Students standing by the pool and others swimming for the Cornell Swim Test

The Swim Test: A (Wet) Rite of Passage for Undergrads

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Among the happenings that herald the beginning of the fall semester is one that starts many Cornellian careers off with a (literal) splash: the swim test. Dating back more than a century, the University requirement has long been a rite of passage—embraced with confidence by some, with trepidation by others.

We asked alumni to share their swim test memories—the good, the bad, and the simply wet—and got a delightful deluge, with more than 100 comments flowing into our email inbox and on social media.

“I had always been a decent swimmer since I learned young, but by Orientation I had not been in the pool in a number of years,” recalls Kate Ofikuru ’05. “I prayed it would be like riding a bike and I could make it the three lengths. I doggy paddled the last length, I was so tired.”

Those who fail the test—or opt out of it—must, in order to graduate, take a beginning swimming class.

(Requests can be made for modifications or exemptions, and the requirement doesn’t apply to transfer students.)

“I came out of the locker room and was told something to the effect of ‘just swim across and back,’” recalls Jon Heidelberger ’70, JD ’73. “So I jumped in, swam across the pool and—barely—made it back to where I had started. The same guy was waiting for me and, as I struggled to the edge, said, ‘No, dummy—the long way.’”

Cornell is one of just a handful of universities nationwide that mandate basic swimming competency—though two of the eight Ivies do. (The other is Columbia; Dartmouth long had its own requirement, but dropped it in 2022.)

Students swimming for the Cornell Swim Test
In the swim during Move-In 2015. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

The Physical Education website stresses the importance of swimming as a core life skill, noting that drowning is the world’s third leading cause of death by unintentional injury.

Learning to swim is transformational to many, the department notes; it can also break an intergenerational cycle where parents who can’t swim don’t encourage their children to pick up the skill.

“I had spent most of my childhood trying to not learn to swim, despite my parents’ attempts—but I really wanted to go to Cornell,” recalls Laura Duran Gober ’98, who took the swim class her first semester. “It taught me that fears should never stand in the way of dreams. And I made sure my kids learned to swim before they were five!”

After a pandemic hiatus, the test returned in August 2022.

As the guidelines state, each first-year must “enter the deep end of the pool with a feet-first jump and make a continuous 75-yard swim using a stroke or strokes of the student’s choice.”

There is no time limit, and (in a departure from past rules) specific strokes are not required.

Tales abound from across the decades of undergrads who waited to satisfy the requirement until their last semester—and sometimes even its final weeks, as graduation (and the threat of a withheld diploma) loomed.

Just ask Jay Wyatt ’02.

A close up of a student swimming.
Smooth strokes in 2013. (Cornell University)

He had to skip his freshman test as he waited for a visit from tech support to help him hook up his computer.

“I was a strong swimmer, so I figured I could knock it out any time during the ensuing four years,” Wyatt recalls. “Fast forward to May of my senior year, when I get a call that an audit had indicated I would not graduate unless I passed the swim test ASAP. Whoops!”

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As one alum points out, the test even makes a key appearance in a novel by famed author Kurt Vonnegut ’44—specifically, Player Piano, published in 1952.

Students standing by the pool and others swimming for the Cornell Swim Test
Many a first-year friendship blossoms from the test line. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

“One character in the book reaches a very high role in the dystopian society [Vonnegut] describes,” says James Euchner ’78, “but then someone discovers that he never passed his swim test at Cornell—meaning that nothing he achieved after it was valid.”

Cornell’s requirement dates back to Colonel Frank Barton 1891—namesake of Barton Hall—who instituted the test for men in 1905, stressing that the nation’s military academies had made the ability to swim a prerequisite for graduation.

“Recent wars,” Barton noted, “have conclusively demonstrated that a soldier who cannot swim is so much dead timber in the command.”

The test's establishment made Cornell the first non-military college in the country to require one.

Until sometime in the 1970s, men typically took it in the buff, reportedly on the grounds that swimsuits could fray and clog pool filters.

Before Helen Newman Hall opened, the relatively tiny pool in Sage Gymnasium—built in 1872 and measuring seven yards by four—hosted the women’s test, which began around 1920.

According to a 1940 Daily Sun article, women had to swim around it four times, float for 30 seconds, then jump in and “come up smiling.”

In 1975, the requirements were standardized for men and women at 75 yards (and swimsuits were de rigueur).

“My Cornell swim test still ranks as one of the most anxiety-filled experiences of my life—right up there with taking the SATs and enduring childbirth,” admits Heather Reiter Furman ’03.

