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Catching Up With Emory Swimmer Rachael LeClair

Catching Up With Emory Swimmer Rachael LeClair

The Emory women's swimming and diving team has won eight national championships and produced more than 20 individual national champions since the inception of the UAA. The first of those individual champions was Rachael LeClair and she has lost none of the passion she had then for Emory or the UAA.

LeClair was the first UAA Women's Swimmer of the Year in 1988, her first year at Emory after a troubling personal experience as a first-year student-athlete at a Division I school. She shared the UAA honor in 1989 with teammate Lisa Kung and earned the honor outright again in 1990.

"I was really young when I went to school and was checking out all kinds of schools," LeClair recalled during her first year. I remember my friend Andy Karsch telling me, 'if you have to leave, you should look at Emory."

"On our drive back to Ohio, my parents and I visited Emory," she said. "I vividly remember meeting Peter Smith and immediately felt a sense of calm. The campus was beautiful and I knew Peter was true, steadfast, real, and genuine with no sense of pretention or deception."

"Rachael was a 'special athlete' and very coachable," said Smith, who coached her at Emory and now serves as Director of Athletics at Kenyon College. "She came to Emory at a time when our program was moving into the top level of NCAA Division III swimming and she instilled confidence in the other student athletes."

"I trusted Peter the minute I met him," LeClair stated. "He said 'you can swim fast here' and I just knew it was a great fit for me." As far as inspring her teammates, LeClair jokes that it may have more been her insistence that everyone feel as strongly as she did. "I was so proud to be at Emory and wanted everyone else to be just as proud and to believe in Peter and the program."

"Every single person in the program brought something amazing to it," LeClair said. "Not everyone was as fast as some of our top swimmers, but every person was incredibly dedicated."

LeClair posted four top-seven finishes in the 1988 NCAA Division III Women's Swimming and Diving Championship, incuding a runner-up finish in the 200-yard backstroke. She also placed third in the 100-yard backstroke and 400-yard individual medley, and seventh in the 50-yard freestyle.

She became the second Emory swimmer, and first since the inception of the UAA, to win a national championship when she captured the 200 backstroke in 1989. She added runner-up finishes in the 50-yard freestlye and 100 backstroke. The first Emory swimmer to win a national championship was Julie Hogan, who won four individual titles in 1985. "Julie was in law school at the time I got to Emory and she was so supportive," LeClair remarked. "She had a real appreciation for Emory and assured me it was a great place."

As a senior, LeClair won the NCAA 400 IM in 1990, finished third in the 200 backstroke, and placed seventh in the 50 freestyle. 

"A significant coaching moment came when she practiced on underwater streamlining with her backstroke turns, where she would outperform her competitors coming off the walls," Smith remembered. "At NCAA's at Williams where Rachael convincingly won the NCAA Division III 400 IM, the effort she put into the streamline technique was evident off every turn and other coaches remarked on how well she performed. It was this focus and attention to detail that made her a special student and athlete."

LeClair did not swim the 400 IM until she was a sophomore in college. "I don't even remember how it happened," she stated. "Peter must have just told me it would be a good event for me and calmly assured me I could succeed. He was not a cheerleader type. He just had a way of making you believe everything was possible."

"Rachael's era was really a breakthrough one for Emory," current Emory men's and women's swimming and diving head coach Jon Howell said. "She was part of a very special time and we build on the success of teams like hers. For them to finish as high as they did at NCAA's was unheard of at the time and it set a new standard and new set of goals."

"Rachael gave the Emory women's team its identity as a highly competitive group of swimmers and set a course for several years at the top of the UAA's," Smith added.

LeClair sums up what Smith has meant to her very simply: her son's name is Peter. "He and his wife Linda, who is just as wonderful he is, filled a lot of role for me and got a lot more than they bargained for," she laughed.

"Peter was so in touch with what each person had on their plates as a student-athlete," LeClair said. " He knew exactly what each person needed and was incredibly intuitive." She clearly remembers one time when she was completely exahusted and overwhelmed during practice. "Peter just told me to get out," she recalled. "He knew I just could not handle being there that day. It is not something he would ordinarily do, but he had a great sense for what was going on with each one of us."

She gave back when her former coached needed her most. "Along with her husband Tommy, she orchestrated meals and financial help for my family after a serious road accident in Nebraska in 2011, decades after I coached her," Smith said. "Committed to those she cares about, Rachael as an Emory Eagle and now as a long-time alumnae, fully supports those people she has shared her life with. She is one of the most inspiring, influential, and remarkable student-athletes I have coached or known at Emory University or Kenyon College."

Every year, Howell invites back an alum for family weekend, spanning many generations over the years, to speak to the student-athletes and parents. "Rachael did such a great job," he recalled. "It was great for the current student-athletes, who are often focused on the day-to-day challenges, to hear the perspective of someone who has been where they are."

"When I spoke to the parents, they had a great sense of what their sons and daughters were getting at Emory," LeClair said. "The student-athletes are challenged intellectually, but they can also swim fast. It is a great combination."

"The current swimmers have a great sense of the history of the program and that is a tribute to Jon," LeClair commented. "One time we swam in an alumni practice and figured the current swimmers would think we looked pathetic, but instead they told us we looked great and did not put us off at all." 

One of her favorite times every year is when Howell asks the alumni to e-mail words of encouragement to the current swimmers about three weeks before the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships. "It is an amazing way to stay connected not just to the program, but to the current student-athletes," she said. "Jon always says to keep the words of encouragement coming and that the current swimmers read them all."

Her enduring passion for Emory and the experience she had there still has long-reaching effects. A 1998 Emory Sports Hall of Fame inductee, LeClair is an assistant swim coach now in North Carolina, where she is an attorney, and one of the swimmers she coaches is headed to Emory next year.

"The swimmer found out about Emory because Rachael coaches her," Howell remarked. "She may not have even considered us if not for Rachael and her love for the program." Even to this day, LeClair thinks about how her actions reflect on her university. "It was, and is, such an open enviroment for learning for all students and experiences. There is a sense that we are all in this together and that you can be who you are."

That enthusiam extends to the entire UAA. "It really is an amazing consortium of institutions similarly characterized," she stated. "There is an understanding across the UAA of the quality of the schools and the challenges to succeed academically and athletically." 

"At the NCAA Championships, we would compare how the UAA was doing against other conferences," she added. "We had a UAA cheer and there was a sense of all the conference teams coming together. When I won the 400 IM, I remember the first thing I did after touching the wall was to look for Jo (Wollschlaeger of Carnegie Mellon University) to see where she finished and was happy that she was second."

She has ties to other UAA schools as well, having earned her law degree at Washington University. Her grandfather did some of the intricate carvings in the University of Rochester library.