Betsy Mitchell, Olympian and Leader in Physical Education
What does it feel like to win a gold medal at the Olympics? What is that moment like, after all the grueling training, the mental pressure, and a laser-sharp focus on a single goal, achieved on the world's biggest stage? As Betsy Mitchell reflects on her own experiences, the answer is surprisingly anti-climactic, and even disarming: at the end of the day, it's just another race against the clock. And therein lies the answer to a deeper truth that explains at once how Mitchell was able to become the best of the best while always being one of the most down-to-earth and approachable people around. The life lessons are profound and universally applicable. If one's focus is on personal glory, and on outcomes over process, the end result will never be a perfect match between potential and actual success. Mitchell's life story tells us that the true meaning of winning has very little to do medals and fame. Those things can be fleeting, and the irony is that if this is your focus, you'll probably never get there.
In the discussions below, Mitchell recounts her childhood in Marietta, Ohio and the foundations that put her on the path to world-class competition. As she freely acknowledges, genetics conferred athletic abilities for which she can take no credit, and as supportive as her parents were, she learned from them what true support means: they did everything they needed to accommodate their daughter's training, but at the end of the day, only Mitchell herself could decide if this was what she really wanted. After deciding to go away for high school at the Mercersburg Academy, which opened up new opportunities and levels of competition, Mitchell accepted an offer to go to UNC Chapel Hill for college. Her experiences there offer a case study in the importance of good coaching, and the centrality of interpersonal relationships to success. Determining that she could not gel with the swim coach's style, Mitchell simply left school. Amazingly, this did not sidetrack her swimming trajectory. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Mitchell won the silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and the gold medal in the backstroke leg in the 4 x 100-meter medley relay.
After a burst of celebration and attention at both the national and local level - including a hometown parade in Marietta - Mitchell transferred to UT Austin. She won numerous NCAA titles and set world records as a member of the Longhorns swimming team, and it was at Texas that Mitchell began to think about a career in higher education and athletics. But first, there was another summer Olympics to compete in. At the 1988 games in Seoul, Mitchell won the silver medal, also for the backstroke leg in the 4 x 100-meter medley relay. Fully committed to combining her interests in physical education at the university level, Mitchell went on to earn graduate degrees from UT Austin in sports administration and a certificate in educational administration, planning and policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
As she muses about her career, Mitchell has never been "assistant anything." At every career turn, she has been director or its equivalent. At Dartmouth, Mitchell served as swimming coach for the women's team; at Laurel School for Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Mitchell built up the sports program as director of Athletics; at Allegheny College, Mitchell was director of athletics and recreation - a position that put her in a central role for both development efforts and alumni relations. Along this professional journey, Mitchell also came out as gay, a process that was likely easier because she was always so busy and was never particularly concerned about how others felt about this. Here too Mitchell credits her family with providing a foundation of support and sense of self-confidence.
In her current role at Caltech, Mitchell has created a vibrant athletics program that boasts of beautiful facilities and an engaged campus community that values physical health and community building. Her efforts connect directly to a founding ethos at Caltech, which saw athletics as a vital component to a well-rounded education, to instilling school pride, and in building life skills that can be as important for career success in science and engineering as is a mastery of equations and data analysis. Looking to the future, and coming out of the challenging years of the pandemic, Mitchell has yet more big plans for Caltech Athletics, for enhancing student wellness, and in contributing in ways large and small to how Caltech alumni change the world for the better.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Wednesday, August 31st, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Betsy Mitchell. Betsy, thank you so much for joining me today.
BETSY MITCHELL: You're welcome. Thanks for coming on over to the Braun Center.
ZIERLER: It's my pleasure. It is a beautiful facility. I have never been here before.
MITCHELL: We work hard at it. This building was a gift, 30 years ago—the Braun family—and they did this building and one of the pools to supplement the original building, the Scott H. Brown Gym, and the Alumni Pool. This one has been here for 30 years.
ZIERLER: Have you had opportunity to interact with any members of the Braun family?
MITCHELL: I have not. I only arrived 11 years ago. I believe there was some outreach two or three years ago, and they were not ready to reengage, I think.
ZIERLER: What is your title here at Caltech?
MITCHELL: I am the Director of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation.
ZIERLER: Are those three independent responsibilities rolled up into one title, or do you actually wear three different hats?
MITCHELL: I think I wear 27 hats!
MITCHELL: At last count, it was that, and climbing. Those are three distinct areas of the physical dimension of our community that we support. General physical well-being comes in lots of modes, and it's a very individual, personal thing, so the three areas are unique. I suppose at the foundational level, for the undergraduate students, Caltech is still unique in that it has required physical education for graduation, so every Caltech undergrad has to engage down here. That is part of the Core, and part of the uniqueness of Caltech. Many, many, many universities let their physical education requirement go, years ago. Caltech retains its, to make sure that students are understanding about physical health, stress relief, fun, play. We're responsible for three three-unit courses for each undergrad. The recreation part is operating these facilities safely, responsibly, with some programmatic elements—leagues, classes, and just general access—so that people can come and do what they want to do, what moves them, if you will. Our students, our staff, their families, some of our close friends, et cetera. The recreation program is more amorphous and self-directed, but to provide a place for people to exercise. Then the intercollegiate program is very specific. It's a Division III NCAA program, competitive sports. We have 16 teams for men and women. About 250 undergraduates are varsity athletes. We compete in a local small-school league. That, too, is a very specific set of things, but as you see, it is under the umbrella of all things physical.
Athletics and Caltech Excellence
ZIERLER: The requirement that is unique at Caltech, where so many other institutions have let go of it, do you know if that goes all the way back to the days of Noyes and Hale and Millikan?
MITCHELL: Oh, way back. Way, way back. In fact, it was probably a more strongly held cultural value in those days than it is now. It has morphed into the adults in our community knowing, "Oh, we should let the kids do other things," right? But absolutely, all the way back this was a primary concern of those guys.
