Photo Courtesy: Dawn Gerken Dill
By Lianne McCluskey, Swimming World College Intern.
“Your whole life changes when one person believes in you.” This is where success began for Dawn Gerken Dill.
Being the former NEWMAC Men’s and Women’s Coach of the Year as head coach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dill says that being a swim coach takes a certain type of person. When it comes to coaching swimming, the best coaches know how to get lost in the moment and demonstrate commitment to the athletes.
“It’s just you, the team, and the water,” said Dill. “Nothing else really matters at that point. That’s what sets apart the game changers – the ones that can be totally focused and engaged and just put everything else out of their mind.”
Dill is quick to acknowledge the influences in her life that shaped the coach she has become. As a student-athlete at Smith College, Kim Bierwert played a a significant part in her decision to become a college level coach:
He had this way of inspiring me. I tried to do that as well in my coaching: use what he taught me. He always said things like, ‘There is always toothpaste left in the tube,’ and I always tried to channel his way of exuding confidence. When you have this coach walking around with that kind of confidence, you can’t help but feel confident. Whether you looked like crap in the water or not, he was so positive.
Dill states that she was one of those swimmers who was “kind of fast” at 15 and 16-years-old, yet seemed to lose speed toward the end of high school. “Then I came to Smith and had best times, qualified for Nationals and took off from there.”
Twenty-five years later, Coach Bierwert still remembers seeing Dill as an opportunity.
“If you are going to be successful, it’s going to be in part because of that relationship you have with someone else, whether it’s a teacher or a coach,” said Bierwert, who coached the Smith College Pioneers for 40 years before retiring in 2017 (coincidentally, he was a swimmer and diver at MIT prior to coaching at Smith).
Bierwert saw that Dill had a lot of latent talent, skill and dedication. Some coaches did not think Dill would get faster, but Bierwert saw her for the vibrant, energetic person that she was and could see that she was committed to doing well:
My joy was figuring out how I could foster that, how I could help create that. There’s the concept of fanning a fire; you see a spark and you fan that fire and it explodes into this wonderful heat and energy. She possesses a lot of that energy and passion. I was trying to help her reach her potential. If she could see that I saw that and knew it was there then she would be more likely to tap into her inner resources.
As an athlete, Dill soaked in the tactics her coach provided her. A seven-time All-American in the 100 and 200 breaststroke, she was named the New England Swimmer of the Year in 1996. Dill was a seven-time New England champion in the 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke and an eight-time Seven Sisters champion. She was also honored as both an Academic All-American and ECAC Scholar Athlete in 1995. Dill received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Smith College in 1996 and also received an M.S. in Exercise and Sport Studies from her alma mater in 2001.
After graduating from Smith with her bachelor’s degree, Dill felt a little lost. “I think a lot of swimmers feel this because of their identity as a swimmer. That’s all you know; you’re playing for the next season and the next year,” said Dill. This was the first time she didn’t have a next season.
It was while coaching in South Hadley, Mass., sharing her ideas and noticing how the high schoolers responded to the coaching tactics she learned from Bierwert that she realized being a coach was something she was good at and enjoyed doing. “I gave them positive energy, and helped them believe in themselves and get them out of their comfort zone.” She decided she wanted to bring out the best in college swimmers, just as her coach had done for her.
Bierwert said when it comes to being a good coach, Dill’s intelligence and ability to read people and give each person what they need is what allows her to stand apart. “Learning how to teach is a natural extension of yourself and a free flowing concept. She took MIT from being an okay program to an outstanding program.”
Dill had a lot of fun building the program at MIT, although at first she said she felt a case of imposter syndrome – becoming a head coach at age 29 made her susceptible to the psychological pattern in which at times she doubted accomplishments and had a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”
Although she says she didn’t come in and create magic right away, the program grew rapidly when she learned to put her doubts aside and believed in the culture of MIT and aligned her coaching tactics.
“Just talking to recruits about this great program, I started to truly believe in it,” said Dill. “You need to think it, act it, be it.”
When Dill talks about her philosophy as a coach, the first aspect that comes to mind is creating a family. “At MIT, that’s how the athletic department was: it was this ‘Mom and Pop’ sort of thing, and the energy and excitement just grew. We would have these recruiting classes come in, and they would talk to the upperclassmen. They would show them that we were one big family,” said Dill.
Dill worked on teaching the swimmers more about technique, mental toughness and really getting them to believe in themselves. The camaraderie and ability of the athletes to hold each other accountable also played a role in her coaching style and developed the work horses that would embody a championship winning team.
