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  • Writer's picturePeter Miller

Originally from Marietta, Ohio, Betsy Mitchell escaped Buckeye territory to become one of the great American swimmers of her day. She is a multi-time national, world, and Olympic champion. Betsy’s post-swimming career includes graduate school at the University of Texas and Harvard, coaching at Dartmouth and, now, as the athletic director at Caltech. She is a respected leader in college sports.

Episode notes:

1. Betsy’s introduction story to sport: A rejection from t-ball and a sign at the YMCA for swim lessons.

2. Donna Lopiano’s influence on Betsy at the University of Texas. “She was always pushing me to do more.”

3. Key characteristics of good coaching: Keeping it fun. Using sport as a tool, not as an end in and of itself. Keeping balanced.

4. Her perspective on sport. “This is only part of me. Yes, I see myself as an athlete. Yes, I’m a swimmer. But I’ve always had such a rich ‘other life’ – and I credit my parents for that.”

5. “The training was hard. But they just set the table and allowed me to come into it.”

6. Her college coach Richard Quick: “You guys have talent. It’s yours to harvest.”

7. Always being aware of being a good leader. Being service-oriented and inclusive as a leader – even as a younger person.

8. “This was never just about me…I realized it was very representative.”

9. When she first started as a young coach at Dartmouth. “The women that were there didn’t see me as an Olympic swimmer. I was just their leader, just their coach. It was very collaborative.”

10. Books/authors that have impacted Betsy: Jeff Janson. Jim Collins. Brene Brown. “Lincoln on Leadership.”

11. “I don’t think that my way is the only way.”

12. Asking more questions than making big statements.

13. Creating a learning environment for her staff. A three-pronged approach: 1) hiring willing learners, curious people; 2) Funding ongoing learning; 3) We just talk about it all the time.

14. Why Betsy does not like coaching conventions. “I would rather have them take a Harvard business class online. Or take four coaches who you really admire to lunch…”

15. As a leader and coach: “You have to be good enough to always give the ‘why.’”

16. Betsy’s daily routines: 1) Exercise. “That’s my grounding feature…I do it for my own health but also to be seen…I make sure I work out here at least a couple times a week…So that I’m available, but also so that they see me. That I validate their own priority about their health.” 2) Being out and about. “I do not sit in this office all day.” Being intentional about checking in with people. “Not even about work…’how’s it going? How can I help.’”

17. A learned skill as a leader: “I try not to react. I try to respond.”

18. Her love of adventure…and the importance of adventure in her life: “This is play. The broad notion of play. Play is essential…It’s a way to fill your soul. To have a dynamic life.”

19. Purposeful travel: “Immersing myself in what I do not know…Go where you do not know and where you are in the minority.”

20. Always having an identity as being more than just an athlete. “I never wanted to be known as only a swimmer.”

21. On the importance of leaders and coaches ensuring that student-athletes have balanced lives: “We have to serve young people in that. Because they can get lost later.”

Just off California Avenue in beautiful Pasadena, CA, the athletics complex sits amid other campus buildings where highest level learning unfolds.

The athletics offices, competition spaces, and recreations spaces are housed in the Braun Athletic Center at Caltech.

Banners hanging alongside the campus pool indicate values and priorities of athletics at Caltech.

Caltech Athletics facilities do not sprawl out across large swaths of campus acreage. But they are nice. And surrounded by beautiful mountains, palm trees, and sunshine!

The gymnasium, which sits downstairs from Betsy's office and just down the hall from campus recreation spaces.


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