ZIERLER: Would you say that that is actually one of the secrets to Caltech's success, that it has retained this requirement? It is one of the reasons to explain why undergraduates do so well?
MITCHELL: Well, I'm biased, so I would have no scientific objectivity around that.
ZIERLER: But just anecdotally, in talking to students.
MITCHELL: Of course. I don't want to say that other universities don't have opportunities, but other universities have let go of making sure that a kid has some exposure to this. A tendency with high-performing people, with highly intelligent people, people that are driven to one small area—we have a lot of those people in our community—a fascination with one thing, is that it gets pretty siloed. Over time, the alumni stories that I hear—primarily I hear stories from our athletic alumni, so that was a sports team thing. But anecdotally, those people will say things like, "Being on a team saved me. It saved me when I realized I had to do other things other than just study." Certainly the juniors and seniors in our physical education courses will say, "This was my sanity in the Core." Even though they push off our classes until their junior and senior year, they without fail say, "Oh, God, I wish I would have taken that in my freshman year. I wish I would have known then what I know now. It would have helped me to get through differently." Those are just anecdotal notes. I wouldn't presume to say that. But, I know it helps. I know it helps.
ZIERLER: For those 27 hats you wear, obviously no day is like any other day, but I wonder if you can draw a composite day, the kinds of things you deal with on a daily or regular basis.
MITCHELL: Certainly as department head—and this is a department—we have 30 professional staff members. We have another 40 part-time folks who work here in some capacity or another. As many managers do, I do people and money. But in my leadership role, I set strategy. I set vision. I try to steer us around the Institute. I participate at a high level. I am on the senior team of the student affairs group. I certainly have conversations routinely with the president and about our program—what we do, how we do it, why we do it. Also, this facility. It is a fairly substantial set of facilities down here south of California, and that takes real attention to make sure they are safe and that we are making improvements all along the way. A regular day I would say is at least equal parts meeting with people to support all the things that I just talked about, in my three areas of responsibility—having one-on-one conversations, supporting them as the practitioners—and then meetings or work around the mundanities of money and processes and hiring and supporting facilities and people. So, probably equal parts meetings with people and then working on those things.
ZIERLER: Did you come to Caltech in this role, or did you grow into this role already when you were at Caltech?
MITCHELL: I was recruited by Caltech to do this. I was recruited to Caltech, in President Chameau's words, to make it better. Dr. Anneila Sargent was the vice president for Student Affairs when I arrived, and she is the one who actually hired me. I had been an athletic director at three other places, and a college coach, so that is my training, if you will. I was already a college athletic director when I arrived here. But certainly Caltech went out seeking a change agent who could make this aspect modern and better and connected for the students and connected to Caltech, not just sort of languishing over here by itself, which operationally it had fallen into some disrepair. Some student athlete leaders I think went to Dr. Sargent and President Chameau and said, "We don't need it to be the dominant thing in our lives. We understand. But it has to have some value, and it has to be better, and we want to be better." The students kicked that all off. Then obviously as the leaders, Anneila and Jean-Lou searched, and I guess they thought I could do a pretty good job.
ZIERLER: Just walking in here, it seems so crisp and bright and clean—
MITCHELL: Thank you!
ZIERLER: —and well cared-for. I take it I might not have had that impression 12 or 13 years ago.
MITCHELL: With respect—you can only do what you can do, and hindsight is always right—but it was not. There was not a well-organized financial plan here. There had been a proliferation of, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" hires, people working here mostly part-time. It really just needed a complete overhaul operationally. Add to that—there was not one orange thing in this building before I got here.
ZIERLER: By the way, I was told to—you see that?
MITCHELL: Good job. Good job! You pass. And I'll make sure you have a—
MITCHELL: I'll make sure you leave better than you came.
ZIERLER: Let the record show I am wearing a shirt with orange lines in it.
MITCHELL: Now, is your choice a band, or sunglasses?
ZIERLER: Oh, I'll take the sunglasses.
MITCHELL: There you go! No, there was not one orange thing. There was no school spirit here. There was no positive school spirit here. The only accent was blue, because that's a stock color and it's cheaper.
MITCHELL: I don't know that that's why, but I was like, "Why don't we have any orange?" Those are just aesthetic things.
ZIERLER: But they matter.
MITCHELL: They matter. And they are also the low-hanging fruit. Immediately, put a coat of paint on it, changed the flooring, adding some accent, while we have been working through all the other things that really needed to be modernized. But thank you for noticing. And we do; we work awfully hard at it. It takes work. In a semi-public place, with about 1,000 people through it a day routinely, it takes work.
Wellness and Connectivity for Students
ZIERLER: The win/loss records of the athletic programs, the competitive athletic programs, is that a useful metric for you in determining how well you are doing, how well the Department is doing?
MITCHELL: Absolutely. Here's the thing about win/loss records in my mind. They are only one metric. The mistake our culture makes in my mind, in my opinion, is to make them be the only metric that matters. Previously, I think that there was at play sort of an overcorrection from, "Well, yeah, that's not the most important metric"—which I agree with. Yet it also doesn't mean it doesn't matter at all. Because to teach students the lessons of sport—and the United States has grabbed on culturally to "sports are good for kids, and sports are good for people." That is true if done well. It's an amazing laboratory for human development and human character development. As with anything, the moderate course, the balanced course is the right course. So, not supporting programs, not allowing them to win and flourish, not allowing them to be competitive, is not the answer, or antidote to "Oh, winning is everything." So, it is a helpful metric, and that we have broken, in the last ten years, every longstanding 10-, 20-, 30-year losing streaks of these teams, it is significant. It is a testament to the kids that were here but also that have chosen Caltech because they want to be part of that, in addition of course to their STEM focus and their intellect. If I had my way, teams would win a little bit more than they lost, but we would schedule them—a third of the teams that you play, if you play the way you can, you're going to win. You're going to win. A third of the games that you play, if you play the best you can, you're going to lose. Because it's important to bang against the rock. It's important to play people better than you. And a third of the games that you play, you're going to totally depend on whether you show up and do the work.
