"Within My Reach"

Ashley Rowatt '03 is the first Division III athlete in history to win the NCAA Woman of the Year Award

It was classic Ashley Rowatt. When she heard the news that she was a finalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year award, one of the most prestigious honors in all of collegiate athletics, and that the winner would be chosen at a dinner in Indianapolis on Saturday, November 1, with celebrities and NCAA luminaries and all the trappings of an Oscar night, including video biographies and the suspense of a final envelope, her initial thought was that she couldn't go.

A first-year medical student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, she had a major anatomy exam coming up the following Thursday. And she was clear-headed about her priorities.

Then she organized her schedule so that she could start studying early and attend the event.

Then, amid multiple celebrity-style obligations on the day of the dinner, she managed to set aside three hours alone in her hotel room to study.

Then, Sunday morning, she caught an early flight back to Nashville, and by mid-afternoon she was in the lab with her classmates, studying.

And, oh yes, back to Saturday, the awards dinner. On Saturday night she made history.

Ashley Jo Rowatt, "Little Ro" to her Kenyon swimming teammates, who graduated last May after a stellar career in the pool and an equally exceptional record in the classroom, became, not just the 2003 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Woman of the Year, but the first Division III athlete to win the award in its thirteen-year history.

"I had maintained a small level of hope, but Division III had never won, so I convinced myself that it wouldn't happen," says Rowatt, a Louisville, Kentucky, native whose five-foot, two-inch stature earned her the Kenyon nickname. "Just before the envelope was opened, I was telling myself, 'Remember to keep smiling when they don't say your name.' "

The award is special because it recognizes not only champion-level athleticism but also academic achievement, leadership, and service. As Jim Steen, Kenyon's veteran swimming coach, puts it, the fifty state winners of the Woman of the Year competition are already "the greats, the best of the best." And then, winnowed from those fifty state winners, there are the ten finalists, who this year had an average grade-point average of 3.82 in addition to an astonishing array of athletic honors.

And then there was Ashley, who graduated summa cum laude, with a 3.96 grade-point average and with highest honors in molecular biology. On Honors Day in 2003, she won the Robert Bowen Brown Jr. Prize, given by the biology department for the best original research during the year, as well as the Jess Willard Falkenstine Award, given to an outstanding scholar-athlete for leadership and integrity.

A scant list of her achievements as a swimmer would include three individual national titles, two national relay titles, and thirteen All-America awards, not to mention participation in three national-championship teams, including the squad that she co-captained her senior year. In July, she was named one of the two winners of the 2002-03 Verizon Academic All-America of the year award, the first Kenyon athlete and the first swimmer ever to win the honor.

On top of all that, during her four years at Kenyon she tutored troubled youth, served on the Student Athletic Committee, participated in Bible study, and played flute in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, serving as section leader her senior year.

"She's really the total package," says Assistant Professor of Biology Wade Powell, referring specifically to Rowatt's abilities as a scientist. Rowatt worked on a series of research projects under Powell during her junior year, through the summer as a Summer Science Scholar, and during her senior year, completing an honors project.

"Some students are great intellectually, but when they go into the lab they have trouble accomplishing anything," Powell notes. "Others have great hands in the lab but are not particularly strong thinkers. Ashley is a thinker and a doer; she's outstanding in both areas. She was exquisitely productive and independent and smart. She knows how to get the job done."

Steen, who has coached dozens of champions during his twenty-eight years of building the Kenyon swimming dynasty--and who, more to the point, uses a combination of training techniques, charisma, psychological astuteness, and fierce care to help his swimmers perform right up to and then over the brim of their potential--sees a kind of triumphant determination in Rowatt.

"She intensely disliked underperforming in any aspect of her life," says Steen. "She was not one to abdicate when the going got tough, when life dealt its inevitable difficulties. Ashley never succumbed to the setbacks. She always had a plan, she always had a purpose. She was a player, in every sense of the word."

Steen vividly remembers Rowatt's sophomore year, when shoulder problems caused such great pain that she had to fight back tears during workouts, "had to use her creativity and imagination to make it through a practice." Rowatt didn't "persevere," Steen says, because "persevere implies just living with it. She prevailed. There's a quality within you that wants to emerge victorious."

In an e-mail message that she sent to Steen that fall, Rowatt wrote, "I don't want my teammates and coaches to think of me as injured. I have seen girls swim faster than ever before with shoulder issues. Swimming at Kenyon has given me a new imagination about myself. Where I want to be is within my reach."

Later in the year, still wrestling with her "bad phase," she wrote: "It is what I make of myself when I'm not feeling my best that is going to determine the outcome of the process." She was attempting to "reframe" her workouts, she said, adding, "I'm really trying to find myself in the water. And I think when I do, it will be amazing."

