May 08, 2006

Making A Splash

I noted this CNN story about the decline of colleges requiring their students to pass swim tests prior to graduation mostly because of the holdout list:

In 2003, Ferrum College in Virginia dropped its swim test. Colgate threw in the towel last year. The holdouts now include Notre Dame, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and Washington & Lee, plus the service academies.

Nice to see Dubyanell get a mention. Of course, I was only there for law school and the requirement didn't apply to our program.

One other thing about the article got my attention:

The requirement is fertile ground for campus legends, some true, most not. Before Notre Dame began admitting women in the early 1970s, students did indeed take the test in the buff. But there's apparently no solid evidence behind any of the oddly similar stories that circulate on many campuses about how the test started: A wealthy donor whose son drowns gives money for the pool on the condition that the college require a swim test.

In fact, I heard that very story about W&L's requirement in connection with the building of the Doremus Gymnasium on campus. Apparently, though, it isn't quite right:

But why does the school insist that each student can swim? W&L legend claims that a Doremus child drowned, and when the family donated the money for Doremus Gymnasium, they asked for the swimming requirement.

"Somebody, sometime didn't want anyone else to die," said Datz.

The swim test legend involves truth and elaboration. While the Doremus gift to W&L is a thrilling story, they had no child who drowned.

During Robert Doremus's visit to the campus, an anonymous W&L student impressed the New York broker with the speaking tradition and his hospitality, which led Doremus to honor his Southern mother by leaving his estate to the school. In 1913, Mrs. Doremus gave the school about $100,000 for the gym as a memorial to her husband. According to Taylor Sanders, the Washington and Lee University Historian, the Doremus family wanted to build the best gym in the South, which required a pool.

"Maybe Mrs. Doremus suggested the test with the interest of students at heart," said Sanders.

Sanders says Mrs. Doremus may have pushed for the swimming test because of several student drownings in the Maury River around the time of the donation, but his research has found no signs of drowned children in the Doremus cemetery or their baptism records.

Well, well. But I like this alternate version of the story, too.

Rowing crew as an undergrad at the People's Glorious Soviet of Middletown, I was required to participate in what was called a "flip drill". A shell was brought into the school's indoor pool. Four by four, we had to climb in. The shell would then be flipped and we had to scramble out from underneath it.

If you think there are a lot of stories about drowned undergrads behind school swimming requirements, you should have heard all the stories of drowned oarsmen that were said to be behind the flip drill requirement. One would have thought New England's lakes and rivers were clogged with the corpses.

Posted by Robert at May 8, 2006 10:54 AM | TrackBack

I was at Notre Dame in the coed days. We had to take the swim test in school-issued speedos issued by a rather creepy old guy, who also ensured we took a shower first before passing from the locker room into the pool area. (Women could wear their own suits).

It goes without saying that this was among the top two or three disturbing experiences in my ND experience.

Posted by: The Colossus at May 8, 2006 11:38 AM

I had to pass a swimming test at Sewanee, but they'd dropped the requirement by the time my husband arrived a few years later. Pandering to the spoiled kids, I call it. Why back in my day we didn't have air conditioning in the dorms either! Hmph.

Posted by: Jordana at May 8, 2006 12:05 PM

I hadn't heard they dropped the swim test at Sewanee! And when we did our test we were told the same "wealthy donor's son drowned" story.

Posted by: Sarah at May 8, 2006 01:15 PM

Im pretty sure University of Hawaii, and the other smaller Schools don't require teh swimming test. Mainly becuase most people laugh when they hear that someone can't swim. Most people here grow up swiming before they can walk, being in the middle of the ocean and all.

Posted by: Big Mac W/ an Egg at May 8, 2006 04:28 PM

I do remember a story about a wealthy donor leading to the swim test at MIT. It was fairly traditional for at least a couple of people to show up to graduation, having just finished the test, with their swimsuit under their gown.

Posted by: owlish at May 8, 2006 08:12 PM

One would have thought New England's lakes and rivers were clogged with the corpses...

... of Scottish Dwarves.

Posted by: LB Buddy at May 9, 2006 01:14 PM