Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Written By: John Westkott
The U. S. Coast Guard Academy is an amazing place. It is the outlier of the other Academies in that here we help generate almost every single officer in the Coast Guard. Everyone who passes through the Academy gates; cadet, Officer Candidate, Direct Commission and Reserve Officer will go on to serve in the Coast Guard and all have common roots in New London, CT. Most officers in the Coast Guard are Academy graduates, unlike any other service. So, whether a newly commissioned Ensign or an Admiral, the commonality of experience in training binds the service members to one another. You can speak to another officer based on shared similar experience.
Swimming and Diving at the Academy is a part of this process. The Academy thinks of the cadet experience as three legs of a chair. The military, academic and athletic programs help generate officers. We are a co-curricular athletics program that has a considerable impact to officer development. Athletics has a seat at the table and is seen as part and parcel to creating officers. Nearly 65% of our cadet population competes in intercollegiate sports and this great proportion still is actively engaged in daily operation of the corps of cadets.
Swimming and Diving has been on campus for just under one hundred years for the men, and just finished the 23rd year for women. The two programs have been successful over the years with All-American athletes, Academic All-America selections, Fulbright Scholars, NCAA woman of the year finalist, regimental staff members and researchers. The athletes are well-rounded and balanced. The unique nature of Division III life allows this experience for our athletes.
The single greatest common thread to Coast Guard Swimming and Diving is we reflect the Coast Guard as a service. It is the network of friends, colleagues, mentors, and families that have been intertwined by the Swimming and Diving program. Our upper-class athletes mentor and care for the underclass. The same is translated to life in the fleet and in aviation. The best part of my day is when a former swimmer or diver reconnects with news, or shares photos of meeting another former athlete in another part of the world. Former athletes have been and are commanding officers on vessels serving with younger former athletes. Officers return to the Academy to teach and serve as company officers and give back to the Swimming and Diving program that has helped form their careers.
There is a sense of cadet first at the Academy. Everyone who works within the gates of the Academy is helping to create service ready officers. We all work for the same company (the Coast Guard) and that unity of purpose leads to a community that is guided by the principle that the graduate needs to be prepared to do the job right away. Swimming and Diving reinforces that philosophy by attaining the balance necessary for success as a cadet. We are the break in your day of school and training. We can achieve more in practice when that balance is attained. This is a microcosm of the Coast Guard experience. Reliance on your own ability and support from your teammates is critical.
My time at the Academy is extremely satisfying and I am lucky to have this job. The reason for this is simple. The cadets. They are engaged and goal oriented. There is a collective focus on campus to graduate and serve and they grab ahold of this opportunity and thrive. Even during the peak of COVID and its direct impact on how athletics would be conducted, the work ethic and team unity was what kept me going. There were days in which our practices would be halted, weeks of uncertainty whether we would have a meet or not in 2021. All through this time, the cadets never lost the plot. They worked hard, became teammates and friends, and built a foundation for the next year in 2021-22.
Part of my job is also to teach. I have taught Survival at Sea to the incoming cadets for 23 years, and it is the single course in which I have had every cadet as a student. For nearly 20 years of successive classes graduating, every newly minted Ensign has had me as a student. This means the world to me. These are critical skills that I have been asked to impart on every officer earning their rank through the Academy.
The most enjoyable class I teach is Developmental Swimming. Every year cadets arrive for Swab Summer who do not know how to swim. My job is to teach them those skills. This experience makes me a better swimming coach. The ability to teach a non-swimmer who is afraid of the water to trust him or herself after learning to swim, makes me a better communicator to our swimmers. The ability to teach and motivate is critical. These are skills hopefully our athletes learn as well by the example we set as coaches and can be applied in the fleet.
In two nights, our seniors will receive their billets. This is notification as to where they will report after graduating in May. Other than those heading to Aviation Training, all will report and start to do their jobs. This is unique among all service Academies. The education and training a cadet received is applied on their first day of their career as an officer. They are ready to go and serve. The amazing thing is they will report to cutters (boats), stations and flight training with prior teammates. They will rent houses from former swimmers and divers; they may have a commanding officer who swam or dove here.
It is a tight knit and ever perpetuating community of former swimmers and divers. Your friends from the Swimming and Diving program will be friends, mentors, commanding officers, colleagues, and family members. The opportunity to see fellow teammates from Swimming and Diving will be present throughout your career. That is the Coast Guard, a small, tightly connected service in which much can be accomplished by you and people you know.
Coach John Westkott is in his 23rd season as head coach of both the men's and women's swim teams. He is the first coach at the Academy to coach both men and women and in his time has had marked success. The athletes in his program have represented the Academy well, and earned conference and national accolades. In April of 2013, Westkott was inducted into the Rhode Island Aquatics Hall of Fame. In John’s time at the Academy there have been over 50 different individuals achieve NCAA qualifying times, and over 50 school records have been broken. John has coached an NCAA champion, as well as many All-America selectees and honorable mention selectees. There have been four different swimmers selected as NEWMAC athletes of the year since 1999, and two of those were multiple year recipients of that award. The Coast Guard swimmers and divers are consistently some of the best performers at the conference championship and have earned team success. John has been honored as NEWMAC Coach of the Year nine times and the men’s team has won six conference championship (1999, 2001, 2004 and 2006-2008). In 11 other seasons the men have been runners up at the NEWMAC meet including the last four straight. The women's team has consistently improved to being within the top four finishers in recent years and won a school-record eight dual meets during the 2018-19 season and placed third at the NEWMAC Championship for the first time since 2003 after placing fifth in 2018 and sixth in 2017. The Bears women's team is 86-133-1 in 22 seasons. The men's team has a phenomenal dual meet record of 161-45 for a winning percentage of .781 under Westkott. Westkott has a combined men's and women's record of 247-178-1 in his 22 seasons at the academy. The swimmers and divers also boast success in the classroom, with numerous Scholar All-American selections for individuals and as a program. The men won the prestigious Dean’s Trophy in 2011 for highest grade point average at the Academy. There have been many swimmers and divers selected for aviation training directly from the Academy, a prized posting for commissioned ensigns. Coach Westkott states, “The goal for our program is to offer the individual a challenging environment that allows the athlete to develop in the sport, as well as a future officer and a student. The swimming and diving program has been able to have athletes show dramatic improvement and be successful within the corps of cadets.” John arrived at the Academy after finishing his Master’s Degree in Education at Springfield College, where he was an assistant coach for the swimming and diving program, and teaching fellow for the Physical Education Department. John graduated with a Bachelors of Arts from the University of Rhode Island in English and History where he swam and played water polo. After graduating, he served as an assistant coach for URI as well as the Rams Swimming Club, the local USS team.