ZIERLER: That kind of sounds like life, by the way.
MITCHELL: Right! That's how we want to schedule our games, and then we have to prepare to play those games. Certainly having the right staff, dedicated educators, humble servants, knowledgeable sport experts who care about kids, not their egos. We had to get a staff in here, and people come and go, so keep hiring staff who subscribe to that. Then we have to market our programs to kids who want to do that. They have this dual identity and they want to be an athlete while they are being a scientist or a mathematician or an engineer or whatever. But, absolutely the win/loss metric is an important metric. It's just not the only one.
ZIERLER: I want to ask about student athletes and work/life balance, particularly at Caltech. If you get admitted to Caltech, you're an academic star. You have tremendous potential. You did very well in high school. You're here to succeed. How does that apply to those portion of kids who are also excellent basketball players, water polo, volleyball, whatever it is, in terms of their priority? What kind of advice or what have you learned is effective in guiding them so that they have this incredibly demanding curriculum, they come from a place where they're used to succeeding and they're on a trajectory of success, but they have this passion for sport that they also want to pursue? What are the effective ways in mentoring in that capacity?
MITCHELL: Two things. The first is, those kids who come here were already student athletes. In high school, or even younger, as they have developed as a scholar, they're also developing as an athlete. You can't get them to not do it. It is not good for them if they don't do it. It is their sanity. So, it is the same messages that hopefully they have been getting in high school. It's all about communication, it's all about time management, and it's all about prioritization, which is what I hope young people are learning anyway! People often say, "How can they possibly do it?" Well, they've already been doing it. That's myth number one. Certainly when we have some people in our community who find that a fool's errand—"Oh, they should let go of that! They should let go of sports. They should just get serious!"—well, all of the names on the Nobel laureate sign—basketball—would disagree with you! They were over here—Bob Grubbs was over in our gym every day! So, they've already been doing it. We serve them best as a quarter of the student population by having a high-quality program. Because kids don't want to do things that aren't valued and aren't of value. They have too much else to do and want to do, to fool around with, if these programs weren't of a quality. That begets the other cycle, right? "I might play a year. I'm not going to stick with it. Oh, it doesn't really matter. Oh, I'll only go to practice twice a week." You have to provide a quality experience for these kids, because that's what they've already been.
The second is an unasked question but I'll answer it in the context of this question: there is a small fraction of folks in the Caltech community who think we are making admissions exceptions to have athletes here, and that's just not true. It's just not true. I don't have a magic wand. I wouldn't ask for that even if I could. Because we want the kids to succeed here. That's what we're here for, is to support and help them succeed. I don't want to bring somebody here just because they happen to swim fast.
ZIERLER: Also, the margins are too small. There's only 900-some-odd kids in the entire undergraduate student body.
MITCHELL: If you want to talk about that plainly, people are always saying, "What's the difference between Caltech and MIT?" Well, I can tell you what the difference is: there's 1,500 kids in a class at MIT, and there's 230 kids in a class at Caltech. There's no margin. Betsy Mitchell could survive academically at MIT. I'm a pretty smart bear. STEM is not my thing. I can get a degree in history from MIT. That's not the same thing as what we do. It's just not the same. Admissions-wise, they can hide my 1375, in the old days, from SATs. You can't hide a kid in a class here. The notion that we're doing that is just false. It's just false. That goes along with breaking myths, which is what we have been doing for ten years here. We have been breaking the myth that if the phrase "dumb jock" is true, then "smart kids can't be good athletes" is also true. I haven't figured out a sexy way to say it yet, but—neither of those things is true! That's what we're doing. You look at the achievements on both sides of our kids—Rhodes Scholars, Academic All-Americans—I don't even know the academic side of the house things, but our kids get all those prizes. We're just breaking that myth. We had a run where five of the student body presidents were student athletes, in the last ten years. There was pretty fun. That was really cool!
ZIERLER: What have you seen in terms of the value for alumni relations, the bonds that are forged in an athletic program, and the way that that maintains a community even after the students graduate?
MITCHELL: I think we're proving to this community what has been known for a long time in other universities, which is that athletics is a prime driver of two things: positive school spirit while you're in school, and deep connection, because you had a great experience while you were in school at a formative time of your life. Those are true things. At various points in Caltech's history, there was not a very positive—and the bond was formed over, "Oh, well, we're going to be terrible athletes together." That has changed to pride in actually—"We're succeeding." We haven't seen that bear out in traditional ways yet, and it may never, here, but that is true; those things are changing.
We started a Caltech Athletic Hall of Honor. There was not one. We will be inducting our eighth class this fall at Homecoming. We're starting a Homecoming, an actual fall athletic Homecoming around athletic events. We have very supportive athletic alumni. Again, the place is just so small that I don't know that Advancement and Alumni Relations and Development have really grabbed onto that as much as they can and should. Should is only about the ultimate benefit of the university. I think that will continue to play out. But when we induct those people and we reach out to them and say, "We've started a Hall of Honor, and we'd like to induct you," you cannot imagine the deep emotion that is expressed and that they feel. The speeches that they make when they come, they're something. They're really something. This runs the gamut from high school teachers in Bozeman, Montana, to really highly-placed scientists and engineers. Caltech alumni run the gamut of people, and all of them point to this as a critically important time of their time here, their athletic experience.
ZIERLER: As a swimmer, as someone who came up through that particular sport, do you think that influences your approach to leadership and mentorship? In other words, just as a thought experiment, if you came up and competed at the levels you did in volleyball or track or something else, do you think it would be different? Do you see the world or your job through the lens of a swimming life?
