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A Coach's Perspective

January 19, 2012

By Chris Conlon, Head Coach, Savannah College of Art and Design (Ga.)

Swimmers' lives revolve around numbers - best times, trials cuts, intervals, and on and on.  Top level high school and club swimmers are all looking ahead to swimming at college and, to many, collegiate swimming equals NCAA swimming.

However, the NAIA provides some surprising numbers that swimmers and coaches may not be familiar with:

60,000 - The number of men and women who compete in intercollegiate athletics as part of the NAIA.

$450 million - The amount of scholarship monies given out per year by NAIA member institutions.

There are a tremendous amount of collegiate swimming opportunities for men and women that have gone relatively unnoticed within the NAIA.  The swimming field is fast, deep and getting better every year.

The NAIA is a collection of nearly 300 colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada with a distinctive model for collegiate athletics: a character-driven competitive focus - winning the "right way."  NAIA schools offer a small school feel, allowing for a better connection between student-athletes and coaches because of less stringent rules regarding contact time, coupled with big school resources and competitive opportunities.

NAIA institutions hold a unique niche in college athletics. NAIA teams compete in dual and invitational meets with nationally ranked teams from within all divisions of the NCAA and the NAIA. Conference championships can be solely comprised of NAIA teams or be blended conference meets - bringing together top schools from the NCAA and NAIA.

The NAIA National Championships offer a unique experience in the world of collegiate swimming. Participation in the National Championship meet is solely based on a swimmer meeting qualifying standards. Different from the growing complexity of the selection process for the NCAA championship meets, an NAIA team's preparation can remain in focus approaching the National Championships. Teams may carry up to 18 men and 18 women for the National Championship meet. 

Do not be misled by the qualifying times. The NAIA National championship meet is fast and deep. In fact, at the 2011 championship, 21 national records were set by swimmers from seven different teams. Eighteen of this year's individual swims and four relay swims were fast enough to make NCAA Division I championship qualifying times.

The NAIA takes academics seriously. Each student-athlete must achieve a specific grade point average in order to maintain eligibility. Student-athletes can find schools with every kind of academic focus imaginable, from traditional liberal arts to universities that focus on arts and design.

NAIA rules allow for eight full men's and eight full women's scholarships per team. The NAIA financial guidelines provide motivation for teams and individuals to perform at high academic levels by exempting some or all of their aid based on academic performance.

One of the most important programs ever initiated by the NAIA, the Champions of Character program is designed to instill an understanding of character in all aspects of sport. The Champions of Character initiative is structured to provide student-athletes, coaches and parents hands-on training to know the right thing, do the right thing and value the right thing inside and outside of the sports setting. The program supports performance-driven athletics while defining expectations and standards that drive successful teams and athletic departments. Taught from start to finish, the five characteristics of the Champions of Character program are: Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, Servant Leadership and Sportsmanship.

Take the time to find colleges that fit the academic profile and level of competition your swimmers are looking for. Begin the recruitment process by contacting the coach at desirable schools to learn more about that university and their swimming program.

There are amazing academic and athletic opportunities out there for swimmers who want to compete at the collegiate level. Be sure to check into every option - many of you will find a home in the NAIA.

Chris Conlon is currently the head swimming coach at Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, Ga.).  His swimmers set five national records at the 2011 NAIA National Championships. He is ASCA certified Level 5 and also coached for 12 years in the NCAA, Division III, prior to his current position. Chris resides in Savannah with his wife, Elizabeth, and their two children.