Monica Morin stands in front of the YWCA swimming pool. Morin lives in Oregon and has not been swimming in an indoor pool recently. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

For two decades it was rare to find Monica Morin outside of a swimming pool. Nowadays, getting her in one might be even more difficult.

Monica Morin, left, and Vanessa Williamson competed and brought out the best in each other but also developed a strong relationship outside the pool. Submitted photo

Ironically, the woman with the chemistry degree spends her time far away from chlorine, and usually can be found outside rather than near any 50-meter-long pool.

“Being in a lab, with the chemicals and just an indoor lifestyle, didn’t seem healthy to me, and I needed to be more mobile in my career. More athletic,” Morin said.

“I try really hard not to swim because I’m a whitewater kayaker, and so if I swim that means I made a very big mistake,” she said. “But I live in very rural areas for my work, and I never have the option to swim because we don’t have a swimming pool. And if we did I may, but after all those years of swimming — my shoulders, they hurt.”

Those years began when she was six months old and Morin’s mother took her to swim lessons at the YWCA in Lewiston. Lessons turned into competing — from club teams, to Lewiston High School, to West Virginia Wesleyan College, all the way to capping off her career with an NCAA national championship.

“Swimming took my whole life as a child, really, growing up,” Morin said.

SUCCESS FROM THE START

Monica Morin, left, and Vanessa Williamson, center, in 1998. Morin and Williamson competed and brought out the best in each other but also were friends outside the pool. Submitted photo

Morin said she took to the competitive aspect of the sport right away. She competed in the club state championships her first year as a 7-year-old, and then was breaking state records a year later.

Lifelong friend and swimming buddy Sean Ford said he knew “right away” that Morin was good when they started swimming together.

“When we were kids we were always kind of racing each other, you know, not directly because girls and guys don’t race against each other, but we were putting our times against each other. And so we would always do that very early on,” Ford said. “She took it considerably more serious than I did. But very early on you could tell she was good.”

“It’s a little fuzzy, the memories, when I was that young. But I remember I had a box of ribbons and medals,” Morin said. “So when I hit eight, I remember, I knew I won some state events and I had some state records. And then I had to wait, you know, every other year until I was the top of my age group, so when I was 10, and then 12, and then 14, and then I was in high school at that point.”

BECOMING A BLUE DEVIL

Morin’s talent and success weren’t lost on the leader of her next swimming destination, Lewiston High School.

“We certainly knew that she was swimming with the age-group team and was going to contribute as soon as she got up to high school,” Dave Bright, one of Morin’s former coaches at Lewiston, said.

Because of her club swimming experience, Morin was able to hold her own her first season at the high-school level.

“It was crazy. She was, even as a freshman, head and shoulders above everyone,” Ford said. “Like, I know she did a lot of her training with her club team simply because there wasn’t anybody at Lewiston who was even remotely in the same ballpark as her. So it was kind of a unique situation with her.”

Morin placed at the Class A state championship meet her first year, but it took a couple more years to get to the very top.

“She was a finalist at the state meet right from the start, and then continued to improve … and was a contender her last two years in anything she did,” Bright said.

Morin was the Class A state champ in the 100-yard butterfly as a junior in 2000, along with a handful of other placings in her career. She finished second to Edward Little rival and friend Vanessa Williamson (now an assistant coach at Bates College) in the 100 butterfly in 2001.

Monica Morin stands in front of the YWCA swimming pool. Morin lives in Oregon and has not been swimming in an indoor pool recently. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

“They were always right close together. And they were very friendly outside the pool,” Bright said. “They were great friends, but had a real good rivalry that sort of brought out the best in each of them.”

“We would go back and forth on winning but we always wanted to make each other better,” Williamson said. “We knew what it took to get to the next level and pushed each other so we could both reach our full potential. Our end goal was to break a minute by the time our high school season was done. When I did that at the high school state meet, she was extremely happy for me.”

“When a friend does well, it always motivates me,” Williamson added. “Even though she represented Lewiston and I was a Red Eddie, that didn’t stop us from making each other better.”

MOVING ON

While swimming was her life growing up — though she did dabble with other sports in high school — Morin had more than just the pool to think about when deciding on where to attend college.

She said she originally wanted to go to Northeastern University in Boston, but “just missed both the swimming and the academic scholarship.”

Instead, Ford guided her to West Virginia Wesleyan, where he was swimming.

“I knew Monica was having a little trouble on the recruiting trail,” Ford said, “so I introduced her to (swim coach Denton Quick), and they hit off really well and it worked out awesome.”

Morin fit in nicely in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

“I think we were a perfect mix for each other,” Quick said. “I mean, we were a small Division II school, but I definitely brought — and they can tell you, I told my team all the time, ‘It doesn’t matter Division I, II or III, we’re going to out-train and out-work anybody that we swim against.’ So I do think it was a perfect blend of my training style and philosophy, and then her personality and work ethic.”