Like most serious athletes who are also serious students at demanding colleges like Kenyon, Rowatt was a master of self-discipline and organization. Associate Professor of Music Dane Heuchemer, who directs the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, remembers Rowatt as "100 percent reliable," never asking for special treatment "even though she had so many irons in the fire."

"Ashley was very good at compartmentalizing," says Steen. What separates the truly exceptional achiever from the merely outstanding one, he believes, is an ability to steer through the "nonperfect moments," when self-discipline and organization seem inadequate in the face of pressures imposed by coursework, training, and personal life. "Ashley was phenomenal at negotiating those moments."

Rowatt has, in fact, had to deal with adversity far more profound than shoulder pain. During her junior year of high school, one of her best friends was killed in a car accident. In the January of her first year at Kenyon, a van accident took the life of fellow swimmer Molly Hatcher. Those experiences taught her "to value life and relationships," says her mother, Jodi Rowatt.

She has a deep sense of perspective as well. More than her many achievements at Kenyon, Rowatt says she values the process that led to those achievements: the long months of struggling and learning in the laboratory under Wade Powell's close guidance, for example, as opposed to the fact that she graduated with highest honors or that her work led to a coauthored article that will be published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology. What she found most inspiring in the aftermath of Molly Hatcher's death was the process through which her teammates healed, the way that they drew on their own closeness to sustain themselves. When asked about especially meaningful moments as a swimmer, she mentions not the team's national championships but "working so hard together" after losing the nationals in 2001.

Rowatt grounds herself through an approach to life that she borrowed from Mary Meagher, an Olympic swimmer and multiple world-record-holder during the 1980s, who started out, as Rowatt did, at the Lakeside Swim Club in Louisville. Meagher, said Rowatt, believed that in setting priorities "you should make faith and God first, family second, academics third, and then pick something to devote yourself to. And work harder than hard. I adopted that system as my own."

Kenyon swimmers are very much aware of being part of a larger story. Jim Steen asks individual older swimmers to take newcomers under their wings. One of Rowatt's Kenyon touchstones was Erica Carroll '01, who introduced herself to Ashley on her first day in Gambier, served as a mentor, and ultimately presented her with a parka that she, Erica, had received from an earlier swimmer, Erin Finneran '89.

Indeed, Steen and Rowatt both view the Woman of the Year award as a salute to exceptional Kenyon female swimmers who came before, shaping a distinctive environment of aspiration. Steen mentions Nadine Neil Fabish '86, Patricia (Patty) Abt '87, Amy Heasley Williams '88, Jennifer Carter-Hahl '93, Tasha Willis '94, Carla Ainsworth '95, and Marisha Stawiski '99--as well as Rebecca (Becky) Little '91, now Rebecca Countway, who was a Woman of the Year finalist in 1991, the first year of the competition.

Amy Heasley Williams, who as the Director of Aquatics assists Steen, attended the awards dinner at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, as did Steen, Athletic Director Peter Smith, Dean of Students Donald Omahan, and Peter Casares, a former Kenyon coach who is now head swimming coach at Wabash College. They all sat together with Rowatt's parents, Jodi and G. Wade Rowatt.

Back in Gambier, working his typical fourteen-hour Saturday, was Sports Information Director Martin Fuller, who had started the whole process in the spring by assembling and submitting the information for Rowatt's Woman of the Year nomination. It was a logistically challenging task, because Rowatt, who had already graduated, was backpacking in Europe. Information went back and forth, via e-mail and phone, between Gambier and Louisville, where Jodi Rowatt fielded Fuller's queries and forwarded them to Ashley. Fuller can remember finally hearing directly from Ashley, who was calling on her cell phone from a train somewhere between Paris and Madrid. The essay that she had to write came in via e-mail.

Fuller's nomination was one of about 350 that the NCAA received. "I thought that, given her accomplishments, she had a really good shot at becoming the state winner for Ohio," says Fuller. "Beyond that, I didn't have any idea. When I heard she was one of the ten finalists, I thought, 'That's great,' but I didn't think it would go any further. The odds were stacked against her."

At the Indianapolis Marriott, with the finalists arrayed in front of the banquet hall and the other forty state winners behind them, the Kenyon contingent heard the words ". . . from the State of Ohio" and, as Steen recalls, "that's when we just lost it." There were hugs, tears, shock exploding into joy. A call went out to Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent. Marty Fuller received a call in his office at 10:30 Saturday night.

Rowatt herself says she felt "total disbelief. I was overwhelmed, and at the same time I was ecstatic."

She didn't feel relieved, however. That wouldn't happen until Thursday evening, five days later, when she had finished her anatomy exam.

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