by Paul Morgan
When Kathy Milliken graduated from Denison University, the last thing on this outstanding collegiate swimmer’s mind was to be a coach. And, with the success the eight-year Kalamazoo College men’s and women’s swimming coach has had the past several years, many other coaches probably wish Milliken would have stayed in public relations or entered law school.
After all, two seasons ago, the Hornet men’s team finished fourth in the nation, its best performance ever. The Hornets followed that up last season with its first MIAA championship in eight years and placed eighth in the nation. In the past two seasons, Paul Ellis ’10 and Craig Fleming ’11 have been national champions. And Milliken was voted the NCAA Division III national men’s swimming coach of the year in 2010, the first time a female has been voted that honor for a men’s sport in any division.
“The coach of the year is a direct reflection on what the swimmers did at the national meet,’’ she says. “It was a huge honor because it’s voted on by the coaches at the nationals so you are recognized by your peers.
“It’s been a progression since I’ve been here. My first couple of years I was here, I know I lost recruits because I was a young, female coach. I had to prove myself, but when high school coaches saw the time improvements the athletes were having, it became obvious that it didn’t matter if the coach was a male or female. By the time I won the award, I didn’t think about it anymore.’’
Kalamazoo College has proven itself as a school that prides itself on academic as well as athletic success. And recruits love that mix, Milliken said.
“We recruit people first based on their academics,’’ she says. “If they aren’t going to be a good fit academically, they don’t make our list.
“Having strong academics helps tremendously in my recruiting. We attract a lot of people to Kalamazoo College because of the success rate we’ve had in getting people into medical school or dental school and also because of the study abroad program.
“We talk about academics at least half of the time with recruits. They aren’t coming here to get better to swim professionally. Academics come first.’’
Many of the alums who have been on the swim team return to help in the recruiting process as well.
“During one of our recent MIAA championships, I had alumni from the 1970s and 80s come back to talk to recruits,’’ Milliken says. “That speaks a lot about the program and Kalamazoo College.’’
The Hornets’ national success on the men’s side has given the school more exposure, but Milliken still has a team predominately from Michigan.
“We have nine freshmen and eight are from Michigan,’’ she says. “Once they come to campus, they love it.
“This year, we have a lot of talent coming in and they are faster swimmers than the people who just graduated. If they develop at the same rate, they could be a really good team, but we have to wait and see.’’
Duplicating what happened two years ago will be tough, she admits. Ellis won the 100 backstroke and set a national record in the event. Three relay teams were second.
“We came in fourth, but were really close to second, which is pretty amazing,’’ Milliken says. “It was surreal because it seems like we had so many good swims, but on the other hand, I thought we could do better.
“I’m just as proud of the performance last season as the season before. We lost three of our eight from the 2010 team, including a national champion, and three legs of the medley relay. We put those three new people together with Craig Fleming and they came in ninth. Coming back to finish eighth as a team was pretty hard.’’
Milliken looks at the K-College women’s team being the same place as the men’s team was four or five years ago, having numerous good swimmers, but needing some depth. The coach is very pleased with the progress.
“Last year, one of my proudest moments was our winning both sprint relays at the conference meet, the first time we’ve done that,’’ Milliken says. “We also qualified for nationals in the 200 medley
"Recruits love the mix of academics and athletics."relay and two of the members were sophomores and one was a freshman.
Sophomore Molly DeWald and junior Taryn Edsall were members of the league champion 200 medley and 200 freestyle relay teams.
“We brought in a solid class and the women’s team is getting stronger,’’ Milliken says.
All of this is coming from a 33-year-old dynamo who almost went to law school a year or so after graduating from Denison.
“I worked in Seattle for a year, but public relations work wasn’t rewarding to me and I was thinking about applying to law school,’’ Milliken says. “Then my head coach at Denison called to say he needed an assistant and I thought, ‘Great! I’ll also use the year to apply to law school.’
“After my first year of coaching at Denison, I loved it. To have that kind of an impact on people’s lives, to see the results was amazing. Some of the cards I have received from people who have graduated are pretty special.’’
Milliken didn’t think she was going to get the Kalamazoo job. She heard about the opening after the job had been taken off the NCAA website, but applied anyway.
“I was recruiting for Denison at the YMCA nationals in April and got a call for an interview,’’ she says. “I wanted to go somewhere similar to Denison because I believe in a small liberal arts educational institution, especially where I can be proud of my athletes both in the water and in the classroom. I came out for an interview and it felt like I belonged.’’
Milliken and her husband, Greg, also a former swimmer at Denison, have two children, Abby (3 1/2) and Jake (14 months). As one might expect, both children are water bugs.
“We took the kids to the beach in South Haven on a 90-degree early June day when the water temperature was really cold,’’ Kathy Milliken says. “I think they were the only ones in the water.
“When we got home, Jake’s lips were still blue, but they both never wanted to come out.’’
Photo 1 - Kathy Milliken
Photo 2 - MIAA champions!