Students jumping into the pool for the Cornell Swim Test
Leaping in. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

“It’s the longest distance I have ever swum, and all these years later I’m still shocked that I passed!”

T.J. Carrizales ’01, MPA ’03, by contrast, felt confident as he joined other first-years in Teagle Hall; he’d grown up near the water in South Texas and had always been comfortable swimming.

But he didn’t pace himself—launching into the test as if it were a race—and found himself tiring after the first lap. He ignored the rescue pole extended to him by a swim monitor, and pressed on.

Students standing by the pool and others swimming for the Cornell Swim Test
The waiting: the hardest part? (Cornell University)

“As I swam my final lap, I knew everyone was watching—and the nervous energy gave me the needed strength to finish,” Carrizales recalls.

“As I touched the wall, I heard the entire swim complex erupt in cheers; everyone was high-fiving me and congratulating me. I knew then that Cornell was going to be a competitive place, but also quite supportive.”

Top: Taking the test in the Teagle Hall pool in 2005. (Cornell University)

Published August 23, 2023


Comments

  1. Elizabeth (Hoare) Cowles, Class of 1982

    I had my WSI and taught swimming to fellow students who needed to pass the test. One, an athlete, overcame his fear of water and did a great job!

  2. Kim Fisher, Class of 2006

    Is treading water still part of the test? I thought I remembered having to tread water after the 3 laps, maybe for 2 minutes?

  3. Mary O'Donnell, Class of 1978

    I taught swimming to students when I was a undergrad. Some had no swimming experience and were terrified. It was tremendously rewarding and one of my favorite Cornell memories.

  4. Randolph (Randy) Little, Class of 1962

    I don’t remember formally taking the swimming test (is that a senior moment?), but do remember lifeguarding in the new Teagle pool for those tests. More than one who thought they could do it had to be helped to the surface after they jumped into the deep end and found themselves in over their heads.

    • Martha ittle Munson, Class of 1970

      Given your last name, you may have been passed automatically. I think I was! Our father wasCornell’s first swimming coach.

      • Pete Carhart Jr.

        Martha: I had just responded to the previous posting by Randy Little ’62, asking him if his Dad was Scotty, and lo and behold I see the next posting, yours,…statting that Scotty was your Dad. How ironic. Our Dad was hired to continue what Scotty had started, in the Summer of ’66. Also, about a year ago, in looking through my mom’s recipe box…I came across a recipe that I had not seen since late 60’s/early 70’s…your Mom’s recipe for Molasses sugar cookies. Kinda like an old time version of Snickerdoodles!

    • Pete Carhart, Jr.

      Randy: Were you related to Coach Scotty Little? My Dad came in to take over, the Summer of 1966! My younger sister and brother both attended Cornell.

  5. Joy Willig, Class of 1977

    Having access to a swimming pool all year round was a treat for a kid from New York City. Helen Newman became my refuge, not with standing the baggy red ill fitting gym issue required swimsuits. The test was my first successful exam at Cornell. Those years instilled a lifelong habit of swimming almost daily.

  6. Georgianne Hunt Austin, Class of 1975

    When I took the test in 1972 we were required to jump in, tread water for 3 minutes and then swim across and back using 2 different strokes. I had taken the swim course which was very helpful then and in many later water adventures.

    • Pati (Davis) Pineda, Class of 1983

      What I remember most is the treading water. I was thankful my parents had me swimming from the time I was 4 years old. I had no problem with the test but those around me were reaching for the wall.

    • Lenore Decovsky, Class of 1972

      My biggest fear was that I would have to transfer out because I would never pass the test to graduate. I signed up for swim class my first semester to get it over with. Somehow I managed to get across that pool 4 times, but I wouldn’t call it swimming. To this day I still say I can’t swim!

  7. kerm bossard, Class of 1963

    I missed the first week of classes-and therefore the swim test, so signed up for taking swimming–not being a swimmer. In reporting for swimming, I had to ask directions and was sent into the pool area. The instructor was taking attendance and muttered something like my name and then asked all of us to go to the shallow end, dive in, and swim the length of the pool without using our hands. I thought that they must have learned a lot in a week, but did as asked. Sank about 2/3 of the way. Sank again before being hauled out. Then very harshly told to go through a second door to the beginners pool! Almost drowned my first week!!

