Joel Ax named one of 100 Greatest Men’s Swimmers & Divers
The College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) has named Joel Ax (B.F.A., furniture design, 2017) one of the 100 Greatest Men’s Swimmers & Divers of the past century. The most dominant freestyler in NAIA history, Ax is named to a list that includes legendary Olympic champions Caleb Dressel, Ryan Lochte, and Mark Spitz. When SCADworks sent Ax a note of congratulations, his response exceeded all expectations. This exemplary artist-athlete from Idstein, Germany detailed his personal journey with honesty and humility. What follows is an edited version of Joel’s written reply.
I feel honored to be named among the “100 Greatest” alongside some of the most famous and successful college swimmers ever, many of whom I looked up to during my swimming career. The number of messages of congratulations from fellow swimmers, coaches, and former teammates I’ve received has made me proud. I am a ‘small fish’, and there are others who should be on the list. This allows me to put my experience in perspective.
When I finished high school in 2012, I didn’t really know what to do. I’d been part of the German junior national team since I was 16. I was one of the most decorated swimmers in Germany, and maybe also one of the most promising ones too. But what began as a joyful hobby felt like it was slowly eating me up. I needed a change. I went through a tough phase after I didn’t qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. I took a year off and started working in a retirement home as a social worker and housekeeper for disabled people.
The only options for me to combine an education with a swimming career in Germany were to become a firefighter, a police officer, or join the military. So, I pursued a scholarship in the United States, where I could choose more freely what I wanted to study. I was looking into powerhouses like Michigan, California, and Florida and soon got offers from Princeton, Yale, UCLA and others. I finally chose Arizona State University since rumors were spreading that Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman would be there. I didn’t want to let that chance pass by.
A few months before I was supposed to start in Arizona, I received a call from their athletic department that there was a problem. There is a rule that you can’t have more than six months between high school and college and still be eligible to compete in the NCAA. Since I’d taken a year off, this meant I was not able to swim for Arizona my first year and a 90% scholarship offer turned into a 40% offer and no guarantee to make the team the following year.
I was on the edge of turning down all offers and becoming a police officer in Germany. Then SCAD swimming head coach Chris Conlon contacted me. I’d never heard of SCAD, and only knew Savannah from the movie Forrest Gump. Coach Conlon told me SCAD had great interior design program and a swim team that was part of the NAIA, where the six-month rule didn’t apply. He made sure I understood that he really wanted me to come to SCAD and offered me a full ride. Fast forward four years, and I graduated summa cum laude with a 3.96 GPA and a degree in furniture design.
Coach Bill Pilczuk took over from Coach Conlon in 2016, and he taught me that small changes can have a huge impact on the way you perform, both inside and outside the pool. My final year at SCAD was my most fun year swimming-wise since the beginning of my career.
Looking back, I’m so happy that I chose an education at SCAD. The change of perspective, the connection with other cultures, the challenge of balancing swimming and my position as a team leader with pursuing a design career — it all helped me see that I am a small link in the chain, but my actions impact a greater whole.
Since returning to live in Germany, I have worked as a carpenter, teacher, bike mechanic, and graphic designer. I’ve leaned into the building side of design to improve my work skills and learned to weld. Now I feel confident enough to finally open my own studio. The knowledge I gained as a swimmer is something I can use in my creative life and professional pursuits.
Some say swimming is an individual sport. At SCAD I learned that when you can count on the support of your team, a win is not an individual victory, but a victory for the whole team. The way we improved every year, peaking my senior year, still gives me goosebumps. When you help others improve, you become a better swimmer automatically — and a better person too!
Learn more about SCAD swimming, and come support the Bees this Dec. 3–4 as they host the SCAD Invite at the Chatham County Aquatic Center!