Renee Rosenkranz and a Family's UAA Swimming Bond

Renee Rosenkranz and a Family's UAA Swimming Bond

Growing up outside of Poughkeepsie, New York, learning to swim in a lake swimming league and competing in a three-lane, 20-yard pool, Renee Rosenkranz may have been an unlikely candidate to become an 11-time NCAA Division III All-American.

In addition to swimming for an NCAA champion in her three years as a student-athlete at Emory University, Rosenkranz has had the unique opportunity to be an assistant coach at another UAA school, University of Rochester, and to coach two of her younger brothers.

The Road to Emory and Success

Rosenkranz competed for another local high school since Dover Plains High School did not have a swimming program. “I didn’t even join USA Swimming until I was 15 years old,” she stated. “I was by no means a recruitable athlete.”

She began her collegiate career at NCAA Division I Stony Brook University. She discovered in her first year there that the school was not the right fit for her. “I knew some Kenyon swimmers and they asked if I had ever heard of Emory,” she recalled. “I had not. I emailed (head coach) Jon Howell and he encouraged me to apply. I had never been below the Mason-Dixon line or been on campus before starting my first day of sophomore year in college.”

“She had a hard time finding a good fit and Emory was perfect for her,” Howell said. “It was a tough start for her. Our program was a big step up for her and and she wasn’t one of the competitive people at the beginning.”

“She had to step back and see the competition at Emory,” said Erik Rosenkranz, who is the middle brother of her three younger brothers. “She doesn’t get afraid of people who are faster. She is not intimidated. She has a way of seeing others as the enemy and a friend at the same time.”

“Seeing all that new equipment was intimidating, my first morning practice of my first day of the season,” Renee remarked. “My teammates explained it to me. They showed me the way.”

Renee earned four All-Association honors at her first UAA Swimming and Diving Championships in 2011 hosted by Rochester. She swam on the Eagles’ victorious 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays, while earning runner-up individual finishes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle sprints.

“I had to do a lot of soul searching when I transferred there. I didn’t realize how good Emory was,” she commented. “We took second at NCAA’s (the 2011 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships) in the 200 free relay after winning it four years in a row. I didn’t realize the pressure, the background, history, and tradition. I was up on the podium throwing up deuces and my teammates looked like someone kicked their dog.”

Photo: Renee and her oldest brother Russell Rosenkranz

“Everything was new for her, being part of a close team at a place that really cared about her,” Howell said. “The whole thing was a culture shock in a good way. She just kind of found her way. She embraced what we were doing and embraced her teammates. She was comfortable with herself and what she was doing. She took off and thrived here.”

At the 2012 UAA championships, Renee swam on the Eagles’ winning 400-yard freestyle relay, finished first in the 50-yard freestyle and second in the 100-yard freestyle. She closed out her UAA championship career with three more relay titles in 2013, swimming on the victorious 200- and 400-yard freestyles and the 400-yard medley relay.

Photo: Renee Rosenkranz earned 11 All-America honors in three years at Emory

In her final two NCAA appearances, Renee earned 10 All-America honors, four as part of national championship relays. She swam on back-to-back NCAA champion relays in the 200- and 400-yard freestyle events in 2012 and 2013. She garnered All-America recognition in both the sprint freestyles individually at both championships and also swam on the Eagles’ runner-up 200-yard medley relay and third place 800-yard freestyle relay at the 2013 NCAA meet. All together, she finished her career with 11 All-American honors and two honorable mention All-American accolades. Her contribution during the winning 400 freestyle relay has remained an NCAA record since 2013

Beginning a Coaching Career

Although she went on several job interviews in the legal field, Rosenkranz also started doing phone interviews for assistant swim coaching positions. “I just couldn’t get enough of swimming,” Renee said. “As much as it would have been great to make money, it would be great to help people like me reach their goals.”

She took an assistant swimming coach position at Hartwick College, which was closer to her family in Poughkeepsie. “I moved from the middle of Atlanta, Georgia to Oneonta, New York,” she commented. “I didn’t have cell phone service where I lived; I took all of my recruiting calls at a truck stop. I couldn’t find espresso my first three months there. It was very hard to adjust to a small town after graduating and living in a city.”

Tim Downes, Director of Athletics during Renee's tenure, was confident she would bring the same attributes to coaching as she did to her swimming and academic career. “Renee has a special gift for making everyone and everything around her better.  She lights up a room with her engaging personality and you really have no choice but to smile when you're around her,” he said.  “She would inspire her teammates with her sheer will and determination to touch the wall first.  And I know that her appreciation for the role that athletics plays in the educational process will challenge any swimmer she coaches to be a better athlete, a better student, and a better person.”

