Part One of a two-part mother-daughter Q&A series. Staff writer and Albion swimmer Mary Noble sat down with her mother, Sue Noble (‘84) to discuss her time at Albion as a swimmer and her legacy at the college. You can read Part Two here.
When I finished the final race of my collegiate swim career on Feb. 23 at the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Championships, the first thing I wanted to do was hug my mom. That ended up being impossible because she was far away in the stands, but in that gesture, I wanted to say, “Thank you for introducing me to the sport and for encouraging me to keep going when I nearly quit.”
What many people don’t know is that she is one of the main reasons I am at Albion. She pushed me to apply and told me all about her own experiences at Albion. Many people also don’t know what an amazing swimmer she is.
Sue Noble (‘84) finished her collegiate career with nine Albion records, four MIAA records and eight pool records. Two of her Albion records, — under her maiden name, Leiby — the 1000 and 1650 freestyles, still stand today.
During her senior year, she won all three of her individual events (200, 500 and 1650 freestyles) and was named MIAA conference MVP. She qualified for Nationals all four years, first attending the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championships before women’s competition was absorbed into the NCAA. She ended her senior year at NCAA championships with a seventh place finish in the 500 and a first place finish in the 1650. In 1994, she was inducted into Albion College’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
I sat down with my mom to ask her about her swimming career. During the interview, I realized not only just how much we truly got to know each over the years through this sport, but that I always have someone who is willing to dive back in with me, too.
On changing the status quo
Mary Noble: How did the implementation of Title IX affect your start in swimming?
Sue Noble: Women’s sports had been around maybe two or three years [when I began swimming in high school]. You always had a decent number on your team, but there weren’t that many, and then it depended on how strong your school was whether there was a lot of emphasis on women’s sports. I was fortunate that there was, and we also had a coach that was the men’s coach as well as the women’s coach. Some schools didn’t have that. For me, I felt like I was at the beginning were it was accepted to be in a women’s varsity sport and encouraged.
There wasn’t a lot discussion about going on to college. That was still very novel unless you had lots of experience on a club team that took you to that level. So I got to the point where I was thinking about college and I had a broad experience with the club team, so I knew what was going to be expected of me on a college team.
MN: How did swimming affect your decision on where to go to college?
SN: I had already decided that I didn’t want to go DI because one, I didn’t know if I’d make the traveling team, and two, I knew that women’s sports wasn’t going to get me a job in the end, and I wanted to focus on something that would allow me to get an education and a job at the end. Albion was my focus because of that.
MN: Did you have the same recruit process and overnight system like we do today?
SN: No, no I came down to visit, but I don’t even remember really meeting the coach at all. My counselor really pushed Albion, and I was really comfortable here so I knew I could swim here. When I got here, it was a shock because my coach wasn’t like my high school coach had been. He didn’t know a lot about training, and the emphasis wasn’t there. It was more social than a serious thing, so for those of us who wanted to go on to Nationals, you know, we were struggling. We needed extra stuff to do.
MN: And you had a few different coaches while you were at Albion, right?
MN: How did that affect your training?
SN: After my freshman year, I went in and talked to [the late] Frank Joranko (‘52), who was the head of the athletic department, and gave him my grievances about the program and looking towards a new coach. Thankfully, the men’s coach was retiring, so [Albion] decided the new men’s and women’s coaches would coach together.
So my sophomore year, I had a coach that wanted to be DI, he wanted to be a national-level coach. So all of a sudden our program went from hardly anything to structured, longer workouts. I enjoyed that, but we were still part of [the AIAW]. We weren’t part of the NCAA yet, so it was one of those things where you still weren’t at the top level of competition. When we joined the NCAA, we had another coach who was happy to be at DIII, but was forward looking about getting the team beyond MIAA towards Nationals.
MN: How did qualifying for Nationals change after you switched from AIAW to NCAA?
SN: There must have been [qualifying] times, but I don’t remember sitting down with anyone and saying, “I need to go these times.” You just kind of swam and sort of made it. And I know we had relays who went, but it was pretty much just two of us who did fairly well, and then my third year it got more serious when the team went to NCAAs. Then you had cuts. There wasn’t an A and B-cut, it was just a cut based on what the top-20 times were last year.
