Tammy Nedell always dreamed of swimming for the University of Michigan. Her parents were divorced, and her mother worked as a janitor at her high school in Washington. These hardships weighed heavily on Nedell, who needed three tries to achieve the NCAA minimum SAT score.
She was by no means the best freestylist in the country, but there was something about this girl that peaked the interest of Michigan women’s swimming coach Jim Richardson.
“She just had so much heart, and she worked so hard at everything she did,” Richardson said. “I knew she was the type of person that could succeed here at Michigan.”
Despite her questionable academic credentials, Nedell swam and graduated with a 2.8 GPA and a degree in English. She is now making a positive impact in other people’s lives as a teacher.
This success story was only possible because Nedell possessed the qualities that Richardson seeks in his swimmers.
“We go out and recruit people that are achievement-orientated, people that are quality conscience, self-motivated and people that are engaged in the process of becoming successful in and out of the pool,” Richardson said.
That has been a formula for success for the women’s swimming team, which has maintained at team GPA above 3.1 for the last 17 years under Richardson.
Last week, the Big Ten announced its Academic All-Conference performers; the Michigan women’s swimming team had 15 winners from just 21 eligible athletes. Academic honors like these have been an integral part of the Wolverines’ program ever since Richardson arrived in the fall of 1985.
“I’m not going to waste scholarship dollars on people that don’t appreciate the opportunity to get a world-class education,” Richardson said. “We’ve had to walk away from people because of that. Maybe that makes us finish fourth in the Big Ten this year instead of first, but I can live with that.”
Despite putting a major emphasis on his athlete’s academic lives, Richardson’s teams have still been very successful in the pool. This year, the Wolverines finished 14th in the nation, but in 1995 and 1996, Michigan had back-to-back top-three finishes at NCAAs. Richardson, a two-time NCAA Coach of the Year, has also coached women that competed in the Olympics for the United States, Canada and Australia. His Wolverines have won 13 Big Ten titles (including 12 straight from 1987-98).
Richardson is not the kind of coach that barks at his team through the entire practice, and Michigan is not the kind of institution that boasts an intimate learning environment for its undergraduates. To thrive in this environment, the Michigan swimming team requires women that have a strong work ethic.
“We all sing the song about the leaders and the best,” Richardson said. “But if you want to really live up to that, you have to be personally engaged in a daily routine that supports that.”
That means that the women on his team have to go to class everyday, study and meet with their professors. They also need to swim more than 10 miles everyday, with morning practices before dawn and afternoon practices before dinner.
That routine can grow old quickly once the snow starts falling in Ann Arbor, but Richardson believes it is his duty as a coach to help people take full advantage of these sorts of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Richardson knows a thing or two about missing opportunities. He describes his first two years as an undergrad at Wake Forest as “disastrous” and “horrible.”
“I had to work my butt off just to graduate,” Richardson said.
Richardson needed to work even harder to earn his masters degree from North Carolina-Greensboro, so he has first-hand knowledge of just how hard it is to overcome poor academic choices and habits. That is why he makes sure the women on his team take full advantage of the academic opportunities they have at Michigan.
“Everyone knows that at Michigan you can’t use swimming as an excuse for letting your grades slip,” Richardson said. “That stuff isn’t going to fly with me.”
Michigan is fortunate to have a coach with that attitude. They are a rare breed in college sports these days.
Steve Jackson can be reached at email@example.com..