Renee’s life was changed forever when her father, Thomas, died in a car accident on May 14, 2014. At the time, her oldest brother Russell, has just completed his junior year at Rochester, where Erik was going to be a freshman in the fall. Their youngest brother Kreg was in middle school.

“When my dad passed away, I was looking around for a position,” she said. “It was the best decision for me and my family to take the job at Rochester. To be a young assistant coach and to see two of my brothers every day was great, especially with what we were going through.”

“Knowing Renee and Erik would be there was probably one of the most amazing feelings to have. When I had to go back, I wasn’t going by myself,” Russell remarked. I was just ecstatic when I heard she was getting the job. After such a sad summer, this was the ray of hope.”

Photo: Renee, Kreg, Russell, and Erik Rosenkranz

 “It was nice to know I would have them as a support group since our dad passed,” Erik commented. “It was nice to know family was close and we were here together. I know from talking to other friends that death can separate a family, but we got closer.”

Coaching Her Brothers

One of the benefits of joining the staff at another UAA school was the familiarity Renee had with the balance between athletics and academics, having met student-athletes from other schools. The latter part also caused a challenge. ‘I had to un-friend (on Facebook) all the seniors on the Rochester team who I knew,” she laughed. “I needed to do it in my new role, but I also think it was helpful because they knew me and that made my hiring more human to them.”

Yellowjacket head coach Emily Wylam was confident Renee would bring great things to the program and that they would make a good team. “I knew that she had a great perspective having been at Emory,” Wylam said. “At the same time, her background is a unique one, starting out in Division I. I swam at a Division I school (Ohio University). I had to learn the expectations and demands at the Division III level (as an assistant coach) under Doug Milliken at Case Western Reserve. We had the Division I experience in common and I knew she brought the sprinter component, making her a great addition.”

In spite of two swimmers having the same last name as the new assistant coach, most of the younger swimmers on the team did not know they were related. “Half of them didn’t make the connection until midway through the season,” Erik laughed. “We were hanging out together and they didn’t realize we were siblings.”

“Most of my class knew she was my sister because we swam against Emory when she was there,” Russell said. “When we were at UAA’s, I would introduce her to my teammates and she introduced me to hers.”

Russell did not compete in his junior year and came back for his senior season. “We had always been supportive of one another,” Renee stated. “He came to every national meet to watch me. I was almost exclusively his coach in his senior year. We called him ‘Grandpa.’ I knew what his goals were and we enjoyed the bond that we had.”

That nickname was one Russell embraced. A surgery had kept him out of the pool completely for two months and the day he was cleared to return to the water also happened to be the first day of practice. “I was in a lane with freshman girls and distance swimmers, getting lapped by everyone and it wasn’t even close,” he recalled. “I touched the wall after the 200 and was at least 20 seconds off the time I should have been swimming. Emily said, ‘Come on Grandpa, stick with it.’ After a month of being given that nickname, some friends found a sweater in a Goodwill store that said ‘Grandpa’ on it and I wore it to every meet after that.”

Renee and Russell had trained together at Emory when Renee was training for the Olympic trials. “He had seen what I had gone through and how hard I had worked,” she said. “He reinforced among the older student-athletes (at Rochester) that I knew what I was doing and how much work we were putting in to make them better.”

“Renee and I were very close in high school in swimming,” Russell said. “We were part of the same swim group and trained together. Having her as a coach my senior year at Rochester brought back memories of being with her in the pool every day.”

“In my freshman season, Emily was my direct coach. I swam the 100 and 200 freestyles and backstrokes,” Erik said. “Emily was my main coach, but twice a week, I would go down to sprint with Russell and Renee. Russell liked to stay in the back in practice, but I always liked to be in the front or at least second." 

“Erik was always the first to tell me when something we are doing in practice does not make sense,” Renee said. “That helped bring a humility to the team. I wasn’t Facebook friends with either of my brothers. I wanted to make sure they had their space.” Russell admits he took advantage of his sister being one of his coaches. “I joked around a lot. That had to be one of her biggest pains that year,” he laughed.

The meets that first season were a truly family event with Renee coaching Erik and Russell while their mother Helene and youngest brother Kreg made numerous trips to watch the team.

First Seasons at Rochester 

“Emily has been incredible to learn from,” Renee stated. “It is especially great learning from a young female coach. I get to see the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of coaching. I have a great appreciation of how hard it is to be a coach, which we don’t have as a student-athlete. It speaks to Emily’s coaching that whatever the student-athletes want to achieve in the classroom and athletically, they are supported in every way, shape, and form. Coming from another UAA school really prepared me to deal with those seeking excellence athletically and academically.”