Setting her pace
MN: How did your lineup change throughout your four years? You focused on distance at the end, but you also swam individual medley (IM) and butterfly.
SN: Right, I was one of those that wherever [the team] needed someone, I stepped in. I know my second and third year, with the changes in coaches, we had more of a recruiter, and we got more sprinters, and I wasn’t going to be a sprinter, so I became more stroke-based. Then by the time I got into late sophomore and junior year, I was moving more into distance just because we had some strokes and we had the sprinters, but we didn’t have a distance base. So they needed me there, and I liked it. It did suit me. The training changed, too, because we were then training with the men where before we trained separately.
MN: What did you think about that? Was one way better than the other?
SN: Training with the men was better for me because it gave me a better challenge. There were still not a lot of women coming in thinking beyond MIAAs, and I needed someone to push me, so having men there was just that next step, and then as they got better, that helped me get better.
MN: Why did you like distance?
SN: For me, it was about being in control. With the sprints, it felt like the start, the turns, the finish, any of those could have just done me in. So for me, I had more control of the race when doing distance. I could plan it out, it was just more — I was in charge, I liked to be in charge.
MN: How did you feel before races? For me, I always struggled with the mental part of it and would psych myself out.
SN: I did a lot of visualization, which I learned in high school, and I found that helped me with knowing how I want to race — being aware of how I wanted to feel while I was racing — and it also helped me to deal with the nerves. I found most of my nerves were just getting to the blocks, but once I was in the water, I went to what I had mentally talked myself through. I do a lot of mental talking while I’m racing, so I think that as long as I could get myself into the pool, I was okay.
When I went to Nationals my last year, my issue was that I was forgetting in prelims that I had to trust what I was doing. I was all of a sudden concentrating on what other people were doing and doing their race, not my race. But when I got in finals, it was like I just needed to remember that, and I was okay. Unfortunately, you have to get through prelims to get the top position.
Through most of my dual meets, I didn’t have many people who would challenge me, especially in the distance races. That’s not what you find now, because there are so many women who are a higher quality of swimmer now, which goes back to more women are going into sports when they are younger. There are more opportunities through clubs and then you get to schools who have great programs. I think women now, as they get older, they think, “I love swimming, I’m going to keep swimming and doing my sport,” and for me, that hadn’t been something I was exposed to. For me, the pool of expertise that I was jumping into was very small. Fewer women had gone through that experience. I think a lot of my success was just being fortunate that I had some great coaches who started me off and just being a pretty determined person and wanting to do well.
MN: How did you view swimming while you were in college?
SN: It was something that was very important to me next to my academics. It was something I really wanted to do well in, I enjoyed being in shape, I enjoyed the challenge, I had wonderful friends on the swim team. We didn’t have team meetings very often, if you had friends on the swim team it was with a couple people, we didn’t hang out as a team as much as I think you guys do now on your team. I made it important to me, rather than someone else making it important.
MN: Did you have any concerns when you were going abroad to Germany?
SN: I went abroad in the spring semester [of my junior year] after I had qualified for Nationals. It was one of those where I was thinking, “I’ve made a terrible mistake, I shouldn’t be going abroad, I should stay here and swim.” But once I went abroad I knew I hadn’t made a mistake. Basically the maturity I gained from living in a different country helped me my final year.
I knew this was my last year, and I had big goals, but I had a supportive coach and friends who were there who had do the timing. I had a lot of support. My parents always came to the meets. I look back humorously on my weightlifting class because [now-assistant swim coach] Mary Ann [Egnatuk]’s husband Dave was the weightlifting coach. I was fortunate to have another female athlete there who wanted to lift, so we were comrades-in-arms, because it was just us two and all these football players.
We were unusual because we wanted to be strong, and we knew that to become strong we would become better athletes, and that was something that still wasn’t part of the program. Everyone knows now you have to do this to be an elite athlete. We had lots of comments, but the longer you stuck with it, the more the men got used to seeing you and the issues finally got worked out. I didn’t know it at the time, but Coach Egnatuk was a very supportive individual and never said anything except positive feedback, so I was very fortunate that that was the case.