Williams College women's tennis coach racks record NCAA wins
Tennis coach Alison Swain has led William College's Ephs to seven national championships.
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane
Oddly enough, the match that Alison Swain, head women’s tennis coach at Williams College, seems to enjoy recalling most is not a dramatic or important win that led to one of her seven NCAA championships, but rather an equally compelling and significant Williams loss—one that ultimately brought the 2014 team just short of having a chance to compete for its seventh consecutive NCAA National Championship.
The rules of college tennis emphasize team rather than individual results, a somewhat complicated point system that rewards overall team wins—though it is the cumulative individual wins and/or losses (three doubles matches, six singles) that determine the team’s overall result. Still, if other teammates don’t pull their weight, one person’s win or loss becomes meaningless. But on this particular spring day in 2014, it would be one person’s win or loss that would prove decisive.
The team was playing in the semi-finals of the National Championship against its toughest and long-standing Division III rival, Amherst, hoping to once again get to the finals. Williams had already lost all three of its doubles matches to Amherst and faced a seemingly impossible deficit from which to recover.
Yet, sure enough, the team took the next four singles matches, meaning that all eyes were now on freshman Linda Shin, the number-2 singles player, everything coming down to this one, deciding singles match. Win, and Williams would advance. Lose, and the team would go home to watch Amherst compete for the title that had been theirs for the past six years.
The fact that Swain would seemingly grow more animated talking about this match over others becomes less surprising the more time you spend with her. Under her watch, Williams has won seven NCAA National Championships, results that have raised her college’s already-high profile, not to mention her own. (Swain and her team’s dominance were, in fact, a topic of a New York Times article in May 2014.) But what Swain seems most interested in talking about is the unique position she is in as a teacher who can influence what type of women her players become.
“I’ll say to people that coaching is my dream teaching job because now instead of five classes of 25 students, I have one class of ten girls and I get to coach them for four years at a time,” says Swain. “And it’s awesome the relationships I get to build with them and help build with each other and seeing their progression from 18-year-olds, typically on their own for the first time, to 22-year-olds getting ready to tackle their first job. And so it’s really inspiring to have a small part in it.”
Swain herself was once one of these young women, an integral member of the Williams College tennis team, becoming co-captain her senior year in 2001 when the team won its NCAA championship. Back then, however, she had no clue what her future might entail—certainly not ending up back at Williams College as its next tennis coach. After a stint teaching and coaching high school and having just moved to Telluride, Colorado, to begin a new job in 2007, Swain got the call from her former Williams coach, Julie Greenwood, letting Swain know that there would soon be an opening.
Despite the bad timing, Greenwood encouraged her to apply. Swain flew East and was soon offered the job despite not having had any previous college-coaching experience. Quite unexpectedly, that first team went on to win its first NCAA National Championship under Swain, setting the bar rather high for her and her future teams. The rest is history—although perhaps the future, too, since Swain has no plans to leverage her current success by moving up to a higher-division school.
But back to that memorable loss in 2014. Swain says the reason she gets a smile on her face whenever she thinks about it is because it reminds her that there is always that one moment every year when the team’s culture and chemistry is “laid bare,” as she characterizes it, “and you see what that group is really about.”
Swain stands up to take down a photo from the wall in her office of the entire team rooting on Linda Shin during the third and final set. The photo shows eight or so girls standing up and going, well, a bit crazy, as they cheer for their teammate.
“This is what our team was doing when she was playing after every single point,” Swain recalls. “Watching her put everything she had out there, and watching those girls who were no longer on court put everything they had into that match was awesome, just so inspiring to see a group of people at one hundred percent.”
But the story has an even happier ending. After her disappointing loss, Shin came back the next year as a sophomore in 2015 and won the deciding match against Emory to bring home yet another national championship to Williams. The win—Swain’s seventh overall as a coach—is an NCAA record, though not something that Swain would ever readily volunteer. You see, for her, it’s hardly the point of the story.