At MIT, she knew she was working with some of the smartest young adults in the world, and tried to explain concepts of the sport in a way that they would really get – using physics, science, and other ideas they were already applying in their lives as students. Dill admits she does not like to disappoint people, and when it came to making decisions about her athletes, she stuck with saying: “When I make decisions, I am going to be fair; they won’t always be the same or equal, but I am going to make fair decisions.”
Dill recalled the first time the women won NEWMACs at Mt. Holyoke, breaking the winning streak of Springfield College. “It was one of best days of my entire life,” said Dill. This also led to many top-10 performances at DIII NCAAs for both the men and women of MIT.
“It was really cool to see the men on the podium placing in the top four at NCAAs a couple times,” said Dill.
Dill took over the MIT Men’s and Women’s Swimming program in 2003, following in the shadow of Mel McLaughlin, who is now on the Wellesley Swimming and Diving staff and President of Young Women in Sport. Prior to MIT, while McLaughlin was the head coach of Middlebury College, Dill said she was a role model as a female head coach in Division III Swimming. “There was something so magical about her, you could tell she loved her swimmers. Kim’s coaching was motivational, but it was great to see a powerful woman on deck,” said Dill.
According to a comprehensive report conducted by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, women are only disproportionately represented at the NCAA level of all sports. For swimming in particular, the chart below gives the percentage of female head coaches in Division III Swimming. The Tucker Center gives the NEWMAC Conference, which includes both Smith College and MIT, a letter “B” grade level for the number of female head coaches currently in the conference. This is above average, especially in comparison to Division I swim programs.
Dill explained that some female coaches, including herself, leave the profession to raise a family, since it is a challenge to balance both. Kathy Milliken, former head coach at Kalamazoo College, is an example of this dilemma – she stepped down from her position in 2016 to spend more time with her young family. Milliken coached 79 All-American performances and three individual NCAA titles. Her men’s team placed fourth at NCAAs in 2010, where she was the first female in a men’s sport to be awarded NCAA Coach of the Year honors.
During her tenure at MIT, Dill led the team to NEWMAC Championship titles and top-10 NCAA team performances. She was named 2006 NEWMAC Women’s Coach of the Year, and was NEWMAC Men’s Coach of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Dill coached MIT’s program from 2003 to the fall of 2014.
Dill also discussed the different approaches she took when coaching the men’s team versus coaching the women’s team. For the most part, the teams train together; however, she addressed the dynamics of coaching each group, especially at the NEWMAC and NCAA Championships back when the meets were separate (now Division III combines the men’s and women’s championship).
“Men and women are motivated differently, although of course it’s hard to say that exclusively,” said Dill. She noticed the women were more motivated by coming together as a team, and what made them swim fast was feeling connected as a group. The men seemed to be more motivated by records, but it was also a mix of both characteristics in each case. When the championships were separated, there was a different vibe at each meet; she acted differently but remained true to herself in both scenarios.
“At the women’s meet, I was goofy, bubbly, lovey, dancing and playing around to get them to loosen up,” said Dill. “At the men’s meet, I gave more hardcore talks. The men just like to get in and swim. Sometimes the women were really in their heads and getting in their own way, so I would take a different approach.”
Regardless of male or female, she always catered her personality to the individual’s needs – some needed her to be more hardcore and others needed a softer approach. There was also a difference in how she developed trust among the men and women when she originally became the head coach. She felt that the women immediately had mutual respect, and the men needed time to figure out who she was and what she knew. Once they saw that she appreciated the MIT culture and wanted to understand the type of students at the school – their ability to wear a lot of hats, their past traditions, school lingo and calling individual meetings with the swimmers – they could see that she was someone who cared about them as more than just a member of the swim team.
For Dill, she has seen as both an athlete and coach how the NCAA Division III swimming experience shapes a swimmer’s character:
You know these kids are going to go out and change the world, and it is so special to be a part of their lives. They take these moments from their swimming as lessons. In my family, we talk about being a team, and it makes for wonderful life lessons.
Although she decided to take a break from coaching in 2014 to raise her 3- and 6-year-old children, she can’t help but miss the atmosphere and family she formed on the pool deck.
“My life is so different than it was 5 years ago, when I was concerned about early action and who’s applying,” said Dill. “I miss the energy and the excitement and having fifty to sixty kids that you have such a great relationship with, and you really feel like you are making a big difference.”
Dawn Gerkin Dill will be speaking at the 2019 Seven Sisters Championships in January 19 and 20 at Smith College. This will be the final Seven Sisters Championship. MIT has continued its success under head coach Dani Korman, who led the women’s team to their best finish in program history at NCAA’s (fifth in 2017).
All interviews and research are conducted by the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.