GAMBIER, Ohio — Before she got to Kenyon College, Jennah Fadely hated change.
In fact, it frightened her.
But once the Jordan-Matthews swimming legend made the 470-mile move from Siler City to Gambier, Ohio, last summer, she quickly learned how to embrace it, converting that fear into confidence that she’d use to become a freshman phenom for the Ladies and — perhaps most notably — a 2022 national champion.
“Normally, I’m really afraid of change, but this time, I’m grateful for a lot of change because I really saw myself grow from it,” Fadely said not long after the conclusion of her first season as a member of Kenyon’s swimming team. “I’m very happy with the outcome, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
Fadely was part of the Kenyon squad that competed at the NCAA Division III Swimming & Diving National Championships March 16-19 in Indianapolis, racing in three individual and two relay events. She took first place in both of the relays, including the women’s 200-yard medley relay, where she and teammates Olivia Smith, Crile Hart and Emmie Mirus set an NCAA record in the process with a time of 1:39.59.
She also took third place in both the women’s 100-yard breaststroke (1:00.75) and 200-yard breaststroke (2:14.57) at nationals.
And by the end of the fourth day, when all of the scores were tallied, Kenyon’s women’s team was officially declared the Division III national champions for the first time since 2009, edging out 10-time defending champion Emory University by 7 points in a thrilling championship duel — Kenyon’s 446 points to Emory’s 439.
“We’re just holding each other up and pushing each other to new heights,” Fadely said, explaining how crucial teamwork is to Kenyon’s success. “I’m not sure if we knew we were going to win, but we just kind of went out there and went for it. We kept going like we had all year and we kept up our spirits and our energy from day one to our last day of nationals.”
When Fadely committed to Kenyon, she knew the type of program she was getting herself into: one rich with prestige, history and plenty of championship pedigree.
That’s why, when asked whether she was surprised the Ladies had won the title in March, her answer was simple: A little, but not really.
Winning is just the Kenyon way.
The James A. Steen Aquatic Center, located on Kenyon’s southwest campus, holds 985,000 gallons of water, 25 swimming lanes and, most importantly, 56 — soon to be 58 — national championship banners.
The banners, spaced out evenly, stretch from one end of the main room to the other, spanning the length of both pools and representing Kenyon’s illustrious swimming history.
Dating back to 1980, Kenyon has won a total of 58 NCAA Division III swimming and diving national championships, including 34 men’s titles and 24 women’s titles.
Over the last 42 seasons — excluding 2020 and 2021, which didn’t declare a champion during the COVID-19 pandemic — Kenyon has accounted for nearly 73% of all D-III swimming and diving titles, a run that’s practically unrivaled in college athletics.
In total, Kenyon’s 61 team titles, including 58 in swimming/diving and three in women’s tennis, ranks it 4th all-time among NCAA schools (all sports, all divisions), just behind Stanford (120 titles), UCLA (116) and USC (107). It’s the only non-Division I school in the top 10.
Gambier may have a total population of just a little over 2,300 people, and Kenyon’s enrollment is just under 1,700, but it undoubtedly packs a major punch in the pool.
When Fadely arrived in Gambier last summer, it didn’t take her long to realize Kenyon was special. And much, much different from what she was used to.
At Jordan-Matthews High School, where she swam from 2017-2021, Fadely was the team’s premier student-athlete, consistently improving each season until she found herself at the top of the mountain in 2021 — taking home the first state championship in program history in the women’s 100-yard breaststroke with a record-setting time of 1:02.11 at the NCHSAA 1A/2A Swimming & Diving State Championships in Cary.
Fadely’s teams at J-M typically consisted of a dozen or so swimmers, many with little to no experience when they started out. Home meets took place at the fairly intimate Randolph-Asheboro YMCA in Asheboro, with most of the “fans” in attendance being other swimmers from teams the Jets are competing against.
But at Kenyon, it’s a completely different atmosphere. And at first, it was overwhelming, Fadely said.