  8. Mordecai (Mordy) Blaustein, Class of 1957

    As I was standing at the edge of the pool, ready to jump in for my swimming test, I recall fabled crew coach, “Stork” Sanford, standing nearby, pull my fellow fraternity pledge aside. Jerry Sachs had just completed his swim and Sanford, who was looking for big, muscular men, pulled Jerry aside and exhorted him to come out for crew (which Jerry did). The legendary ’57 seniors went on to win the nationals and the Henley Cup – although Jerry didn’t make it to the varsity.

  9. Kathy Riggs Van Wie, Class of 1968

    I was a freshman in 1964 and was amazed that so many incoming students did not know how to swim. Helen Newman was a relatively new building and very convenient to my room in Mary Donlon Hall. I was paid $5/hour (which was a lot of money in ’64) to help girls learn to put their faces in the water, blow bubbles, and generally get comfortable in the water. I am glad it is a requirement because, as a safety issue, it is important to be able to swim. I clocked many laps in the Newman pool for my own personal exercise. Fond memories!

  10. Melissa Yorks, Class of 1975

    As a transfer student managed to avoid the test! I think I could have passed it though. A couple of years after college I took scuba diving at my old high school and each class after the lecture part started with us swimming the length of the pool and back. Olympic sized pool. I wanted to take scuba diving at Cornell but those freshmen and sophomores always got the slots.

  11. Dianne Dyson Coles, Class of 1969

    This topic is so funny to see! One of the horrors was having to past the swim test by someone terrified of water. Peggy Lawler, my dance instructor and swim class teacher, was incredibly patient and encouraging. I passed because she pushed me to take my test before thanksgiving break because she feared I’d regress too much over the holidays and I passed! It was grace!

  12. Jeri Frank, Class of 1976

    I had never jumped in before the test, and I haven’t ever jumped again in the next 51 years since that fall of 1972. I could swim, so I didn’t want to take the swim class, so I just had to make myself do it! It is still traumatizing when I think of it! I do think it’s a good idea to require that students know how to swim, and I hope Cornell continues to stress out their students this way!

    • Lucinda Briggs, Class of 1970

      Hi Jeri,
      Didn’t know the jump was a problem.
      Your Zoom & Phone Buddy, Cindy

      I improved my swimming skills at Girl Scout Camp Comstock so I remember no challenge from my Cornell test, except stamina for the distance.
      My 14 month old granddaughter is loving her Swim Starters class at the Y.
      All in favor of keeping the Cornell test.
      In Risley, the girl in the room next to me was petrified of nit earning her degree due to fear of the pool.

  13. Steve Benenati, Class of 1975

    It was January 1973, I was a transfer student registering for classes. Transfers were then required to take the swim test before selecting a PE course. I thought I could get out of the test by telling them I did not have my swimsuit. They told me that it didn’t matter, take off my clothes and jump in! That was the first time I had ever skinny dipped with lights!

    • Lucinda Briggs, Class of 1970

      HaHa!

    • Dr. Marco Di Capua

      Indeed, I was a foreign student, a fresh arrival from South America. I reported to the pool at the appointed time and told the test monitor pthat I would be unable to take the test as I did not have the time or money to buy a swimming trunk at which point one of the test monitors howled: “Are you some kind of a sissy? Take off your clothes and jump in the water!”

  14. Pat Reilly, Class of 1978

    I’m one of those who didn’t take the test until Senior Week! I had put it off and finally took the swim class the first half of my Senior spring, but missed the last day when they were going to test us because I was on my way to a rugby tournament in Florida. I procrastinated again and finally went in for the test days before graduation, and was threatened with not graduating by the person who gave the test. Great motivation!

  15. Leslie Greenwood, Class of 2004

    Coming from Texas, I couldn’t yet understand the thick accent of the New Yorker administering the test. He must have said go at some point. Everyone else jumped in, and I was left standing there alone in my swimsuit while everyone else was off to the races! I hurriedly jumped in and caught up, completing the test with no problem. It was a reminder that, though I was far away from home and out of my comfort zone, I was able to hold my own at Cornell.

  16. Leslie Nigel Colborn, Class of 1968

    What surprised was having to do it naked. Otherwise, being a keen swimmer it was easy. One thing did bother me though: some of my fellow freshmen were giving me curious looks. I soon realised that it was because, unlike most male Americans, I had not had a certain small operation as a boy baby.

