College Swimming 101

Written By: Charlie Griffiths


Every summer, as we gear up for a new Claremont-Mudd-Scripps swimming and diving season, I send a letter to the team titled “CMS Swim & Dive 101.” It contains advice for success on our team and thoughts on embracing the college experience. It is a living document, reshaped each year based on our experiences and feedback from team members. There are separate sections for first-year team members, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, as well as the coaching staff that outline how each group contributes to achieving our team’s goals.


CMS Swimming and Diving lives by four tenets: Succeed academically, improve in the pool, be good citizens and teammates, and have fun. We achieve those goals by embracing the process, so establishing expectations helps provide a starting benchmark. Here are the opening thoughts to CMS 101:

  • The collegiate experience is largely about figuring out what kind of life you want to lead. Varsity athletics can help you define that. The Claremont Colleges see the value of CMS sports as “Education through intensive athletic experience.” In our world, the pool is a classroom that can teach discipline, integrity, loyalty, trust, respect, teamwork, leadership, and perseverance in unique ways that augment your academic courses.

  • Every year’s CMS swimming and diving team is different. We have a shifting number of team members from Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College, as well as a mix of divers, IMers, stroke specialists, sprinters and distance swimmers. Each year, the team graduates seniors, welcomes new members, and benefits from each student-athlete’s growth from first-year to sophomore to junior to senior.

  • Change is part of life. What matters is how you respond to it. Plan for the likelihood that conference competition will get tougher and NCAA cuts will get faster. Get excited that your training schedule and practice partners may be different. Embrace that new coaches could join the staff and provide fresh feedback. Appreciate that rules are altered and facilities are renovated. Understand that relationships evolve. Be prepared to engage your imagination to adapt and excel in new environments; that is what successful CMS swimmers and divers (and successful people) do.

  • Experience matters, but not nearly as much as enthusiasm and drive. Your successes and failures from previous years (on this team or elsewhere) do not carry over; what you did last season will not determine how you will perform this season. The bottom line is that last year is over which simply provides you with the opportunity to live, believe, and achieve right now.

  • Set big goals and work backwards from there. You need both an exciting dream to spark your passion and the daily will to develop and execute the plan to bring the dream to fruition. I’ve always believed that our small colleges attract student-athletes with big dreams: whether your aquatics goal is posting a specific time or score, earning a spot in the “big final,” setting CMS/SCIAC/NCAA records, or making an Olympic team, you control both your dreams and your year-round preparation.

  • View every training and competition session as an opportunity to improve yourself. Make a conscious choice at practice to get faster, stronger, and better. Pick something to work on, focus on it and ask coaches and teammates for feedback. This means engaging physically, mentally and emotionally in the workout or meet. We all can be great on our best days, but to be elite we must find ways to improve on imperfect days.

  • Help us help you. Stags and Athenas cannot be passive recipients of workouts; you need to engage your coaches and teammates in helping you get better. Don’t assume that a coach responsible for multiple lanes in a workout will notice when you switch from breaking out with your right hand to your left. Get their attention and say “I’m working on my breakouts, can you watch this 50 and tell me what you think?” Great communication and meaningful relationships require investments from all parties.

  • Recognize your influence on the team. CMS Swimming and Diving is a team sport. Relays and team scoring are obvious examples, but you can see it elsewhere, too. Look at any record board, there is a reason multiple records and breakthroughs typically come around the same time: It is a reflection of team culture. Mindsets are contagious. As a teammate, it is your job to advocate for CMS Swimming and Diving amidst dozens of competing priorities on campus. Your approach affects the entire team.

  • To the best of your ability, compartmentalize your thoughts and efforts. College can be stressful, especially when you’re striving to excel in multiple arenas. Classes, homework, labs, extracurricular activities, and social interactions all consume our emotional and mental capacities. In order to achieve peak performance, you need to drop your baggage at the gate to Axelrood Pool. Be present with your team. Enjoy setting aside the stressors of the day. Dive head first (pun intended) into the workout and give it your best self. When your practice session is over, you can pick up your baggage on the way out and then fully focus on your next activity.

  • The quality of your swimming/diving is often a reflection of your quality of life. To a certain extent, the pool can be a safe place if there is chaos in your life, but more often than not, healthy, organized, happy people perform better than those whose lives are out of control. If you are in a good place, great. If not, seek help. “Mental health is just as important as physical health. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for help.” Eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt

  • Design your schedule and pick your courses with your top life-goals in mind. There are a million things to do in Claremont: lots of exciting classes, clubs, speakers, trips and social events, along with athletics. You will be able to take advantage of many, many opportunities over your four years, but you won’t be able to do everything all at once. If swimming and diving is important to you, then you need to design a schedule that will allow you the time and energy to commit to the team and get enough sleep and recovery time to thrive.

  • As an educational experience, the more you invest yourself in the process, the more you will learn about yourself and gain from it. If you discover that you are not on the path you want to be on, make a small change and follow the results. “We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” Aristotle. Naturally, it is wise to establish good habits early. Today. Right now.

