Thousands of Cornellians have been required to jump into the Helen Newman or Teagle Hall pools since the notorious swim test requirement began in the early 1900s. Even former President David Skorton swam his compulsory laps in 2006.
The long-standing tradition is a 75-yard, untimed swim, usually completed during the orientation week of a student’s freshman year. Even after several universities eliminated similar swimming requirements over the years, Cornell’s has stood the test of time.
The requirement was established in 1905 by Barton Hall’s namesake Colonel Frank Barton — who described “a soldier who cannot swim” as “dead timber” in an Oswego newspaper — as part of Military Drill, a class required of all male students at the time.
The test was instituted for women in 1920 by Dorothy Bateman, the first director of women’s sports and physical education, because she believed it would contribute to a well-rounded education. And in 2010, the test was made co-ed after 92 years in existence.
There are a variety of paths available to complete the swimming requirement, but it is expected that students complete the test during their freshman year — those who wait are subject to a $100 fee for makeup tests.
“Thirty to 50 dollars didn’t seem to be making much of an impression, but one hundred dollars seems to do that,” said Fred Debruyn, associate director of physical education and former aquatics director at Cornell.
The fee applies to students who do not take the test their freshman year or during a later orientation week administration of the test.
Students can avoid the fee by taking the test during O-week in their sophomore, junior or senior years or by taking PE 1100: Beginning Swimming, which has no additional course fee. According to Debruyn, about 90 to 95 percent of students pass the test in the fall semester of the course.
“We’re not here trying to make money off them. We just want it to be more paramount in their thinking,” said Debruyn.
If a student does not pass the test after one semester of Beginning Swimming, they can take it again. If they are still unable to pass after the second semester, “as long as they have put in a significant effort … they can be credited with passing the test,” said Debruyn.
Students who do not complete the requirement before graduating can either come back and take the course, or arrange to take the test elsewhere and send the information back to Cornell, according to Debruyn.
If a student does not meet the swim test requirement, the University Registrar website states that “a swim test hold will be placed on the student’s record” and their diploma is withheld until the test is completed Debruyn said.
Debruyn recalled having a Cornell alumnus complete the test twenty years after graduating: “He called me up and said he needed to do the swim test and he made arrangements to fly up to Ithaca and take the test here.”
Although every first-year student is expected to take the test, students come in with wildly different experiences.
Some are overly prepared like Claire Liu ’21, a member of Cornell’s varsity swim team who equated requiring swimmers to take the test with “making a normal Cornell student take a fifth-grade reading test.” Liu took the test during freshman year, but for some students that’s not possible for a myriad of reasons.
Adjoa Fosuhema-Kordie ’20 never learned how to swim after almost drowning in a water park at a young age. When she enrolled in Beginning Swimming during her freshman fall, she hadn’t been in water since the incident and had no intention of getting in water again. “It was really scary,” Fosuhema-Kordie said of the first day. “They had us go underneath the water and I just couldn’t.”
She spent most of her time in class acclimating to the water, and by the time she got comfortable with just being in the pool the semester was over. Although she passed the class, she did not take the swim test and plans on enrolling in Beginning Swimming again.
Near-drowning experiences aren’t all that uncommon according to Debruyn. However, once students understand that they are not alone, “they start to feel better … and then they start accomplishing it and suddenly they are very amazed at what they can do,” said Debruyn.
Likewise, Isaac Elysee ’19 recalled nearly drowning on a family vacation as a kid. After the incident, Elysee said he signed up for swim lessons on several occasions, but he “would always get freaked out.”
But Elysee is using the swimming requirement as a way to prepare for another goal in his life: competing on Survivor, a game show that frequently features swimming challenges.
“I don’t want to do Survivor to get famous. I want to do Survivor for the experience. I want to play the game and come home and live my life afterwards,” said Elysee.
Laurence Minter ’21 failed his swim test, despite knowing how to swim.
“I was using a lot of energy and the technique wasn’t there,” he said. Instead of enrolling in a course, he plans on brushing up on his skills over the summer.
Ajay Kunapuli ’20 took the test last semester as junior: “I came in with a fully torn ACL and meniscus, so I just wasn’t capable of taking it and they were understanding of that,” he said.
However, the validity of the requirement remains a question for students today.
“What does [the swim test] have to do with my degree? Nothing,” said Fosuhema-Kordie. She suggested eliminating the requirement and instead offering an incentive for taking the test, like PE course credit.
Diala Haddad ’20 said she feels that the public nature of the test doesn’t take into account participants’ comfort. “If you have body insecurities — if you are not confident with your swimming skills, it’s not fair to have to do it in front of all these people, especially as soon as you get here,” she said.
Haddad also mentioned a prominent criticism of the swim test. “If you’re low-income or you just didn’t have the same privileges, like you didn’t have the ability to get swim lessons, it puts you at a disadvantage,” she said.
Ultimately, the swim test still exists because “it saves lives and it saves children’s lives more than almost anything else,” said Debruyn.
According to the CDC, drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death for people of all ages, and the second leading cause of injury death for children ages 1 to 14 years.
The hope is that the requirement will encourage Cornellians to break the cycle of not knowing how to swim by teaching their kids, according to Debruyn.
At the end of the day, students are often satisfied once they’ve completed the test.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have had people finish tests and come up and give me a hug or something like that because they never thought they could accomplish it,” said Debruyn.