MITCHELL: That's a really good question. I do not have a self-identity as a swimmer. I do have a self-identity as an athlete. I also have a self-identity as a leader, because I've never known life when people weren't looking to me to help, serve, for support, for direction, for advice. I think that makes me a leader. Those are not my only identities, but I think it is important to see the distinction between a swimmer and an athlete. Because to say that if I were a volleyball player or a golfer or a soccer player—as a woman, I have more in common with other high-level athletes across women's sports than I do with men—
MITCHELL: —no, who came up as football players or basketball players or hockey players or baseball players, because of how our culture elevates those sports.
ZIERLER: That's interesting.
MITCHELL: Do I have more in common with a male swimmer than a male football player? Probably. But I think it is more about how our culture raised up young men and young women who played sports in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I think that's the thing. Because you could make the case that as an Olympian, as always only an amateur athlete, never taking money—I took a college scholarship, but never taking money over the barrel, and never wanting to do it for money—that is the shaping feature in my mind. That's the shaping feature. For the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there was no money in my sports or women's sports. Now that has changed. I don't know whether I would be me if I had grown up 30 years later. But I think those are real things. I think Megan Rapinoe has more in common with LeBron James than I do with Michael Jordan, if those analogies hold. Because I always only ever did it for love. The Greek root of "amateur" is "one who loves." I only ever did it because I wanted to do it. I wanted to see how good I could be. I wanted to be on a team with others and help them be as good as they could be. That's just foundationally who I am. I think that people who are doing it for money, or the hope of money in some form or another, that is an extrinsic motivation rather than an intrinsic motivation, and Maslow would tell us—and he's not wrong—that intrinsic motivation is the most powerful motivation. So, I think there's some web in there. I don't know if I am answering your question, but that is what I think of when you ask it.
ZIERLER: When you were competing at the very highest levels, did you always know or was there a dual track of your interests with academic leadership and administration and the kind of life that you have now made for yourself? Was that always part of the plan?
MITCHELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was lucky in swimming. People ask, "What was your secret sauce? What made you—?" Well, obviously, a lot of things that don't have anything to do with my control—my genetics, my parents being unconditionally supportive. Then the last 10% is sort of, "Okay, I didn't screw it up." [laughs] I always had amazing coaches, and when I didn't, I was very quick to leave them. Once or twice, I was like, "This is not working. I'm out. I don't have to stay here with this person." When I got to University of Texas in 1984, the athletic director was Donna Lopiano, and she was just a force of nature. She was the female partner to Senator Bayh from Indiana who actually passed Title IX, the 1972 legislation. She became the athletic director for women at Texas. So, I always had great leadership. As I was sitting there as a freshman at orientation, she walked into the room, and she talked to 50 of us, all the rookie female athletes at Texas, and she just laid it out for us: "You have the world at your beck and call. This university will do everything for you. All you have to do is represent well, and give great effort, and be a great teammate." That's a dream. I was like, "Wow. If I could do that for others, if I could be inspirational like that, or if I could provide opportunity"—like she literally had provided, both at Texas and for our democracy, or for our country—I thought that would be pretty cool.
Throughout college, yes, I chose education as a major. My master's program was with her, in her graduate studies. She was my mentor, my advisor. Then when I went back to school at Harvard, I went to the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. That was in administrative planning and social policy, because I had been a coach and I was ready to transform into an athletic administrator. That was always the thought. People will ask me, "What would you do if you couldn't do this?" I really don't know. I don't know. It just suits me. I'm well suited to it. I love it. People in my field often talk about work/life balance and, "Oh, this is a grind." I'm like, "Well, it's not just our profession. That's just adulting!" You just have to figure out how to be a person in the world. I don't set superficial boundaries on, "Well, I'm only going to work nine to five," or "I'm going to only work nine to eight," or whatever it is. What is the work that needs done? How do you prioritize that? How do you deal with new things that need doing, and let other things go and wait. It's constant triage. Self-care is critical in that. So, know what matters to me—walking my dog, working in my garden, getting some exercise for me, traveling, being my family. Just work it all in, but it's actually just life.
While I understand some people's need to say, "Well, there's this thing, and we need to do it better"—all the professional development literature about balance—okay, that's just healthy adulting to me. That's how I think about it. But I don't put superficial restrictions on myself, because I love what I do. I have a feeling—and I've never talked to any of my colleagues across campus about that—actually, that's not true; I talked to Dr. Grubbs about that. He was my first faculty athletics representative. He was an assigned role with the Athletic Department, and we did talk about that.
ZIERLER: A liaison?
MITCHELL: Yes. There is always at least one, and we can talk more about that. Anyway, he was very important in the first three or four years that I came here. He would talk about that all the time: "You love what you do, but it pervades life; that means you have a great life. Don't shut things off." He lived very large like that. I didn't know him as well in his last two or three years, but he was certainly in here. I just believe in living a whole life, not a siloed life.
Keeping Up During the Pandemic
ZIERLER: Going back to February, March 2020, COVID and the shutdown, what did that mean for the Athletic Center, and what did that mean for you?
MITCHELL: On one level for me, honestly it didn't change my life very much. Every day, work hard. [laughs] I live by myself. I live just a mile uphill with my dog. I have my house. I'm very fortunate in that way. I was not really in danger. A trip out a week to the grocery store. Listening, being thoughtful about the news of the moment, the science of the moment, what was coming, how to protect myself. So, my life didn't actually change very much. I couldn't go see my parents at Christmas. I'm used to taking a big international trip at least once a year, so I missed a couple years of big trips. I was just up and working hard every day. To the bigger question of what it meant for the Athletic Department—
ZIERLER: I mean, there's no Zoom racquetball, is my question.