  17. Susan Walsh, Class of 1982

    I took the swim test and was right away asked to try out for Women’s swim team which I was going to do anyway but didn’t have info yet – so swim test made that easy. I came from an AAU swim team at home so yes I had an advantage. I did take the WSI class at Helen Newman Hall to help my lifeguard resume. It was a blessing as we were practicing lifeguard saves in the water and I had to use one of them at one of the gorges that year. No lifeguards at the gorges–that means please if you don’t swim, do not go in the water or assume shallow. One guy thought water was shallow because I was floating around in 20 feet and made it look easy. He panicked and was about to grab my head and thankfully I had just learned the escape in WSI class. Saved my life and his. Thankfully, my friends were also nearby to help me get him out as rocks were wet and slippery. So I agree that swim test is still relevant at Cornell given proximity of gorges, etc. and important to at least try to learn how to swim if you have never taken lessons before. If you are a good swimmer, learn lifeguard skills too so you know the right way to save someone without risking your life. I am thankful for that WSI class. And I would never go in water alone without someone nearby, despite being a good swimmer.

  18. Bill Ridlon

    I do not recall taking or being told to take a swim test. I grew up from kindergarten, and maybe before, swimming in lakes, streams and rivers, and I earned my Red Cross Senior Life Saving Certificate at Cornell. I didn’t know that I needed that to graduate. After all these years, learning of this requirement I wonder if there was something else I missed and will learn that I still haven’t really graduated.

  19. Ken Kupchak

    Three lasting memories: 1. I lived in mortal fear of forgetting the combination of my Teagle basket and inability to reclothe afterwards; 2. couldn’t swim and thus managed to take the lane next to the wall which allowed me to grab the wall with the arm on that side each stroke and pull myself along — no one , thankfully, noticed (perhaps they intentionally looked the other way?)– never did learn to swim until I served a tour in Vietnam circa 1967-68, when I forced myself to learn; and 3. I couldn’t find out where they stored the swimming suits….(the only place I ever swam without one, until Law school, where everyone swam in the buff above the dam at 6 Mile Creek, even our then first born, who we floated around- there after at every reunion through my 50th, we’d skinny dip in 6 mile creek– great tradition.

  20. Victor Todisco, Class of 1980

    In 1976, almost all the men were still doing it naked. I wasn’t thrilled about that, a freshman away from home for the first time with no friends from home, but felt like you would stand out more if you put on a suit. I barely passed it, I would have been better off taking the swim class. I’m still a pretty weak swimmer.

  21. Dexter Wang, Class of 1967

    I didn’t know about the swim test until I arrived as a freshman in 1965. My high school had a similar, but slightly harder test, also in the buff. When I took it I was surprised that many other students had never been exposed to swimming. I think basic swimming skills are a good thing.

  22. Gina Strauch, Class of 1980

    I have never ever been sorry I got my degree at Cornell, but having a lot of social anxiety and a general lack of coordination I probably wouldn’t feel that way if I’d had to put on a bathing suit and take the swim test or take a phys ed class, or have to live in a dorm, and as a transfer I didn’t need to. Perhaps I didn’t come away with the Team Cornell spirit, but I did come away with lasting friendships, the ability to ask good questions and find good answers, and an awareness that there was a lot more to the world than the lower middle class community I grew up in.

  23. David Marsh, Class of 1965

    I think that influenced me, so after that I became a life-long (Pacific) ocean swimmer!

  24. Carolyn Rogers, Class of 1959

    Class of ‘59– lived in Risley freshman year, then Sage the next. Remember this pretty well—scared, although coming from ME, had lots of experience. Passed, and it led to trying out for Water Ballet. Happy to make it, and had fun doing exhibitions (with music, of course). It was so much ‘light’ fun, though hard work.
    Wonder what happened to this on today’s campus.

  25. Joyce Edgar Schickler

    I believe I took the test in Teagle in ‘53, my freshman or sophomore year, just to get the requirement taken care of. Passed, but maybe not pretty. So glad it’s still a requirement.

  26. ariana

    traumatizing experience.
    wrote a short essay about it.
    https://arianasextonhughes.com/the-swimtest/

  27. John Barton, Class of 1965

    As a MS candidate at Cornell, I did not need to take the swim test. As an entering NROTC student at Oregon State, we had to jump off the high board and then treed water for 2 minutes while not using our hands. I had never jumped from anything that high (like emulating us abandoning ship). Also, I had never jumped or swam when being buck naked. Standing naked with other naked guys waiting out turn to jump, I decided I would rather be laughed at for being naked than laughed at for not jumping.

  28. Chip Baines, Class of 1978

    Glad to know that the year I took the test – in the fall of 1974 as an incoming freshman – was the last time men did it in the buff. Two years later I enrolled in a Water Safety Instructor’s class, and not knowing for sure about the policy change I brought a bathing suit with me, just in case. Glad I did – it turned out to be a coed class, and so yes, bathing suits were definitely required!

