Culture of Success

Kenyon’s supportive environment for student athletes is key to Ladies swimmers’ recognition by the NCAA’s Woman of the Year award.

By Hallie Underwood ’24

When Haley Townsend ’16 was first publicly recognized as a finalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year award, she was surrounded by her teammates, coaches and friends at Kenyon. Assistant Swimming Coach Doug Lennox made a speech about how Townsend’s athletic, academic and personal attributes and skills contributed to the Kenyon community.

“[It] was one of the most meaningful parts of my Kenyon experience,” Townsend said.

Although remarkable, Townsend’s story is not an exception within the Kenyon swimming and diving program. The Ladies’ success at multiple levels of NCAA Woman of the Year voting has yielded eight national semifinalists, six finalists and the overall winner for the 2002-03 academic year. In fact, over the last five voting cycles, the Ladies had three student-athletes counted as one of nine national finalists for the prominent honor.

Most recently, Hannah Orbach-Mandel ’19 was named a finalist following her senior season in the pool.

"The three years before I was nominated, we had two Kenyon Lady swimmers in the Top 9, which is an absolutely incredible accomplishment. I also know that the first athlete from a Division III institution to win Woman of the Year was a Kenyon swimmer. So, knowing that history made my nomination even more special,” Orbach-Mandel said. “I felt like I was continuing on the Kenyon swimming legacy and that made me so proud.”

The NCAA Woman of the Year program was established in 1991 to honor the academic achievements, athletics excellence, community service and leadership of graduating female college athletes.

“I think it is awesome that the NCAA has this award,” Townsend said. “It is empowering to meet all of the women during the process. To me, it was a lot more than this one-time award. It was about meeting a lot of cool women, doing awesome things across the board. I still follow many of them on social media to keep up with their daily lives.”

The factors behind the Ladies’ success in this process are many, but what stands out about all is the reciprocity between driven, capable student-athletes and a unique college community that provides inspiration, motivation and support.

“I grew so much as a student and as an athlete at Kenyon,” Orbach-Mandel added. “The team aspect is huge and that pushed me to work harder every day for my team and to represent Kenyon.”

Back in her senior season of 2003, Ashley Rowatt Karpinos, the first student-athlete from a Division III institution to be named NCAA Woman of the Year, opened the floodgates for the Ladies. She remembers the Kenyon table standing up and erupting in a cheer when her name was announced at the ceremony in Indianapolis.

“I was a first-year medical student at the time and spent most of the weekend studying for an anatomy test, but I was so honored to have Coach [Jim] Steen and other supporters from Kenyon there with me,” Karpinos said.

She knew instantly that the recognition was, in part, the product of Kenyon’s culture.

“I felt Kenyon deserved the recognition for its history of creating this environment of broad success for female athletes,” Karpinos said. 

“These women — and so many others, too — chose to engage in the Kenyon experience with an unbridled imagination. They saw possibilities ahead of them and were eager to work toward them,” Head Swimming Coach Jess Book ’01 said. “They welcomed the challenges that inevitably came along with the journey. They believed in the transformative power of team. Each of these women engaged in their experiences fully: with heart, passion, perseverance and imagination. And, in turn, were able to find the best in themselves and in those around them.”

Read the original story from Kenyon Athletics.