Photo by Ohio State Athletics
A well of grit and gratitude
Theirs were not strokes of luck, but of allegiance and love within a close-knit family.
As the world shut down around them, Bill Dorenkott gathered members of the Ohio State men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams for one of the most difficult meetings in his 30 years of collegiate coaching.
It was March 13, 2020, and the global pandemic had begun to alter the lives of almost everyone. That included the Buckeyes’ swimmers and divers, who a day earlier learned the NCAA championships, scheduled for later in the month, had been canceled. Both programs had been peaking at the perfect time. The women had won the Big Ten championships and the men had finished second.
Dorenkott will never forget the anguished looks on the faces of his student-athletes as he addressed them that day, particularly the seniors.
“We talked about finding gratitude in a space where you’re probably not feeling that right now,” the coach says. “I’ll be honest, I was feeling horribly bitter because we had some seniors who had great opportunities taken away from them. I’ll get over it at some point in time, but I’m not there yet.”
Months after that March 2020 meeting, as COVID-19 concerns deepened and uncertainty loomed over the 2020–21 season, Dorenkott faced an uncomfortable question: Was it worth asking team members to keep training and “grinding” with no assurance of competition?
His answer arrived in the form of smiles.
“What kept me motivated was the attitude of the kids,” Dorenkott says. “Our practices were two and three hours a day, and that felt normal to them. They were happy to be there. Because as soon as practice was over, they had to go back to the residence halls, they had to be masked up, they couldn’t eat in a dining hall. Practice was giving them something to look forward to.”
This most challenging season in program history also became one of its most successful. Relying on each other and the “adjust and adapt” culture Dorenkott established, both the men’s and women’s teams finished seventh at the NCAA championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. It marked the first time in school history both programs placed in the top 10.
The Buckeyes thrived despite the extraordinary circumstances and repeated cancellation of events. In a typical year, a team has about 20 days of regular-season competition. This past season, the women had one-fifth of that and the men even less. Still, the swimmers remained focused and committed as they prepared for conference and national meets.
“A lot of it is owed to the culture we have built around the concept of sisterhood and brotherhood, of family, that is Ohio State swimming,” senior swimmer Kristen Romano says of the team’s resolve. “We could not go outside the Ohio State swimming bubble. That meant no seeing partners outside the bubble. It meant not seeing family and friends. Instead of that being a downer and like, ‘Oh, this stinks,’ it was the chance to find even more value in Ohio State swimming than ever before.”
The sacrifices to compete were daunting. Team members took part in COVID-19 testing three times a week, and several tested positive throughout the season. None of the athletes could use their locker rooms, showers or training rooms. No meals were served at McCorkle Aquatic Pavillion. The Buckeyes arrived at the natatorium wearing their swim suits and could not remove their masks until they entered the pool.
Dorenkott was amazed at the empathy he witnessed. He recalled one freshman tearfully relaying to coaches news of a presumptive positive test. The student was most upset that he had ridden to his test with a senior swimmer, meaning both would have to sit out an upcoming meet. “Not only am I done,” the freshman told Dorenkott, “but I took out a senior, too.”
“In years past, houses [of swimmers] would get together every weekend to order pizza and watch movies,” says senior Paul DeLakis. “But now we couldn’t do that. We would have to do it over a video call. It’s a completely different thing, but teammates kept checking in on each other to see how they were doing through this. I’m going to have memories of these freshmen for the rest of my life.”
As Coach Dorenkott rode back to Columbus from the NCAA championships this past March, he was filled with relief and overwhelming pride at what the university’s swimming and diving community had accomplished.
“To be clear, we know we are not at the top of the mountain, but we are taking some pretty significant steps on the journey,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier for the kids, our staff and the alumni. It was a very rewarding year.”
As if all went swimmingly
Under most challenging circumstances, the women’s and men’s swimming and diving teams broke barriers this year.
Photo by Ohio State Athletics
About the author
Tom Reed is a sports writer for the DK Pittsburgh Sports website and host of the 66-to-87 Podcast. He’s spent 30 years writing sports for The Athletic magazine and metro newspapers in Ohio.