WORK, WORK, WORK

Those who coached and swam with Morin said that her greatness in the pool had little to do with talent. It was, they said, her work ethic.

“She wasn’t necessarily the most talented kid in the water every day that she was at practice, but she was by far the hardest worker,” Ford said. “She worked harder and put in longer hours than anyone else in the pool. And so seeing her exceed expectations time and time again, it was natural because she was doing more than everybody else.”

“She was very motivated and knew what hard work was,” Williamson said. “She lived in Florida for some of her time (growing up) and trained there, so she got exposed to what other programs were doing and knew what she needed in order to be a great athlete.”

Said Bright: “She was always someone who went at everything 100 percent. It’s like there was no slower gear.”

Ford said that carried over into Morin’s academics, and like in the pool she spent more time in the library than anybody else. Working toward a double-major in chemistry and physics made that a necessity.

“In college it was a great training for life skills in general because of time management and self-discipline,” said Morin, who was a four-time Academic All-American at West Virginia Wesleyan.

“She was a machine,” Quick said. “Monica, she definitely has a unique personality, but she was an incredibly hard worker, both in the classroom and in the pool. I mean, it was ridiculous how hard she worked, in her studies and then also in the pool. She pretty much set the standard for work ethic, and to be a true student-athlete.”

SIMPLY THE BEST

Just as she was an instant contender in high school, Morin contributed immediately for the Bobcats.

“I definitely knew coming in when she swam her first meet as a freshman that she would definitely be an NCAA qualifier, and an All-American, and definitely be on the national stage,” Quick said.

What the coach didn’t see coming was a 10-second drop in time in her signature event — the 200-meter butterfly — from her high-school best to national championship time. He also didn’t foresee that national title, either.

“The stars kind of aligned for her to do that,” Quick said.

Even Morin said “it was a huge surprise” that she won the NCAA Division II national title in the 200 butterfly as a senior in 2005, both leading up to the national championship meet and even after she popped out of the pool after the race.

“I looked up at the clock, and it never really registered until I climbed out of the pool and the lady, the backup timer, looked at me and she said, ‘Congratulations.’ I was like ‘For what?’ She said, ‘Look at the clock!’ And then it registered, and then I looked back and I saw my coach running across the deck, and I’m like, ‘No …’” Morin said. “So I was in complete denial for at least the first minute. Yeah, it was absolutely incredible, and definitely one of the highlights of my entire life.”

“I remember standing next to — Paul Mangen was the head coach that year, and he was my assistant (before that) — and I remember her at the 100, halfway through the race, pretty much neck-and-neck with everybody in the race, in the heat, and I remember we looked at each other and said, ‘She’s going to win this,’” Quick said. “And sure enough, the seventh and eighth lap came around and Monica had the training and just the skill set and just blew everybody away on that last 50 and won it.”

OUT OF THE POOL

Morin finished on top like so many athletes wish they could. But metaphorically, she was just at the base of the mountain she would climb after college — which wasn’t in a lab somewhere.

“It just kind of fits her personality that she’s never satisfied, so she’s always looking for the next great adventure,” Ford said.

That next adventure came out of inspiration from a flier on a wall at West Virginia Wesleyan.

Morin, who participated in the Outdoor Recreation program at the college, had her eyes caught by an advertisement for a Student Conservation Association internship.

“Basically, it’s a volunteer internship you can do with public lands or public service. They give you an education stipend and housing,” Morin said. “I knew I didn’t really want to work in a lab. And so I took the internship, and it was six months at Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington state. And they took me in and made me family, and I learned a lot of really fun things, like how to backpack, how to be a member in search and rescue team, how to do rope rescue. It was really fun.”

“And I was able to be athletic,” Morin added. “I mean, I was walking, I was hiking, and so that kind of filled the void of my swimming, I guess.”

Her travels took her all around the scenic Northwest, and more recently she split time between Alaska and Arizona. She currently works with the Bureau of Land Management as the lead river ranger on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon.

And while Morin enjoys what she does for a living, it has meant breaking a promise she made to her mother.

“I can’t buy them a house,” Morin said. “Not with my career choice. I chose being active and healthy over making large sums of money.”

Being active doesn’t include swimming anymore — not for a race-winning kayaker.

Quick said it’s common for longtime swimmers to take a break (he just got back into swimming after an extended break himself). Morin did travel down memory lane to her swimming days, in 2012, when she was inducted into the West Virginia Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame. Quick called it “definitely a deserving honor” for the only national champion he ever coached for the Bobcats.

Morin still holds two individual records and a relay record at the college. At Lewiston High School, her name still tops the charts in four individual events and two relays. A recent trip back home to Lewiston just after Thanksgiving gave her a chance to look back at her Blue Devils accomplishments at the same YWCA pool she once spent many of her childhood days.

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