“This was the biggest team I’ve ever swam on, so I was worried about getting along with everyone, fitting in,” she admitted. “But when I came up to the (youth swim) camp last year, I met one of my best friends, Maggie (Foight), she swims at Kenyon and she’ll be a senior this year. She introduced me to everyone and told me about how the team works. She made me feel really good about coming here. … I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it without her.”
The Ladies’ swimming and diving team had a roster of 38 student-athletes this season, many of which not only supported Fadely throughout her freshman campaign, but pushed her to become even better than she was during her title-winning senior season at J-M.
As important as the act of training is for Fadely and her teammates — with the team often practicing as early as 5 a.m. so it can fit in two training sessions on most days — she cites the squad’s closeness, and its energy, as the prime reason for the Ladies’ overwhelming success.
“It’s really emphasized here that our success comes together, that we’re one team, we support each other and we don’t stop cheering for each other until the race is done,” Fadely said. “We’re always encouraged to be the loudest team on the deck and that’s one of my favorite things because we are very loud and we scream all of the time. … I really just enjoy cheering everyone on and watching my friends cheer for everyone and have that energy, it gets me pumped up for my races.”
Fadely said she gives her coaching staff, including Head Coach Jess Book and Senior Assistant Coach Fernando Rodriguez, all the credit for cultivating a welcoming, team-focused environment that makes her feel like she’s a part of a family.
And this season, it all came together for the Ladies — talent, chemistry, energy — to form the program’s first title in 13 years, strapping Fadely with her second championship in as many years.
On the final day of the Division III national championships, Fadely recalls the moment Kenyon hoisted the trophy on stage once the Ladies were declared the champs.
“There was a lot of screaming, a lot of screaming,” Fadely said, chuckling.
Kenyon entered the final day with just 4½ points separating the top three spots alongside Emory and Denison University. But as the day progressed, the Ladies earned massive wins from the likes of Mirus (first place, 100-yard freestyle) and Hart (first place, 200-yard backstroke) — along with Fadely’s third-place finish in the 200-yard backstroke — to secure the title.
“It was toward the end of the meet when my friend Emmie (Mirus) won her 100 freestyle and that’s when I knew for sure that we had it,” Fadely said. “We won by 7 points, which is kind of close, but we were still freaking out. It was a long 10 minutes of us sitting in a room, freaking out and crying and screaming and cheering.”
Once the meet was over, Kenyon went back to its hotel room where the student-athletes spent more time excitedly reminiscing over the previous four days — reliving every moment — before packing for their trip back home the next day.
The lack of sleep was surely worth it.
“A lot of my success I can really contribute to our team culture and my teammates and coaches because they’ve really helped me grow as a person,” Fadely said. “I don’t think I really could have done that if God hadn’t put them in my life.”
Nearly three months after the Ladies’ takeover of Indianapolis, Fadely can still be found hanging out at the Steen Aquatic Center’s pool.
While she continues to spend time working on her own technique, her reasoning for staying in Gambier through June is to help out at her second straight youth swim camp, hosted by Kenyon.
Assisting her coaches and teammates with these camps not only allows her to provide instruction to children or teenagers interested in swimming, thus growing the sport, but also gives her a canvas to create lessons and critiques that she can use for herself in her own training.
“I just really love it, I like being able to work with the kids and help them improve on their strokes,” Fadely said, “because, at the same time, it also made me aware of how my body works in the water because I was looking at things and seeing things and was able to point them out.”
Once she finishes up with camp in late June, Fadely will be heading home to Siler City to spend time with her family and, of course, swim. Because the grind never stops — at least not when you’re a national champion, eyeing a 2023 repeat.
After Fadely took home the individual state title during her senior season at J-M, she said that, despite all of the progress she’d made, she still felt a bit unsatisfied, refusing to get complacent before heading off to college.
Now, after two relay national titles and a team championship to top it off, her satisfaction level is rising.
But she still isn’t there.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when I’ve been here at Kenyon, if I’m being completely honest,” Fadely said, “but I do think I have more room to grow. … All around, I’ve just been really satisfied with this first year. And I think I can improve again next year and I’m excited to keep pushing my limits to see how far I can go.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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