “It’s a pat on the back to know I can handle my classes and handle swimming at the same time. Balance it all out.”
Balancing training and studying is something most competitive swimmers have figured out long before college. In fact, it’s practically a prerequisite.
“Time management is something you have to be very good at, and if you’re not you have to learn how to be good at it,” Conlon says. “We really don’t have a lot of time to begin with compared to normal students. But it is there if you manage your schedule correctly.”
Amazingly, several of these young women find time to squeeze in even more.
Conlon, who carries a 3.94 GPA in mass communications/journalism, interns for Fresno State’s sports information department as well as the campus radio station. Then there’s Rennie, a 3.85 student and Rhodes Scholar finalist in her native Zimbabwe who still finds 15 to 20 hours every week to volunteer for Wayfinders, an independent living program for postsecondary students with learning disabilities.
Just last Tuesday, the entire squad took part in a swimming fundraiser for the Amazing Grace Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial support for clinical trials that focus on treating childhood bone cancer, and netted more than $2,000.
“We do a ton of community service,” says Fleck, the team’s ninth-year coach. “These girls aren’t just swimmers and divers. They’re active in their classes.”
If you’re looking for a reason why this bunch gets such good grades, Fleck is a great place to start. She herself is a student, currently taking online courses toward a master’s in sports administration.
Yes, the coach gets excellent grades, too.
“I have one A-minus, in sports business law, and I was really mad,” Fleck says with a smile that belies any anger. “The girls know how mad I was.”
Although Fleck says she doesn’t go out of her way to recruit good students, it’s practically required of them the moment they set foot at Fresno State.
Every freshman and transfer in Fleck’s program must take eight hours per week of study hall during their first semester. And they only get out of study hall in subsequent semesters if they maintain a 3.0.
“I’m very strict,” she says, with the same belying smile. “If they fall behind, they don’t go to meets. If they miss study hall it’s like missing practice. They miss a meet.”
The swimmers and divers say Fleck’s firm hand, along with her willingness to assist anyone who is struggling, is a big reason for their academic success. But it’s also part of the program’s culture.
Team goals, both in the pool and the classroom, are set before every season during meetings and retreats. They pay attention not only to their grades but to the grades of certain other Bulldogs programs.
“Fresno State doesn’t really rank the teams, but they list the highest ones by team GPA,” Conlon says. “It’s always between us and (women’s) tennis so we kind of have a little competition with them.”
What happens if a team member isn’t carrying her academic weight? She’ll be encouraged, or gently nudged, to seek help rather than get called out.
“We definitely push each other to do our best all the time,” Kennemann says, “but there’s no, ‘I’ve got a 4.0 and you only got a 3.5.’ It’s not like that at all.”
“It’s more about offering support,” Baldwin adds. “If we know someone is not doing well in a class we let them know to talk to Jeanne and get the help available to us.”
With that, Baldwin collects her things and departs Fleck’s office. It’s Day Two of grad school, and there’s no time to kick back.
View the Fresno Bee article in its entirety at the LINK.