MITCHELL: Well, that's not true, actually! What it meant for the Athletic Department was we, like everyone else, had to figure out how to provide programming and support these students the way that we always do. And we did. The brainpower around figuring that out and how to do so virtually was really quite a thing. The coaches up and down this hall are the ones that did that. But we did. We taught PE, four-credit, to the entire student body. We reached out. We kept them moving. We kept them connected. Our courses were ones where they had to move. Even if they were at home in their bedroom with their three little brothers, they had to move! They had to do something. They had to figure it out. Ordinarily, we offer 17 or 18 courses a term, and we were down to 11 or 12, and they were of a little more limited nature, but we absolutely did it. We kept kids grinding towards their credit. But really impactful during that time in the physical education program.
Likewise, our teams, they kept the teams together that first year. Virtual team activities, conversations about how they were doing. If they were able to—because Pasadena is a very conservative way through the pandemic—our kids went home, they were able to do a lot of things. Join your community soccer team. Play pickup at the Y and basketball. Our coaches did that work of, on Zoom, supporting students. Concurrently, after three months—we were open here as of June of 2020. We moved a lot of stuff outside. We kept the pools going. We kept the tennis courts going. We figured out how to do that and still manage the masking and vaccination requirements that were important to the senior leadership. We moved everything outside for a year. We brought the kids back. More than half of the kids, in the Spring of 2021, were living locally, because they needed each other. Whether classes came back or not, they needed each other for a variety of reasons.
ZIERLER: They're in college. They want to be in college.
MITCHELL: When I realized that in the Fall of 2020—I didn't encourage them to do it, but if they were going to do it, we knew about it. We knew they were here. Again, our coaches were checking in with them. They were here using the facilities while they were doing their online classes. The Spring of 2021, things had sorted out enough to—we brought them all back to practice. We didn't have games, but we had full practices with all teams in the Spring of 2021, so that they could be together. They were in masks. We were outside. The basketball guys were on the tennis courts. But they were together, and that was a tremendous service that our staff did. Figure out the logistics for that? Yeah, we were working our tails off to figure that out! Make sure they were testing. Then last year, recovering, back to competition. We had a tremendous year. Several of our teams had their best seasons ever. And on we roll. Personally, I actually think the work was harder than ever.
ZIERLER: That's actually great to hear, because the alternative could have been, "We just shut down and there was nothing."
MITCHELL: Which happened to many schools and universities. Caltech—certainly our part-time people were not engaged, and that was really hard to navigate. We did have to, for one year, lay off two people who were just in the support roles. If we don't have any practices or games, we don't have work for you. But two out of 30 is pretty good, when we were seeing wholesale layoffs across California, across the country, in terms of sports. Because to answer your question quite specifically, the week of March 9th ended on Friday the 13th, and that's the day that this place shut down and kicked the kids out. I was tracking along enough, and I didn't really know when it would come, but on Thursday night the 12th, that noon, I said to the coaches, "Send a text to all your kids right now. I want everybody in the Brown Gym. Put a mask on, and everybody in the Brown Gym."
So all of us, the staff and the kids, were in the Brown Gym, and I just talked to them really from the heart. I said, "I get this is a confusing time. I get you're scared. I get you're mad. I get you're anxious. All of it. You can count on us to stick with you, even though I don't know what that looks like. This is not a time to be your obstinate, adolescent self. I want you to go home. Go home! Listen to your parents. Go, home. Don't be obstructionist. You can do that when you come back." [laughs] But I know who they are, after eight years. I know the mode of an adolescent, and I know the mode of our adolescents—questioning, rule-breaking, rule-non-accepting. That's how we move the society forward, so it's a good thing. But I was like, "This is not the time for that. Be compliant and go home!" So many of them after that have said, "You were just straight with us. Thank you." Because in general, the senior leaders have so much going on, and they've got to worry about messaging, and they've got to worry about alumni, and they've got to worry about parents. Maybe the last ones they worry about are what the students think, in that specific sense. And fair enough; you can't make decisions based on what the students think. But you've just got to talk really plainly to them. That's the kind of culture we have here, the kind of trust that our coaches have earned from our kids, that I enjoy with the kids.
Then I called my staff together and I said, "Same goes for you. I don't know what is going to happen but I will communicate with you. Take your laptops and go home, and we'll let you know." And I locked that door. That was a really bizarre day! [laughs] It's funny; I have said multiple times, in other analogies or in philosophical conversations, "Look, I get what sports and recreation are." It is not the rocket science nor the brain surgery part. This is not the man on Mars part. It is critically important, and we trust that, right, but it's not the other part. I know I can on any given day turn the door and be like, "Yeah, we're not going to play sports today." So it was really weird, after 30 years in a profession, of literally being the last bear out, and checking the place, and blocking the door, and putting a sign that says, "We'll get back to you." It was just bizarre.
ZIERLER: Here we are; it's almost September 2022, and we're still wearing masks.
MITCHELL: I know it, I know it.
ZIERLER: The dampening effect where people say, "I'm just going to buy an elliptical and stay home; I don't want to work out in a mask"—do you worry about the long-term health that that will have on the Braun Center?
MITCHELL: I'm looking at four people out there right now, and it's 10:45 in the morning.
ZIERLER: In other words, five years ago, would this place be more lively?
MITCHELL: Not right now. Certainly—we'll see this Fall, right? Because this Fall will be really the first unencumbered in three years. Well, this will be the third year. Attendance is certainly lower. It might be lower by 20%.
ZIERLER: Do you think that's about the masks or something else?
