Shedding the stereotypes of Division III Athletics

Blugold swimmer shares pride for involvement in Division III Athletics

More stories from Nicole Bellford


Photo by submitted

Blugold swimmer Nicole Bellford competing against the UW-La Crosse Eagles in a dual meet last fall.

As a little girl, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a swimming pool. During swim lessons, my mom could always spot me in the wave of tiny heads, sitting at the edge of the pool with my arms crossed sourly, refusing to get in the water.

However, I idolized my big sister, Alli, and was eager to follow in her footsteps. When she made the decision to join the youth swim program, I ditched my 7-year-old water wings and traded them in for a dream to be the next Michael Phelps.

Since then, my life has never been the same.  What started out as an activity to get us involved in the community quickly transformed into a passion we hoped to continue on into college. My sister and I agreed that being NCAA Division I athletes was the ultimate goal.

As the years passed by, both Alli and I earned several titles and awards for our talents. From a handful of state championships, school records, conference titles and national qualifications, we made quite the name for our family in the realm of swimming.

This kind of success made Alli’s announcement to attend a NCAA Division I college on an athletic scholarship no surprise.

Classmates cheered, my parents beamed with pride and coaches made note to mention her news to all their friends. I knew that this was the path I wanted to take four years later when my turn came.

However, life has a funny way of making its own plans.

Senior year came along, and I planned official visits to a handful of schools, both Division I and Division III. While Division I visits were eye opening and exciting, I could never picture myself attending school there.

The facilities were impressive, the teams insanely talented and the monetary offers were humbling, but I knew that I couldn’t put a price on the thing that mattered most: my happiness.

Picking a school with sports in mind is especially challenging. While high school is predetermined geographically, deciding on a college introduced my 17-year-old mind to a realm of frightening independence. I not only had to choose a place to call home for the next four years, but also a team to call family.

I visited UW-Eau Claire visit on a limb, humoring my parents suggestion to look at my Division III options. Looking back, I couldn’t be more thankful for that last minute decision.

I fell in love with the closely knit personality of the team, immediately feeling welcomed into their circle. They asked me questions about who I was, what I liked and what made me laugh. This kind of treatment was far different from the typical Division I visits where team members were only interested in hearing my best times.

The Blugold swimmers’ passion for the sport, regardless of lacking monetary compensation was inspiring and their will to compete purely for the passion it ignited in their bodies was exactly what I was looking for.

I knew I had a place to call home as the team opened their arms to welcome me into their boisterous cheer, adrenaline pumping through my veins as they screamed their ritual chant.

As I ventured off to college for the first time, however, it was difficult to escape the recurring stereotypes that my peers held concerning Division III athletics.

I want to make one thing clear right now: Division III athletics are in no way, shape, or form a lesser caliber of collegiate athletics than any other NCAA division. Division III is not the “easy way out,” or the “laid back” division, or any other illegitimate stereotype.

Just like every other division, we sacrifice our free time for the sake of bettering our athletic performance. Nearly 30 hours a week of blood, sweat, and tears are clocked in hopes of a single competition meeting our highest possible expectations. These are 30 hours spent on top of balancing at least 12 college credits.

Some may disagree with the thought of Division III possessing the same level of difficulty in training as Division I. And to those people, I truly wish I could show the reaction my Division I athlete of a sister had when she heard how difficult my training regimen was.

My season’s average yardage count is 40,000 yards per week (about 24 miles for the non-swimmers out there). This doesn’t include weight lifting, abdominal workouts, and cardio.

There are nights I barely get three hours of sleep in before morning practice. There are weekends I don’t have a social life from the time spent competing and traveling. Even my five week winter break is condensed to six days as I have to be back to school for training before the new year.

While these are similar challenges my sister faced in Division I athletics, Division III athletes complete these tasks without the motivation of monetary compensation.

What do we do it for, then?

We do it because any degree of momentary pain is worth it for the success it entails. We do it because even as we feel mentally or physically drained, we know that our teammates are right by our sides, enduring the same struggles. And, above all, we do it for the name on our chest; the institution that has blessed us with the opportunity to compete and pursue a degree at the same time.

Because when you strip away the external incentives, and the money, and the arbitrary NCAA divisional labels, we are all just athletes, running on a passion that we simply cannot ignore.

When I was a toothless seven-year-old, filled with athletic hopes and dreams, being a Blugold athlete never crossed my mind. Now, it is an accomplishment I look forward to telling my kids about.