Spider swimmer competes in the backstroke in a meet

Academic Excellence

Top scholars, too

Take a look inside one of the nation’s most academically accomplished swimming and diving teams.

On a day near the end of the spring semester, the giant whiteboard in the office of swimming and diving head coach Matt Barany listed the names of the athletes currently on his roster. Barany pointed at it to orient a visitor for a conversation about the team’s academic successes.

“These are the seniors,” he said, pointing at seven names at the top of the column. “She graduated in three years, came back and did a fourth year [of competition], and got her master’s in the business school.”

He pointed to the next player.

“She’s going into the FBI.”

And the next.

“She will go to med school.”

And so on through all seven seniors, who include graduates headed into marketing, more med school, the Peace Corps, and other promising futures. He capped it with one last point: “In the fall, this group had a 3.85 [GPA].”

Then he pointed at the seven first-year swimmers and divers at the bottom of the column. “In the fall, the freshmen had a 3.87. It’s interesting because the seniors had proven themselves in the classroom, and then the freshmen come in and do just as well. It’s like a nerd competition.”

Academic excellence is evident up and down the full roster — the team had a 3.79 GPA collectively that semester, something that satisfies Barany as much as anything that happens in the pool. These recent numbers have taken the Spiders to new heights nationally. For three semesters running, the team’s GPA has ranked second among all Division I women’s swimming and diving teams in the country. In June, the team was named a 2024 Spring Scholar All-America Team by the College Swimming and Diving Association of America (CSCAA). 

Spider relay swimmers celebrate after event
Spider swimmer smiles after completing event
Spider swim coach Matt Barany and athletes cheer at meet
Spider swimmers ready in the starting blocks for event

Barany and his teams have earned dual expectations for academic and athletic success. Since he became head coach in 2005, the team has won 12 Atlantic 10 championships, and he has been named A-10 Coach of the Year nine times. During this run of success in the pool, 11 of his athletes have earned Scholar All-American Team honors. One of them was Mali Kobelja, ’14 and GC’18, who was the first Spider — and the first swimmer in A-10 history — to be named Atlantic 10 Scholar of the Year.

“This isn’t by accident,” he said. A shift in the program going on for nearly a decade is now bearing fruit.

In 2016, Barany introduced wearable technology to the team. After four semesters of gathering data, “we started to see some patterns, and we started to see some areas where we had levers we could work with,” he said.

Key ones had to do with sleep patterns. The team changed practice and travel schedules and avoided traveling at night — adjustments aimed at getting higher quality sleep, increasing sleep quantity, and staying asleep all night. “It was more than just ‘Hey, get more sleep.’”

The approach yielded results and affected recruiting as Barany and his staff sought out athletes who found this strategy appealing. Ten semesters later, sleep duration is up 85 minutes, and team GPA is up 0.6 — figures that span multiple cohorts of athletes.

“Our strategy and our application of the strategy worked,” he said. “Recruits are coming here because they realize they can come have Division I athletics and an elite academic experience.”