MITCHELL: I have the data, and I look at the data. Without a deeper dive, my sense is that, was the membership fat anyway, meaning people that I had to kick out that we couldn't let come back, so not the Caltech community, not the core community, not our staff, our faculty, our families. Certainly membership from JPL is lower. But this would be local alumni, associates, other people. We used it as an opportunity to really get lean, because we have made it so awesome that so many people in Pasadena want to be here. We, of course, want to make sure that these facilities are first and foremost for our students, and for our staff and faculty. Whatever you want to say about the Caltech community, whatever one's individual perspective is on where the ring ends, going out from the center of campus, this place is for students and staff, for students and faculty. So, we have used it as an opportunity to lean down. That was hard, but I think it's right. At 4:00 and 5:00 and 6:00 and 7:00 and 8:00 at night during the academic year, this place is rockin'. And it was last year. A little bit lower, but the people who use this place need the sense of community, use it as their sense of community, and get it. They don't want to have a mask on, but they put it on, and they come in here, and they do their thing. You also have to remember that for 2,000 to 2,400—the undergraduate and graduate students—this is their home. This is their residence. At the base level, unless they are going to pay twice, this is where they are going to work out. So, yes, we are down a little bit in membership and in flow. Do I worry long-term about that? I don't. Because it is woven into the fabric of people, and that will come back. That will come back.
ZIERLER: Now that we've prognosticated about the future, let's go all the way back to the past—family origins. Do you come from an athletic family? Is that in your blood?
MITCHELL: You'd have to ask my dad. I think he would say yes. My dad was a high school state track champion in Ohio. He played basketball. I think he might have played a year for Ohio State. I don't think I would describe us as an athletic family. My brother played basketball and baseball growing up. He wasn't really a high school athlete, to speak of. He swam a little bit in high school, but I was significantly faster than he was. Are we an active family? Absolutely. But we're also a very small family. It's just me and my brother and my mom and dad. My mom is an only child, and my dad's sister passed young. All my grandparents are dead. We're really at the end of the line, for us. My brother has one daughter. So, no, I'd say we're an active family. I don't know that I would say we're an athletic family.
ZIERLER: Were your parents from Ohio?
MITCHELL: Well, they're not born and raised, but they still live in Marietta, Ohio, which is where I was raised.
ZIERLER: What were their professions?
MITCHELL: My dad was a banker. He started out a banker with the Federal Reserve out of Cleveland, and then was president of a bank in the small town of Marietta. My mom was a school teacher, then a mom, then got her master's midlife in counseling, and became the president of the school board, and was a guardian ad litem for kids in the family welfare system in Marietta. They traveled. My mom was a mom; my dad was a banker. My dad switched careers at 40 or 45 to then be in the oil and gas business. There was a huge natural gas reserve found in southeast Ohio, so he did that for the last 15 or 20 years of his working life.
ZIERLER: Do you have a clear memory of when swimming for you was something special, something that you could compete at?
MITCHELL: To say I have a singular memory like that would be not true. I do remember loving it all the way along. I loved it. it was what my friends did. I enjoyed it. it was part of my routine and schedule. Do I have a sense of when I could be good in a way that other people would care about? Probably my junior year in high school. I never thought about that. it was never my dream. But probably my junior year in high school.
ZIERLER: What access to pools did you have as a kid? Did you have a backyard swimming pool?
MITCHELL: Oh, Lord no. The YMCA. Marietta had a YMCA, and that's where I joined the swim team when I was little. I swam at a series of YMCAs and then I did go away to high school my last two years of high school, and that boarding school had a pool, certainly. It was YMCA swimming up until then.
ZIERLER: When were you "training"? When did that become part of the routine, that swimming for you was more than just fun, that it was something that you were working at?
MITCHELL: Part of me wants to say never [laughs]. I loved it.
ZIERLER: Training isn't the right word?
MITCHELL: I don't want to get too philosophical, but training and your follow-up implies work. Well, it was work from day one, and it was never training because it's doing what I love and pursuing goals. I liked the feeling of working hard. I mean, it was hard work, but it was never a labor—maybe that's the different word—it was never a labor. Once or twice in my middle school years, I was probably emotional and like, "I don't want to do this anymore! I want to go to the dance on Friday night!" But that would have been about it. I really loved it.
ZIERLER: Maybe I can frame the question like this. The idea that you loved it, you did it with your friends, at a certain point, you're doing more than your friends are doing in the pool?
MITCHELL: That's not true. Never.
MITCHELL: Never. Never. I just swam in meets faster than they did.
ZIERLER: [laughs] So you just happened to be in a social community where everybody did this a lot?
MITCHELL: Well, my friends were connected to activities, whether it was my friends on the swim team or my brother's friends who played middle school basketball. It was just part of our routine. That's what you did when you were a kid; you did sports. I don't know if I'm describing it well, but it was just that simple. But no, I didn't ever do more than the rest of my team.
The True Meaning of Parental Support
ZIERLER: What about from your parents' perspective in terms of, as you mentioned, their unconditional support? Driving you and all of those things. From their perspective, if they were here and I asked them, do you think that they were doing more to support your love of swimming than the parents of your friends might have been? I guess what I'm asking is, where is the trajectory that leads ultimately to a gold medal? This is a very unique thing. There clearly has to be some path where you're doing something with greater intensity and greater commitment—
MITCHELL: That's the thing. That's what I'm trying to get you to understand. As it relates to my parents, were my parents doing, were they acting, were their actions different than Susan Hamlin's parents, my friend who also swam on the team? Or Becky Lisle's parents? I don't think so. Carpool. My mom worked in the bull pen giving out ribbons. They were timers. All swimming parents had to do these things. Were there certainly kids on the swim team who had parents who couldn't do that? Sure, working two or three jobs or whatever. But by and large, my parents did exactly what every other parent did. If there is a difference, the difference is unconditional support. By that, I mean my mom could not tell you my swim time, my places, what I was swimming—the events or the races. She didn't know. Why would it matter? "Go off to practice, have a fun time, I'll pick you up." It was my thing. If you think about it, if you really think about it, in today's world, that is the secret sauce. Because parents are overly involved in protecting their children, in ensuring that their experience is only a good one. But it's not their kid's experience; it is then the parents' experience. That was not the case with my parents.