  29. Michael Steinit

    My recollection (I graduated with a B.Eng.Physics in 1965) was that we had to pass PhysED in order to graduate. I chose swimming, being reasonably competent as a swimmer (I later became a scuba diver) for the first semester, but for the second semester I was assigned to take GOLF! I am one of the most uncoordinated people in the world and a great embarrassment to my kids when they were young. I can confidently say that I hit that ball (in Barton Hall) at least 3 times in that semester and that I probably passed the course out of pity…

  30. Judith Nowak, Class of 1970

    I graduated 1970 and I didn’t even remember the test until reminded by this story. But I think it is a great idea.

  31. Roger Schecter, Class of 1965

    The swim test was a horror for me. In 1961, you had to swim 2 lengths on your stomach to pass. I was a total non-swimmer and had to take the class. When I failed, I had to take it again. Again I failed although I had learned how to do a decent sidestroke. Finally, the 3rd semester the instructor said I could pass by doing sidestroke as I would never learn to swim any stroke on my stomach! Finally, I was permitted to take horseback riding for PE which I truly loved. Three semesters of swimming for non-swimmers was truly torture. ABOLISH THE SWIM TEST!

  32. Katherine Lyle, Class of 1958

    I never took a swimming test at Cornell.
    Did they skip that requirement the years
    I was there or did I not graduate?
    I do think it is a great idea though –
    knowing how to swim is so important

  33. Mary Ann Wickes, Class of 1975

    It is my recollection that in the fall of 1971 the girls had to swim 4 laps at Helen Newman and the boys only 2 laps at Teagle. After my swim test I was asked if I were interested in joining the swim team. (Granted, this was pre- Title 9) I just laughed. But I enjoyed telling my children this story, as all three were D1 collegiate swimmers. We all swim Masters to this day

  34. Andy Hospador, Class of 1962

    I don’t remember taking a swim test, or anyone talking about one. I don’t think I ever was in the pool. I may have been exempted because I went out for crew (and was cut after a few weeks) and then was recruited by the fencing coach Georg Cointe.

  35. Mike (Mickey) Miller, Class of 1962

    I felt more comfortable taking indoor golf and squash. At least in the late 50’s we didn’t have to play those in the buff.

  36. Lila Helu-Gingold, Class of 1984

    I remember the swim test well. I am afraid of water and can’t really swim. To this day have no idea how I graduated high school since a swim test was a requirement there too. I hadn’t swum all summer; the only stroke I knew was the side stroke- but could never remember what side I could swim on. I jumped in, floundered around for a bit trying to figure out how to swim. The lifeguard got the pole and reached over to ‘save’ me. Well, I knew I definitely did not want to have to take swim lessons- so I glared at him, figured it out and sort of swam across to the shallow end. I did touch bottom briefly as I turned around, which fortunately wasn’t noticed since that was automatic failure, and swam back and forth. It took me a long time, but knowing he wanted to pull me out of the water and take swim lessons (again) motivated me to push on. To this day I say I can probably save myself in a pool, but never another person. Just knowing that I was able to pass it has made me more comfortable in the water, but still very cautious.

    I think it is great that the swim test is a graduation requirement too and shouldn’t be removed.

  37. Peter Carhart, Jr.

    Keep the test! Dad was the second ever Men’s Swim coach at Cornell, and to this day I remember how much it upset him to read in the Ithaca Journal that a Cornell undergrad had died as a result of drowning/not knowing how to swim. Pete Carhart, Jr.

  38. Jeffrey Frey, Class of 1959

    Congratulations to whoever in the Alumni office thought this up–such a seemingly small event that brings back a waterfall of Cornell memories. I remember the test very well. Very traumatic. I was 16, mortified without a suit, very unathletic, and failed–maybe at the pull-out level. So I remember the test very well. I finally passed using a combination of ad hoc strokes after a the one-semester swimming class, then went on to a brilliant Cornell athletic career swatting golf balls in Bacon Cage (for which you didn’t have to change into a gym suit). But when I came back to Cornell as a faculty member I swam every day for fifteen years, as I did after that until the pandemic shut pools down.

  39. Scot McClintock, Class of 1974

    I passed the test but later took swimming for physical education. Memorable events included jumping off the 3 meter board in the buff and playing water polo with just a hat. Thanks for this article proving to my family and friends that I didn’t make it all up!

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