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Jon Howell honored with Jefferson Award for legendary swimming and diving program
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For 25 years, Jon Howell, Emory’s swimming and diving coach, has shaped a program not focused on setting records, though there are joyous plenty of those. His holistic approach encourages scholar-athletes to embody excellence in all they do.

— Stephen Nowland, Emory Photo/Video

“The goal was never to be the best Division III (DIII) team; it was to create something uniquely Emory.”

Those are the words of Jon Howell, coach of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving team since 1998 and winner of this year’s Jefferson Award, which “honors faculty and staff who have significantly enriched the intellectual and civic life of the Emory community through personal activities, influence and leadership, usually over the course of many years.”

Both things have been true: Howell has been the driving force behind the most competitive teams in Emory athletics history, and he has created a program honoring Emory values such as service and commitment to excellence.

“DIII provides a wonderful platform, but I wanted to transcend it,” Howell says. “My focus, and that of our entire coaching staff, has been on how can we support swimmers beyond their time in the pool, helping them become scholars and leaders.”

In other words, Howell and his staff are thinking about the athletes’ personal development and care for others.

Deemphasizing the pursuit of records is possible because, as Howell acknowledges, “at Emory, we can do things outside the box. Emory champions excellence, and we receive incredible support from the Emory community.”

Unsurpassed competitors

Howell has guided the Eagles to 15 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Championships since 2005, including wins for both the men and women in 2017. Each year his teams have won conference titles, now totaling 48. He has overseen 58 individual and 51 relay national champions, as well as nurturing 52 NCAA postgraduate scholarship winners.

By racking up those numbers, Howell eight times has received National Coach of the Year honors, including at the 2017 National Championships, where he won for both the men’s and women’s teams. In 2015, he was awarded the National Collegiate and Scholastic Swimming Trophy, the highest award of its kind in the U.S. The Collegiate Swimming Coaches of America, in 2021, named him as one of the 100 Greatest Coaches of the Past 100 Years.

“While the stats are impressive, the person behind those numbers is equally remarkable,” says associate coach Cindy Fontana. “He has us consistently ask ourselves what worked, what didn’t work, why and what can we do better? His guiding principle is how can we best set up our student-athletes for success.”

“Our athletes are stereotypical overachievers,” Howell says. “They want to swim at a high level, but they are equally invested in their academics. And they can achieve both if they are supported by peers with similar values and coaches who stand behind them.”

The boost from loyal alumni

As demanding as it is to coach a squad of 100 swimmers and divers, Howell is also highly engaged with the program’s more than 1,000 alumni.

From the start, Howell viewed community as the core of the program, with “alumni a big part of that.” And he wanted to do more than make the usual gestures by sending out emails and newsletters.

Partnering with Advancement and Alumni Engagement, Howell established a network through Emory Connects that brings alumni into the fold on many levels: as mentors, points of connection for jobs, guest coaches, speakers and, of course, cheerleaders.

Assistant coach John Petroff is one of those alumni.  

“I swam for Jon, and I owe him so much,” Petroff notes. “Had Jon not encouraged me to come to Emory, I would be without so many spectacular relationships and experiences. Our current athletes and alumni are driven in all the best ways. Jon is the foundation for that.”

Howell centers the lessons that previous swimmers and divers can teach the current team. He laughed, recounting how one alumnus told him, “I want to become one of your stories.”

Student flourishing, poolside

Howell is a firm believer that “you can’t have chaos in your life and swim really fast,” which is why he focuses on the whole person, noting: “I spend more time talking to the athletes about aspects that do not relate to swimming. It is a big part of who we are and what has made us successful.”

Howell has established three endowments totaling more than $1.35 million, including a $500,000 wellness endowment. Through the latter, he has developed a variety of resources — in sports psychology, wellness and nutrition, and sleep neurobiology — as they relate to training, recovery and preparation for performance.

One area where he wants to do more is in helping students maintain mental health.

“That piece,” Howell acknowledges, “is so much more complex and relevant than it was five years ago. We have a number of initiatives in place, but I learn from year-to-year improvements.”

“I help our athletes avoid the expectation that they will be successful because they have joined this program. The reality is that people, through hard work and commitment, make their success happen,” he says.

Pamela Scully, professor of African studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, says: “Many of my students talk about Jon as one of the most significant teachers in their time at Emory. I aspire to be the kind of teacher he is. He sets a very high bar and, with kindness, helps his teams get there.”

Coaching an Olympian

Andrew Wilson’s career at Emory is widely known for its history-making final chapter in which he became the first DIII swimmer to compete in the Olympics. When the U.S. team won gold in the men’s 4x100 medley relay in 2021 (after the 2020 Olympics were delayed a year due to COVID-19), Wilson received a gold medal for swimming breaststroke in the race’s qualifying heat.

Flash back to Wilson’s first year at Emory.

“He was at the bottom of our program then,” Howell recalls. “He did not make the travel squad his first semester. I gave him a spot because I had a feeling that he was our kind of kid.”

A double major in math and physics with a 3.96 GPA, Wilson came on strong in the water and the classroom. He became the university’s most decorated swimmer, leading the men’s team to its first-ever national championship in 2017 and earning National Swimmer of the Year honors twice from the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America.

According to Wilson, “Jon has played a crucial role in my development as an athlete, student and human being. I have been lucky enough to work with almost every ‘big name’ coach during my career. I constantly returned to Jon when I was struggling the most. But his ability to dissect a stroke, create a season plan or write a workout is not what makes him unique. In addition to those talents, he imparts wisdom to his swimmers applicable to more than just swimming.”

A ‘special’ emphasis on community

Service projects for athletic teams, Howell had noticed, tend to be “a couple of hours on a Saturday.” He resolved to change that.

Creating an entity known as Emory Community Swimming, Howell established swim lessons, a youth swim team and a master’s program that began his first year at Emory and is open to faculty, staff and community members.

Starting in 2000, the team also partnered with Georgia Special Olympics to create an Emory Special Olympics team that runs throughout the academic year. Doing so has struck a chord. Some Emory swimmers have chosen to work with special-needs students in their careers while others come here specifically because of this opportunity.

What makes him tick?

Howell loves to cook. He is the parent of a current Emory student and a graduate. A foe of “idle time,” he rises often at 2:30 a.m. and puts in several productive hours before the team’s 6 a.m. practice.

A former standout swimmer at Kenyon College, he was an 11-time national champion and 21-time All-American, primarily as a sprint freestyler. Nowadays, he describes his time in the pool as “nil.” On dry land, he goes hard on his Peloton.

Don’t ask Howell who won last night’s game, for any sport; he won’t know. He does, however, appreciate “those who achieve the highest level of anything,” in sport or elsewhere. His abiding interest is in what he calls “that last 2% that pushes an athlete to an elite level.” He cites Wilson’s journey as an example.

But Howell has energy for the long haul. There is no template for success year to year, even for him.

“You start from ground zero and will be called upon to invest a lot of hard work and commitment,” he says.

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