  • Take notes. Journal your experiences. (If you don’t enjoy writing, dictate into your phone.) In one way, it will be cathartic to unload about your day. In another way, it will be useful to note immediately after a meet what pre-race routines worked and which didn’t, because those memories may become fuzzy before your next taper meet. Choose a time of day and stick to a daily journaling schedule. You take detailed and organized notes to remember important items for an exam, why not take notes to remember important items in swimming/diving and life?

  • Build a support network. Connect early and often within the team, as well as with staff, advisors and others within the college community. It’s easier to ask for help if you already know to whom to go.

  • Keep fit between seasons. Even though NCAA Division III rules prevent coach-led water practices outside of our official season, the best student-athletes take a year-round approach to their fitness. Train and compete with a club team. Find or create a fitness program that excites you; put yourself in the best physical position for success. There’s a slippery slope between “taking a break” and living a sedentary lifestyle.

  • Your online life is public and permanent…and a reflection of CMS swimming and diving. Be mindful how you present yourself on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc.; assume that everyone in the world, including your future employer, our athletic director, and your grandmother will eventually see everything that you have posted.

  • CMS attire is one reflection team pride. Wear team or college gear around campus and especially at practices and meets.

  • Service leadership also demonstrates team pride. This wide-ranging theme can include putting in lane-lines before anyone asks, volunteering to host a recruit, or bringing soup to an ill teammate. Embrace the concept of TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) and seek to fill needs, even when dinner or a warm shower is calling.

  • Each of us bears the responsibility of leaving CMS swimming and diving better than we found it. One way we do this is by recruiting the next generation of Athenas and Stags. All of us are expected to engage in the pursuit of excellent future teammates.

  • Ask questions. Veteran teammates, alums, and coaches hold a wealth of knowledge about the college experience. Take advantage of those resources, whether you’re wondering about how to find an internship in your field, how to handle an awkward roommate situation, or how to know if you’re properly warmed-up for your 200 butterfly.

  • CMS swimming and diving is simultaneously about you/your experience and also bigger than any/all of us. Our team holds respect on campus and throughout the country that has taken years of hard work to earn. We are stewards of the program and definers of our legacy. You are a stakeholder and thus accountable to everyone associated with CMS swimming and diving.

  • Embrace the fact that you are part of something much greater than yourself. You are part of a team that strives for excellence and often achieves it, but beyond that you are engaged in a life-changing experience. You are a collegiate athlete. You are a CMS swimmer or diver. That is a special responsibility and a special opportunity. Cherish it.


Charlie Griffiths is in his 20th season as the Head Coach of the CMS Swimming and Diving program in 2020-21. In 19 years at the helm of the team, Griffiths has established CMS as one of the premier small-college programs in the Western United States.

SCIAC results include: 26 SCIAC team championships 316 SCIAC individual and relay titles 126 SCIAC records broken 15 SCIAC Swimmer/Diver-of-the-Year Awards 264-14 SCIAC dual meet record

NCAA results include: 92 swimmers/divers earning over 200 CSCAA All-America awards

24 NCAA top 25 finishes

9 NCAA top 10 finishes

Varsity records set 226 times

319-88 dual meet record Griffiths came to CMS from Denison University, where he served as assistant coach. During his three-year tenure, the school claimed its first NCAA Division III team title (2001 women), and snagged four additional runner-up trophies between the men's and women's teams. He worked with swimmers who produced 81 All-American performances, 21 national championship swims, 10 NCAA meet records, and 3 NCAA Swimmer-of-the-Year awards.

Prior to entering collegiate coaching, Griffiths was head swim coach and assistant aquatic director at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin YMCA. Under Griffiths the team won its first Wisconsin YMCA State Senior Meet championship. Additionally, the Oshkosh masters swim team he coached produced a bevy of USMS All-American awards, including a USMS national champion and record holder.

As a swimmer at Denison University, Griffiths twice earned the team’s Most Improved Award. He served as team captain his senior year and gathered seven All-NCAC citations and NCAA cuts in the 100 yard butterfly in 1994 and 1995. A native of Janesville, Wisconsin, Griffiths got his coaching start as an assistant with his former age group team, the J-Hawk Aquatic Club. He is also a coaching veteran at the Stanford Swim Camp and the Ohio State Swim Camp. Griffiths served as Deck Operations Crew Chief for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Long Beach, CA. He is head coach and director of the US Sports Camps/Nike Swim Camp at Claremont McKenna College. In addition to his coaching duties, Griffiths is an Associate Professor of Physical Education at CMS. In 2009, Coach Griffiths won the Glen R. Huntoon Award for Superior Teaching at Claremont McKenna College and was the first athletic department member to win the award since its inception in 1974. Griffiths won the SCIAC’s initial “Men’s Coach of the Year” award in 2015 and was “Women’s Coach of the Year” in both 2017 and 2020. Griffiths chaired the SCIAC swimming coaches committee for nine years and served for five years as the NCAA D-III men’s representative to the board of directors of the College Swimming Coaches Association. He is ASCA Level V (highest possible rating) certified. Griffiths, his wife, Katherine, and daughter, Charlotte, reside in Claremont.

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