When I was a student at Notre Dame, from 1960-64, the campus was a different place than it is today. I’m not talking about all the new buildings that have gone up. I’m talking about the atmosphere.
To ensure that students learned to manage their time well and also get plenty of rest, electricity was cut off to our dorm rooms at 11 p.m. during the week; we had to use wind-up clocks. Men—and we were all men; this was a decade before coeducation—were required to wear a coat and tie to dinner. There was nothing in the rules about a shirt, however, so some tested that rule by going shirtless or by fashioning a coat with a front and sleeves but no back.
One rule no one tried to skirt was the swimming test, which every student had to pass to graduate. This continues to be a requirement for graduation. It was administered in the Rockne Memorial by student athletes who were physical education majors and served as coaches for gym and swimming classes. On the day of my test, one of the coaches turned out to be George Sefcik, an All American halfback on the football team who later had a long career as an NFL assistant coach.
As with most of the rules instituted by the priests, no one gave any thought to the justice of having to pass a swimming test to earn a college degree. I was never a very good swimmer or athlete, having had a lot of surgeries on my legs as a kid. Still, I entered the Rock figuring I was decent enough to pass the test and was looking forward to the accomplishment.
In those days the Rock supplied swimmers with what could best be described as loose-fitting jockey shorts for swimming trunks. Thus regally attired, I entered the pool area, sidled over to the left-most lane, and waited for my group to be called to dive in, swim one length freestyle and one length backstroke.
On cue, we hit the water and I completed the freestyle portion without difficulty. Then came the order to do the backstroke.
I rolled over and began my version of the stroke. Not long into this portion of the test, I heard a coach call out, “Don’t worry kid, we’ll save you.” My immediate thought was that someone must really be in trouble.
I opened my eyes and discovered that the coach was calling to ... me.
To my dismay, I had barely progressed from the point where I had begun the backstroke. The coaches took my strokes as thrashing and believed I was in distress. I saw Sefcik stripping off his sweats. The other coach was grabbing a rescue pole. I turned over, swam to the side and registered for a semester’s worth of swimming lessons.
Besides knowing I had to learn to swim to graduate, the other inspiration to improve was a blind student who had also failed the swimming test. He was determined to learn how to swim and, after some initial struggles, proved to be an excellent swimmer. And an even better “blind date.” The story was that guys would bring him over to Saint Mary’s and it would take the gal over an hour to figure out that he was blind.
I managed to pass the swimming test at the end of that semester. Swimming really helped me get in shape and taught me the value of perseverance. Luckily, my career as a CPA never required me to save a drowning person.
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Portions of the above were adapted from Mr. Bohan’s letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal in response to the newspaper’s November 28, 2012, article “For Certain College Students, This Test Calls for a Plunge.”
Mr. Bohan, now retired and living in University Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, enjoyed a successful career in the accounting profession that included serving as managing partner for Deloitte in Romania and Moldova. The swimming test continues to be a requirement for graduation from Notre Dame. It is now administered in the Rolfs Aquatic Center. The author’s children Peter (’90) and Ann (Bohan) Chase (’91) passed on their first attempt. Other successful test takers in recent years include a Muslim woman who swam clothed and wearing a head scarf.