10 years ago, Alison Swain ’01 found her dream job. She became head coach of women’s tennis and has since led the team to seven NCAA titles.
Swain began playing a juvenile form of tennis at age 5 when she rallied with her older sister over a cardboard box. Both of her parents played, and she always loved the sport. She joined a competitive team in her hometown, Bainbridge Island, Wash., when she was 12. In high school, she played water polo and swam while continuing to train at her tennis club. Eventually, the College recruited her to play tennis.
Swain explained why she decided to attend the College. “I knew I wanted to be at a small liberal arts school with great academics,” she said. “That was very important to me. I also wanted to make an impact on the team. Sitting in on a math class and talking to a recent alum really sold it for me.”
At the College, she majored in American studies and completed a thesis with Professor of History Scott Wong. She discovered that Bainbridge Island was the first Japanese-American internment camp during World War II and studied racism in the region, researching how Japanese-Americans protested the detention program and how they re-acclimated to the area after being imprisoned.
In addition to these academic pursuits, Swain enjoyed competing in both singles and doubles for women’s tennis. She credits her head coach, Julie Greenwood ’96, with fostering team camaraderie. “The day-to-day really builds bonds on and off the court,” she said. “Spending that much time with eight to 10 players – there are amazing bonds.”
“[Swain] immediately found a home on the team and in the team’s values,” Greenwood recalled. “She made strong friendships, identified with leaders she respected and set her sights over time on helping us build our first national championship team. She also loved the game.”
In 2001, when Swain was a senior co-captain, the team won NCAAs. She said her most memorable moment on the team was her championship match, when she and her co-captain/doubles partner, Brooke Gibson (now Hasenhauer) ’01, secured their final victory. “It was against a team we had lost to the year before in the championships, so it was just a storybook ending,” she said.
“A team is as strong as its leadership, and I believe that the reason we won the 2001 championship was because [Swain] and [Gibson] were determined, committed and unwilling to settle for anything less than their best,” Greenwood added.
After graduating, Swain worked as an English and history teacher and girl’s varsity tennis coach at Woodward Academy in Atlanta, Ga. for three years. While in Georgia, she frequently spoke to Greenwood and told her former coach that she loved leading a team. Swain then completed a unique program at the University of Washington in which she taught outdoor education to middle school students from a variety of different backgrounds, as well as took classes of her own to earn her master’s degree. Afterwards, she spent a year teaching and coaching at an experiential learning-based school in Telluride, Colo.
In 2007, Swain received a life-changing telephone call from Greenwood.
“She called me and said, ‘I’m leaving Williams,’” Swain said. “‘You should apply for this job. I did, and I completely lucked out. With no college coaching experience, Williams hired me, and it took me about one day on the tennis courts with the team to know that this was 100 percent my dream job.”
Swain does not merely love her work; she excels at it. She led the team to six consecutive NCAA National Championships during her first six years as head coach and has won seven out of nine NCAA titles overall. The New York Times published an article about her unprecedented success, but Swain cannot even explain it herself.
“If I could answer the question of how, I could probably sell some books,” she joked. “I just know what’s important to me, and I try to know what’s important to the women that I coach and stay true to that. Creating a team, for me, is about the things that everyone knows – it’s about the recruiting and tennis – but we put as much focus on developing our team culture and developing people.”
Greenwood is not surprised by Swains accomplishments. “[I am] not surprised that she has been successful, but [I am] impressed with just how successful she has been,” she said.
Current co-captain Linda Shin ’17 appreciates how Swain fosters team chemistry and individual development. “Alison understands the importance of team dynamics while still emphasizing individual goals that contribute to the team’s success,” Shin said.
Swain’s influence extends beyond the College. Last summer, she began serving on the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. She is the only current female coach and non-Div. I coach on the board. “We think about the big picture of college tennis and how to keep it relevant,” she said. “We fundraise, organize events and tackle interesting issues such as the professionalization of sports in Div. I. I am definitely learning a lot.”
Swain also learns from her players. “The team and the captains in particular really drive the goals,” she said. “I see my role as to help them with what they put out there.”
However, as Swain prepares for her 10th season as coach, she also hopes to “continue to help each player develop, help the team create great chemistry and celebrate and be excited for every opportunity to play a match.”