by Randall Schau
Halfway through his senior swim season, Kalamazoo College swimmer James (“Jay”) Daniels ’13 was in the best shape of his life. After months of practicing six days a week (twice on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays), he had become one of the favorites to win the MIAA conference championship in both the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle.
When the races actually took place, though, he finished nearly last, with times worse than those he’d posted years before in high school.
And he was elated.
Why? In part because just ten minutes before the first race was due to start, Jay didn’t think he’d be able to swim at all. In a broader sense, though, it was because of what he’d gone through in the weeks before the meet.
“It was in January that I started to feel tired all the time,” Jay recalls. “I just didn’t have any energy.”
Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Coach Kathy Milliken certainly noticed. “In our last dual meet, about halfway through the 500, he just died. He didn’t know why, but he’d never had anything like that happen before.”
Then it got worse: “For three days I felt like I was swallowing spikes. I thought, ‘Something’s wrong.’”
A trip to the doctor established that the ‘something’ was mononucleosis. Worse yet was the doctor’s conclusion that he was “done for the season.”
Jay went back to his Lathrup Village (Mich.) home and spent most of the next ten days in bed at his parents’ house. He ended up missing two weeks of school and swim practices.
When he returned to the team it wasn’t to swim, it was to assist, to help in any way that he could. “Just his coming back gave our team a lift,” says Milliken.
Even though the doctor had said Jay’s season was over, Jay wasn’t so sure. When he started to feel a little better he asked if he could at least practice. Okay, the doctor agreed, but don’t push it.
“It felt so great to get back in the water. But I still didn’t have much strength.“
As the conference championship approached Jay realized he was in no condition to seriously compete. But in what he knew would be his last collegiate meet, he at least wanted to participate. He explained the situation to his doctor, who eventually agreed he could try.
But when Jay relayed to K’s trainer what the doctor had said, the trainer said the permission had to be in writing. That led to a series of panicky phone calls and a request that the permission document be faxed.
Fifteen minutes before Jay’s first event, it still hadn’t arrived. “I remember Jay pacing back and forth, just waiting,” says Milliken.
With only ten minutes to spare, it finally came. “I jumped in the water and warmed up as fast as I could. I was super fired up to swim!” Jay says. He knew he wouldn’t do well...and he didn’t. “But at least I didn’t finish last!”
Led by the performances of Jacob Lindquist '16, Dylan Shearer '15, Kevin Ewing '16, William Guedes '15, Tyler Benmark '13 and Alex Armstrong '13, the Hornet men’s team won the 2013 conference championship. It was the team’s third consecutive first-place finish.
Jay didn’t score any points in the meet, but his presence and his determination to at least try motivated some of his teammates.
“We had two other swimmers in the 500,” says Milliken. “and they were really glad to see Jay up on the blocks, too. One of them did really well, and afterwards he told Jay, ‘I couldn’t have done it without you.’”
Months later, Milliken thinks back on how unfair it was for a swimmer to get that sick that late in his senior season. “If anyone had the right to be angry, to withdraw, it was Jay. But he didn’t. He had a great attitude.”
That attitude had helped Jay become one of the better high school swimmers in southeastern Michigan. But he hadn’t thought of attending K until his mother suggested it. “She knew it had a great academic reputation,” says Jay, “so she asked that I consider it.”
After a visit to Kalamazoo and some interaction with the swim team, Jay was sold. “The swimmers seemed like a fun group and I thought I could be competitive at that level. And I loved Coach Milliken. She’s become my very favorite coach.”
Where Jay would not be competitive was Grand Valley. “I had an interest in going there, but they didn’t think I was fast enough to make the team. A couple of years later we had a meet against them, though, and I beat their guys. I have to admit that put a smile on my face.”
Swim success at K didn’t come immediately for Jay. “His freshman class had 13 swimmers,” says Milliken. “That’s an unusually large class, and Jay was in the bottom half of it.”
If Jay hadn’t appreciated that reality going in, it became apparent as soon as practices began. “I was nervous at first. I didn’t realize just how good they’d be. I was impressed.”
“Jay worked really hard to become better,” says Milliken.
Part of that work involved learning how to balance being a swimmer with being a student. “Being that busy forced me to set a schedule,” he says. “Otherwise, I would have crashed and burned long ago.”
It has helped that he’s
"It felt so great to get back in the water."had roommates who were also swimmers, such as this year, when four of the six persons who share a house are on the team. With the early morning practices, staying up until the wee hours of the morning hasn’t always been an option.
Although his senior year didn’t end the way Jay wanted, it started just the way he’d hoped--with his election as team co-captain (along with his roommate, Nick Smith '13).
Milliken admits that when Jay first arrived on campus she didn’t see that in his future.“With his class being that large, I wouldn’t have thought, back then, that Jay was going to end up being captain. But he’s been absolutely dedicated to the team, and he really connects well with the other swimmers.”
Being on the swim team also helped Jay, a biology major, select his Senior Individualized Project (SIP). It started with him contacting former K swim star Brian Bazzell '11, who was working at the University of Michigan Medical Center. With Bazzell’s help, Jay assisted with a study involving the effects of exercise on fruit flies.
“First we’d put flies in a glass vile. By instinct they want to climb to the top when they got knocked down, we had a machine that would periodically drop the vials so that the flies all fell to the bottom,” Jay explains. “My job was to monitor fly mobility and cardiac function as the flies age. “
The study’s conclusion: even fruit flies benefit from exercise. All of the flies slow down as they age (life expectancy: 6 weeks), but those put through endurance exercise training had a slower rate of decline.
“Sometimes I had to watch them for 12 hours, and that could be kind of boring,” Jay admits. “But it was also pretty cool” seeing how the exercised flies compared to the control group.
Another conclusion drawn from the study was more personal: “I realized that I have little interest in doing lab research as a career.”
A career that does interest Jay is dentistry. But not just yet. For the near future he’d like to remain active in swimming, specifically by becoming a coach.
Coach Milliken concurs with that goal. “He would be a terrific coach!”
Postscript: On August 1, the State University of New York at New Paltz named Jay Daniels '13 its assistant swimming coach. He will work with Head Coach (and former Hornet swimmer) Scott Whitbeck ’04.
Photo 1 - Jay Daniels '13 (in the lane nearest the camera) and Brian Bazzell '11 (next lane) off the blocks.
Photo 2 - Jay on study abroad in Costa Rica, pictured with his host sister and mother.
Photo 3 - White water rafting in Costa Rica.