My father famously said, when it came time to—I wanted to do morning workouts when, I don't know, I was like 13 or 14. My coach was like, "We let people do this. Once you get to a certain age or stage, if you want to do morning workouts, you can do morning workouts. We think that would be a good idea." "Great." I went home and I said that, and my dad was like, "Of course. We'll get you wherever you need to be." He said, "But I will not wake you up. If you want to do this, you will wake me up, and ten minutes later, out the door we'll go." So think about that, in today's world. Of course that was my secret sauce! Because it was mine. It was mine. I could do it or not do it. It was wholly internal motivation.
ZIERLER: Do you think that is unique in terms of athletes who competed at your level, that they didn't have parents who put pressure on them? Do you think your parents' approach was unique?
MITCHELL: I only know that now. If I think back about some of the stories that people were telling me, or like when I got to college and generally hearing stories from my teammates, but none of that compares from the stories I've heard professionally in the last 25 years, and my experience with parents, direct experience with parents of kids, and even Caltech kids, who the parents are really running the show. Every step is scripted, and worse, kowtowing to the adolescent or childish whims of the kid. "Oh, I'll just fix it. I'll do it." But you're not creating a resilient human being if you do it for them. I'm no child psychologist, I'm no child development person, however once they pass about eight, if you're still doing basic things for your kids and not only teaching them how to and rather doing it for, you are not creating a resilient—that is one of the biggest problems in our society today, is not letting children grow up the way they should grow up, developing on their own. In a safe place, of course. That is what swimming did for me. That is what my parents allowed swimming to do for me. It allowed me to develop an intrinsic sense of, "If you want X, you have to do Y. I can't do it for you."
ZIERLER: Does the appreciation you have for your parents in terms of the unconditional support, is there an extra dimension of depth to that, as a girl, where they might not have been as supportive or taken it as seriously as they might have?
MITCHELL: I don't know what you're asking me. Say it again?
ZIERLER: If you have a boy, a son, who is an elite athlete who has these talents, for a lot of parents they might take that more seriously than they would in a girl. The fact that they gave you unconditional support, is your appreciation for that support for you being a girl, does that add a dimension of your appreciation of what they did?
MITCHELL: I would say no for two reasons. One is because my father was an athlete, and my mother, while she is athletic and/or active, was not a competitive athlete. But my father went to school in the age of co-education, so my father is part of the generation of men who went to school with women, like really wholesale. In the 1950s and 1960s, women were in colleges, for the first real wave after the Second World War, so he saw women differently, as a generation. Again, you're the historian, not me; I'm way out of my depth. But this is what I have always thought. There was nobody gonna tell Jim Mitchell that his daughter couldn't do exactly what she wanted to do. And that is a story from Title IX literature. The generation of men made it happen. If it had only been the women in my mother's generation, we would not have progressed in the same way. "Don't tell my daughter that she"—"Don't tell my son he can't do whatever he wants; don't tell my daughter she can't do whatever she wants." So I don't think so. I do not think so. I think my parents would be real about that, but I think they treated both Peter and I the same way in that regard. He just wasn't as athletically gifted relative to his peers. "You want to try baseball? Try baseball. Great." They drove him to practice, too! "Oh, you got fouled in a basketball game? Tough shit! [laughs] Get back in there! I'm not gonna say that the ref was wrong; you got fouled." "Oh, you didn't make the varsity. You didn't even make the freshman team. Sorry! You didn't make the freshman team. I'm not going to fix that for you." So I don't think so. I don't think so. I think it's an astute question, but for my parents, I don't think so.
ZIERLER: It's also decoupled from any dream that this would somehow translate into a multimillion-dollar sports career.
MITCHELL: Correct. That was reason one, but the second reason why I'm answering your question, "No, I don't think so" is because from my age peers in swimming, there are very successful men who have the same experience as I do. My friend Dan Veatch is the wildly successful CFO of multinational corporations. He's just like a wildly successful banker guy. Went to Princeton, swam in the Olympics. He and I swap these stories about the intrinsic motivation that somehow our situations allowed for. I don't know Michael Jordan from all the tea in China, but if you put that against Michael Jordan's experience growing up, needing and wanting different from his skill, those are different stories. He had a professional sports model. He grew up—"Oh, if I take this thing all the way out, I can make a lot of money. That can be my profession." I didn't have that. Dan didn't have that. We knew it was going to be something else.
ZIERLER: What were the considerations for switching high schools for you? What was that about?
MITCHELL: Marietta is a great place to be from, it's a great place to grow up—
ZIERLER: But there's a bigger world out there?
MITCHELL: Well, and swimming showed me that. My parents chose it. It was right for them. I didn't have to choose it. But, the school system failed, and the teachers were going on strike big-time. My mother knew this because she was the president of the school board. It was for my junior year in high school.
ZIERLER: What year was this?
MITCHELL: 1981, I guess? Certainly, I was getting better. I didn't know it like I know it now, because it was just a real-time, "This is my life. I go to practice. I go to high school. I have a meet. I have my friends." I wasn't raised to look in the mirror. [laughs] I was just raised to live my life. I have this sense that my mom knew all these things, and being president of the school board, she's like, "This is not going to go well. She's doing better, and yes, we want her to see the big world." She is the one that said, "Hey, there are these things called boarding schools. Do you want to drive around to look at a couple?" We went to Florida and we looked at one, and I didn't really like that, and that was awfully far from home.
ZIERLER: So this was as much about the education as it was about the athletics?
MITCHELL: Oh, it's 100% about the education.
ZIERLER: No teacher strike, you would have graduated Marietta High?
MITCHELL: I think there's an above-average chance that that is true.
ZIERLER: That's so fascinating, because just looking at your bio, you assume—because this is a thing that happens. People go off into specialty sport schools.
MITCHELL: But it really was not.
ZIERLER: Oh, that is so interesting.
