Swimming, Olympics Style

Two seniors in the College of Business and Economics were among four Lehigh students who had the history-making honor of representing the university at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Nebraska. It had been more than 40 years since a Lehigh swimmer had qualified for the trials.

Justin White ’17 and Jamal Willis ’17 both had qualified for the trials in the 50-meter freestyle—the swim sprint—based on their performances in the U.S. Winter championships in December.

White, an accounting major from suburban Chicago who thinks nothing of spending hours at a time in the pool, had posted a time of 23.16 seconds to make the trials. Willis, a finance major from Philadelphia who likes to vary his training regimen to avoid the tedium of the pool, hit the exact Olympic trial cut time of 23.29 seconds, though he holds Lehigh’s sprint racing record with a time of 20.07 seconds for a shorter 50 yards. The two did not make the cut to go to Rio de Janeiro, however.

“I love championship meets,” Willis said. “It’s a lot of fun. I feel it brings out the most in anyone because everyone is so excited. Everyone swims really fast.”

White said he had been “a little overwhelmed” at the thought of the competing in the trials.
“It kind of really gets to you occasionally that you have the chance to represent the United States at the Olympic games,” he said prior to the trials. “But at the same time, it’s just incredible to reach, really, the peak of a lot of people’s swimming careers.”

Two other Lehigh students — Kaityln Ruffing ’17, who is double-majoring in music and biology, and Jacob Moyar ’17, who is majoring in mechanical engineering — also qualified for the trials, but did not make the team.

For White, swimming has been his main outlet since he was 5. “I was your definition pool rat,” he said. “Mom would drop me off at the pool at 9 a.m., and she would pick me up at 9 p.m., and I would just be in the pool for literally 12 hours a day on my own. And so I just grew with the water in that sense.

“It can drive some people crazy being in the water for two hours staring at the bottom of the pool, not talking to anybody,” he continued. “But for me it was really a time, whether I knew it or not, to meditate and to really get my mind right. That was kind of my outlet both physically and mentally.”

White, who is carrying a 3.2 GPA, wants to be an accountant. He interned over the summer at Deloitte, a Big Four accounting firm, in Chicago. “My dad’s been an accountant his whole life, and it’s just kind of in my blood,” he said.

Family is important to White, who said that the sense of family and community at Lehigh is “unmatched by any other program and any other school” he visited. Upon graduation, he said he is looking forward to making up for lost time with his family, though he said he would first like to do some traveling. He and Moyar, his Lehigh swimming teammate, have been discussing some places they would like to go.

Willis started swimming while he was in elementary school in Philadelphia where he joined the legendary PDR (Philadelphia Department of Recreation) Swim Club. It was there that Jim Ellis began coaching young, mostly African-American children to compete with the world’s best in the 1970s. Ellis’s story was the subject of the 2007 feature film, “Pride.”

Willis said his focus on swimming intensified when he competed for William Penn Charter School at the high school level and subsequently decided he would aim to become a Division I NCAA swimmer.

Willis said his mother, who spent more than two years as a student at Lehigh, helped him to make the decision. Though she did not complete her schooling here, she always spoke very highly of Lehigh, he said.

“I stepped on campus a few times. I loved it, every time I visited, so it all worked out. Swimming fit perfectly with what I was trying to do,” he said.

Willis, who has a 3.0 GPA, spent his summer as an intern for Fifth Street Capital Partners, a Bethlehem company that works in real estate.

“I always found finance to be interesting. It’s like a puzzle, and you kind of just have to learn how to solve it,” Willis said. “I’m taking a marketing track because I feel that in marketing you can express your opinion more than most business classes.”

He has no set career plans, other than knowing he would like to work in entrepreneurship. “I don’t know what my passion is as of yet, when it comes to my career,” Willis said. “Hopefully, I’ll figure that out in the next year.”

Story by Daryl Nerl

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