Of course she still had a strong connection with Emory. “It was interesting being with Cindy Fontana, Chris Marshall, and Jon (Howell) on the deck as a coach,” she remarked. “It was weird and exciting coaching amongst them while still immensely looking up to them.”

The goals of the Rochester are evolving over time. “At Rochester, I needed to evaluate my norms and expectations. I would love to watch most of my swimmers qualify for nationals, but I realized the larger accomplishment of graduating from a top-notch engineering institution while choosing to swim each year. I try to make every student-athlete feel special. I ask them, ‘Where do you want to be? What is your goal?’ We want the whole group to be better, not just the faster swimmers. I hope I am able to bring the same level of excitement to deck as my Sprint Assistant Coach Andy Diechart. He would run down the Emory stands each practice and begin each practice shouting, ‘It’s an honor and privilege to be coaching all of you here today.’ I hope I can help each of my athletes feel that special each day.”

One of the first things Renee wanted to bring to Rochester was her sense of tradition, something that was rich in her undergraduate experience. “At Emory, you represent something so much bigger than yourself,” she stated. “When I first got to Rochester, they couldn’t name any traditions. We want to have a legacy program, a program where people are proud of where they came from. We have a beautiful environment and I love coaching here. I want to be the way with my athletes that Jon (Howell) is with his.”

She saw signs of great traditions to build on at the school’s Meliora Weekend, which encompasses reunions, family weekend, and homecoming activities. Four men’s swimmers came back for their 50th reunion and each of them swam. “One of them even had their original swimsuit from 50 years ago,” she said. “We are trying to incorporate that link to the past.”

One of Renee’s coaching strengths is her willingness to try new things. “I see the different views and the new techniques she learned from those she coached with in Texas (at Texas A&M camps),” Erik said. “She has many different stories about who she has met and things she wants to try. She has tried things I have never seen or heard of. It definitely kept the season and practices exciting.”

Her second season came with an unexpected physical challenge for Renee. A dog ran into her and knocked her down at a dog park, dislocating her kneecap, which required surgery. She spent all of spring semester on crutches while she was on the pool deck.  

One of the most memorable moments in her first season was the UAA championship at Emory, which she had been away from for two years. “I walked into the building with 44 student-athletes and heard someone say, ‘Wow, your picture is here.’ My swimmers wondered how I knew everyone there. I had to tell them, ‘I really did go to school here.'”

In addition to the Rochester student-athletes realizing Renee’s connection at Emory, her friends in Atlanta seemed puzzled by her appearing with another school. “What is Renee doing down there?” she imagined people thinking. “I was on cloud nine when our men’s 200 freestyle team won the prelim by 1.5 seconds and people were staring at me. I was so nervous coaching in front of everyone I had ever known at Emory. The hardest part for me is that both Rochester and Emory were wearing yellow caps. It was so hard for me to keep track of at first.”

Continuing Studies/Future Plans

Renee is set to complete her master’s degree in Higher Education Administration this May at the University of Rochester Warner School of Education. She is writing a thesis on Title IX and analyzing equity compliance of access, participation, and financial distribution for female and male athletes. “I would love to be an advocate for young coaches, especially women,” she stated. “I am working on what ways I fit into the coaching world. I started working swim camps and through that network, made a lot of coaching friends. I get to eat and breathe swimming.”

Just as his brother Russell had done, Erik is taking off his junior year from swimming to focus on academics with four major-based classes, and is likely to return for his senior year. He sees his sister as a future head coach. “From being an athlete of hers, I know she doesn’t just sit on the pool deck and tell you what to do,” he said. “She reaches out to her athletes outside of the pool environment and knows their interests. It’s also nice when you finish a lap in a tough practice and she is there, saying, ‘That is awesome!’”

Photo: Erik, Renee, Russell, and Kreg at Russell's University of Rochester graduation

After graduation, Russell took several weeks to travel to South America and then started his job at Liberty Mutual in Boston, working in data analytics and finance. He is sure that his sister will make a great head coach in the future. “Renee puts in the effort to get to know her swimmers, not just from swimming perspective and academic perspective, but who they really are,” he said.  “She knows their pains and struggles in real life. That is something she and Emily brought to the program. No matter what we were going through, we could all go to them with our problems. She knows what is going on in someone’s life and how to best improve their swimming and their life at college.”

“I count my blessings. I am fortunate to have her on my staff and she will do great things going forward,” Wylam said. “She has continued to grow. We have a mutually beneficial relationship. She teaches me things and I teach her things. My job is for her to be the most prepared she can be to move on, just as Doug (Milliken) did for me.”

“Her heart is always in the right place. She is very loyal and cares deeply for the people in her life,” Howell said. “That is reflected in the fact that she is in Rochester now. That is a big part of who she is.”