Swim coach Brian Bishop equated it to the “Miracle on Ice”—the historic Olympic ice hockey win in 1980 when a youthful U.S. squad pulled off an improbable 4–3 victory over a Soviet squad that was labeled the greatest hockey team in the world.
In this version, The College of New Jersey’s 800-freestyle relay team assumed the role of the U.S. and Kenyon College the mighty Soviets. There was no hockey rink in this faceoff, but instead, a pool of water, eight starting blocks, and eight lanes.
Entering the event at the 2015 NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving National Championships in Shenandoah, Texas, the Lions were a considerable underdog to the Lords. Even that may be an understatement: TCNJ’s seed time was more than seven seconds slower than Kenyon’s.
“On paper, we had no earthly reason to think we could beat them,” says Bishop. “They had the two-time national champion in the 200-free leading off, a 200-free All-American swimming second, and another freestyle champion anchoring. On paper, we had no chance.”
What couldn’t be captured on a preliminary heat sheet—intangibles like heart, tenacity, and a will to win—made the difference. Ryan Gajdzisz ’17, Brett Pedersen ’15, Scott Scott Vitabile ’17, and Jason Ivins ’17 all swam the fastest 200 meters of their lives.
The following night, the Lions found themselves in a much different role. Joseph Dunn ’16, Brian Perez ’15, Vitabile, and Pedersen suited up in the final event of the 2015 championships—the 400-free relay, which they won in 2014—and launched what was arguably the most thrilling race of the week. When Pedersen touched the wall at the finish, the Lions’ time of 2:57.85 (a program record) was identical to that of the University of Chicago. TCNJ defended its national title with a shared first-place finish.