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Emory men’s swimming and diving team visits White House to celebrate NCAA championship

Saying that the Emory men’s swimming and diving team had a successful 2023 season might be underselling it. On top of capturing the NCAA Division III champion title for the second year in a row (and third in team history), the team also won its 24th consecutive University Athletic Association (UAA) title and set multiple event records, among other accolades.

As if all of that wasn’t impressive enough, the team received an invitation to visit the White House on June 12 as part of the first-ever College Athlete Day, a collaboration between the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the White House. While a handful of Division I teams have been invited to the White House in the past, this year’s event welcomed 52 NCAA champion teams, representing different sports, all three NCAA divisions and hailing from across the country.

Head coach Jon Howell, winner of this year’s prestigious Jefferson Award, has been at the program’s helm since 1998 and served as the driving force behind the most competitive teams in Emory athletics history.

“Every year and team is a little different,” says Howell, “But this has been a really fun group to work with. Coming off of COVID-19, this group is a little more grateful for the opportunities we have. They’ve had some additional challenges with all of that, and it’s fun to see their hard work pay off. It’s a remarkable group of people.”

The gratitude Howell mentioned radiates from the athletes.

Even reflecting on the night they won the national championship, these athletes are quick to mention getting there as a team. “I remember a group of us standing and watching the scoreboard displaying team scores, seeing them refresh, and we all just fell silent,” Ryan Gibbons 24C says of that night in March. “I don’t remember much other than the hugs and quiet tears of all of us standing there, but I know that it will stick with me forever.”

“A huge highlight of this season was our team winning the national championship for the second year in a row,” says Jake Meyer 24B, “but an even bigger part for me has been watching our team truly come together and cultivate such an inimitable culture this year.”

Individual success, he says, can be traced to the team culture they collectively worked so hard to polish.

Receiving the invitation

The White House invitations were sent roughly two weeks before the celebration, meaning that universities and coaches alike were quickly determining logistics, including how to get students to the capital when many had already dispersed for the summer.

Emory provided support as widely and as quickly as possible, providing each athlete from the national team with the opportunity to attend, a luxury not every team in attendance could enjoy.

“The best way to put it is that getting this invite was a blur,” says Lawrence Redmond 23C. “We got the initial invite from Coach Howell to gauge interest and received the full details about a week later. When we got the official letterhead email from the White House, I was starstruck.”

Will O’Daffer 23B originally heard about the invitation from a teammate — and thought it was a joke. “Once I got past that, I was just really excited,” he says. “Receiving that type of recognition gave me a tremendous sense of gratitude to the people who got me there along the way.”

Celebrating in Washington, D.C.

Before Monday’s White House celebration, Emory Advancement and Alumni Engagement organized a dinner on Sunday night with local alumni from graduating classes ranging from 1994 through 2021.

“I love seeing our student athletes be recognized. What they do and how they do it is remarkable, and they could never get enough recognition for what they do,” Howell says. “This invitation captured the attention of a different group in terms of alumni and people in the university. It was a thrill for us to be there.”

Some teammates spent time exploring the city after the dinner, which turned out to be O’Daffer’s favorite moment of the trip.

“We went out to get some dessert and see the monuments lit up. It’s something that meant a lot to me, as someone who’s graduated, to have the extra time with my teammates,” he says. “Having been gone for two months and having those last moments as a group, where things were back to normal, was the highlight for me.”

The next morning was an early one — something Howell’s athletes are accustomed to. In the end, though, the early wake-up call afforded extra time for walking around the White House grounds, taking photos and talking to other collegiate athletes, including the DI women’s swimming champions.

The celebration at the White House took place on the south lawn against the backdrop of the nation’s capital, adding a layer of surreal feeling for attendees. Vice President Kamala Harris, NCAA President Charlie Baker and Texas women’s volleyball player Logan Egglestone each offered remarks.

Favorite moments from the visit included when teammate Crow Thorsen got Harris’ husband, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, to wave at the entire team, talking with other collegiate athletes from the UAA and beyond, and simply being reunited with teammates.

“I just can’t thank the Emory faculty, staff and coaches enough for their support and for making this happen. This is something that almost no one gets to experience,” Redmond says. “I can’t thank everyone enough for all their support throughout my four years and I’m still humbled by my experiences.”

For the athletes who graduated with the Class of 2023, this trip afforded them one last hurrah with those they’ve spent years swimming beside. For those returning to Emory in the fall, it’s certain to serve as motivation to get back into the pool.

“For myself, this is just one of many enriching opportunities I’ve gotten from this team,” says O’Daffer. “I felt a lot of gratitude this last week, having this experience and realizing this is such a cool way to end things. When people ask me if I’m glad that I went to Emory, I say it’s the best decision I ever made.

“This is the experience that everyone will want to hear about, but there are so many more that were also extremely meaningful to me and so many people I met along the way that I am deeply grateful for,” he adds. 

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