From the Archives: The rise and fall of Notre Dame's swim test
Prepare to dive into the past as we explore the history of Notre Dame's swim test. From its inception in the 1970s, the mandatory freshman swim test was a rite of passage for every incoming Notre Dame student. For many, the experience was a source of dread and anxiety, while for others, it was an opportunity to learn an essential life skill. We'll explore the origins and rationale behind the swim test, as well as reactions from students who experienced it firsthand. From humorous anecdotes to heartfelt reflections, these stories offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of a beloved Notre Dame tradition. So, grab your goggles, and let's take a dive into the past.
Notre Dame has always strongly stood by its mission to cultivate growth within the entire person. This objective extends well beyond the traditional classroom setting, which was true from the very beginning of the University's establishment. Never was this goal taken quite as literally, though, as during the years of the Notre Dame swim test.Many fear-stricken first-years recall their swim test experiences. Don Brittnacher (‘75) remembers, “[I was] standing there naked in the Rock with 25 other freshman boys in their birthday suits, I was puzzled and a little cold.”
Observer Archives, Sept. 27, 2002
Such was the experience of every freshman until the 1972 school year when co-education began at Notre Dame, and the necessary amendments to the swim test attire — or lack thereof — were made.The reasoning behind enforcing the freshman swim test was straightforward: swimming is an essential life skill. In 1980, Dennis Stark, who was then the chairman of the physical education department, defended the policy by emphasizing that "the inability to swim can pose a significant risk to one's life."Consequently, Mr. Stark, who also served as the head coach of the varsity swim team at the time, assumed responsibility for arranging the rigorous swim test. A brief orientation was conducted on the first day of physical education class, followed by the administration of the test on the second day.Those who successfully passed the test had no further cause for concern, but those who did not were obliged to enroll in a swim class during the academic semester. On average, a quarter of the first-year cohort were deemed non-swimmers and considered "unsafe in water" following the swimming evaluation.While the post-1972 version of the swim test was less visually daunting, the swimming requirement would remain an integral part of a Notre Dame education until 2014, prompting countless amusing stories.
Freestyling and Phys Ed: Historical Reactions to Notre Dame’s Swim Test
Throughout Notre Dame’s history, core academic requirements looked very different from the current regiment. One significant (and now absent) first-year obligation was the swim test — and subsequent swim class given a failing grade in the test.Many students expressed their reactions to the swim test and its contribution to life at Notre Dame during its existence. Marc Ramirez (‘85), who failed the test in 1981 and subsequently enrolled in a swim class, reflected on his journey with fellow “below C-level” swimmers as they progressed towards proficiency in the “big pool.”Despite the initial setback, Ramirez's experience was overwhelmingly positive.“You never know when you might need a skill like swimming, and so I’m glad that people like me have the opportunity to learn it here at Notre Dame," Ramirez said.Likewise, in a 1998 Letter to the Editor, Joseph Howarth ('01) of St. Edward's Hall expressed comparable views about not only the swim test but also the mandatory physical education credit. In contrast to an earlier Inside Column by Brian Kessler (‘01), who criticized Notre Dame's PE programs, Howarth argued that the "freshmen [he knows] look forward to PE" and that the courses offered serve not only as a means to "get in shape" but also to add variety to their lives of intense academic coursework. Although Howarth's roommate had failed the swim test and was apprehensive about enrolling in two rotations of the class, he ended up enjoying it and became a "stronger swimmer than [Howarth] ever was."
Observer Archives, Feb. 12, 1998
Observer Archives, Feb. 12, 1998
In the Aug. 25, 2000 edition of The Observer, Finn Pressly (‘01) offered a perhaps more cynical but not necessarily negative perspective on the swim test. He recounted his experience of “reluctantly parting with [his] glasses” and enduring the exam with his peers. Pressly described the water as immeasurably cold, associating the Rocke pool with the Ice Age, and he was even “ordered” by a “drunk-with-power” guard to freestyle the length of the pool. Despite passing his swim test and avoiding the swim class, Pressly admitted to doing a freestyle that had started to resemble “some kind of bizarre horizontal jumping jack.”According to various articles published in The Observer, the infamous and now discontinued swim test at Notre Dame received mixed but generally positive feedback from students. Some saw it as just another hurdle to overcome, while others found it to be a valuable learning experience. Regardless of whether one passed or failed the test, the only consequence was a few hours of swimming lessons each week. In fact, even former University President Father Edward Malloy (‘63) admitted that he never passed the swim test himself.
After eight decades of mandatory aquatic education, in 2014 Notre Dame eliminated its swimming requirement. The decision was part of a sweeping reform package that reimagined first-year education for the incoming class of 2015.
Observer Archives, April 30, 2014
With the P.E. and swimming requirement dropped, the University also announced that it would close the Physical Education and Wellness Instruction Department. The Office of Recreational Sports would offer “a wide variety of life, sport and mind-body activity classes” on an optional basis moving forward.While the administration was enthusiastic about the curriculum changes, many members of the campus community weren’t so excited.Diane Scherzer, an associate professional specialist in the physical education department, worried about the future of the 12 faculty members in the soon-to-be defunct P.E. department. While the University assured that it would help former instructors find new jobs, Scherzer seemed skeptical.Scherzer was also concerned about the detrimental effects of a P.E.-less curriculum on the student experience. She lamented the loss of squash, ice skating and curling instruction but was especially upset about the end of the swim test.“Ninety percent of the students who took the swim test and failed were glad that they took swimming, that they learned how to swim and were more comfortable in the water,” Scherzer said. “It makes myself, and everybody in the department, disappointed and sad [that] the students won’t have this opportunity anymore.”In the years since the swimming requirement was eliminated, students have also voiced their discontent with the lack of required physical education at Notre Dame.“Not only do these classes help [students] physically, but they also have clear mental and intellectual benefits,” Katherine Smart (‘17) wrote, citing CDC data in her 2016 column promoting the importance of physical education.
Observer Archives, Feb. 9, 2016
Current Managing Editor Ryan Peters went with a more utilitarian approach in his 2022 pro-swim test Viewpoint piece: “Sure, statistics and physics are useful. You know what else is useful? Knowing how to swim.”Despite impassioned appeals from students and faculty, Notre Dame has not reinstituted its swim test, much to the disappointment of people like Scherzer, Smart and Peters — and perhaps to the numerousstudentswhohavecomplained about the Moreau program that replaced freshman physical education.