MITCHELL: Quite frankly, the one that we went to—the Bolles School, which is in Florida, and Pine Crest, which is in Florida—they were absolutely making hay on, "We're the big swim prep schools." Now, Mercersburg, where I went, was also one of those, but it was four hours from home. It was Mid-Atlantic. It has very humble service roots. It is very egalitarian. And that fit us. That fit us. I could get home on the weekend if I really, really wanted to. Somebody could come pick me up and I could go, rather than get on a plane and be way out there. It was a good middle ground. It was a good first step.
National Level Competition in High School
ZIERLER: Was it good for your swimming? Would you have accomplished the same had you stayed in Marietta through high school?
MITCHELL: That's a really good question. I think it was absolutely good for my swimming.
ZIERLER: Just in terms of the facilities, the culture? What was it?
MITCHELL: There was a very good coach there. There were more likeminded teammates. It was a college prep school. It was not one high school, small town in Appalachia. I don't even know what the numbers would have been at that time, but I'm going to go with way less than 25% of people went on to college. Mercersburg was 100%. That's what it's there for. It's a college prep school. So, it was the first big door opening. The second door—swimming in general. We would travel around to some national and regional meets and like, "Oh! There's more than an industrial Rust Belt town. Tell me about that." But absolutely it was good for my swimming.
ZIERLER: How was your competition level as a junior in high school? Were you winning every race you were in? Were you a standout? What did that look like from the outside?
MITCHELL: I've never been able to answer this question very objectively. I strive to be objective in this way, but I think it is because of my humility, because my lived experience was not looking in the mirror. Did I have a tack board posted full of ribbons and medals up on my thing that had all the little labels of where I won them and stuff? Sure, of course. Would the ten coaches of the ten teams we swam against in the Mid-Ohio Valley say, "Betsy Mitchell was a really good swimmer, growing up"? Probably. Did I win a lot? Sure. But that was a pretty small pond, is how I see it, now. Did I win everything? No.
ZIERLER: Again, Los Angeles 1984 is not a small pond—it's the biggest pond—so I'm trying to draw that line.
MITCHELL: It was a pretty big pond. If the question really is did it happen pretty fast, then the answer is yes. I don't think I was nationally ranked when I was 14 or 15. I don't think so. I certainly was good in my region. As a seventh, eighth, ninth grader, I was good in the Mid-Ohio Valley. I was good in the Midwest. I had gone to the YMCA national meet in Florida by that point, but I didn't win. The first time I won a national meet was the summer before my junior year in high school. The first time I went to Junior Nationals, I won Junior Nationals.
ZIERLER: What does Junior Nationals mean? What is that competition level?
MITCHELL: In those days, Senior Nationals was the best. Anybody of any age swimming the 100 backstroke, if they were fast enough, you qualify. The top 50 kids would be qualified for Senior Nationals, and then anybody over 12 that wasn't quite at Senior Nationals but was good, the next 50 kids would be at Junior Nationals. Something like that. They don't even have Junior Nationals anymore. But it was right at the time going into my junior year when I left home that I had what we'll call my first national success. That was 1981. So, yes, within three years of making it.
ZIERLER: Did winning a race feel different at that level?
MITCHELL: I was incredulous. I mean, I really remember being quite surprised. Leading up to it, it all felt the same. My coach didn't even go with us. [laughs] Because my coach was a part-time coach. He worked for Union Carbide; he couldn't take a week off just because I made a better, faster time. So, my mom took me, and my mom didn't know the first thing about it. There we were, and I won the race, and it's like, "What do we do now?" "I'm hungry." "Let's go get a burger." "Okay!" [laughs] It was then, and then going to Mercersburg, that I was like, "Oh, wow, maybe the Olympics is a thing." It's like, "Well, now I'm at the national level. What else?" I don't have a first-person memory of that. I'm sure of course those things were coming through my mind, but it really was only at the start of my junior year of high school.
ZIERLER: Do you develop a specialty in a particular stroke at this level? Are you focusing on backstroke, butterfly, whatever? Or you try to be good at all of them?
MITCHELL: I was good at all three, other than breaststroke. Freestyle, backstroke, butterfly—I was good at all of them, because I was strong and fit and coordinated. I swam whatever my team needed. Really I was never good at breaststroke and it hurt and I hated it. But pretty much everything else—again, that goes to how I was coached and raised so well. The age of specificity now is part of the problem. It is also part of the good, for that one kid who only swam fly from the time they were 12—Michael Phelps—but it's also why there aren't very many Tom Bradys in the world anymore. His longevity is due to the fact that he just played everything as long as he possibly could, and his family knew that and let him, and his coaches knew that and let him. They let his passion be the driver, not their ego. That's why Tom Brady is playing at 42 or 45 or however old he is. Truly great athletes, really if you look back through time, with a few exceptions, they will have a broad youth athletic experience.
ZIERLER: What's the takeaway? Joy? What's the secret to their success to have that generalist approach to athletics?
MITCHELL: Because it develops your body differently. While yes I really only swam, I didn't specialize in a stroke, and I wasn't made to lift weights until I wanted to lift weights. I wasn't made to go to morning workout and up my yardage until it was age-appropriate and fit with the rest of my life. Again, the takeaway is balance.
ZIERLER: When did D-I schools start to show an interest in you?
MITCHELL: There weren't very many. Texas and North Carolina were really the only ones. It was not part of the plan, but part of the beauty was that I lived in Ohio and I had done all my swimming there, and then I went to this prep school which is pretty much off the radar.
ZIERLER: As opposed to if you went to one of those schools in Florida?
MITCHELL: That's correct, or had just moved to Cincinnati and been a club swimmer.
ZIERLER: Which only strengthens the picture you painted about where you were emotionally and mentally in terms of ambitions. It really was not the be-all and end-all.
MITCHELL: Correct, it was not. Again, because there's no professional swimming! It doesn't cross your mind! It is easy for me to sit here and say that now. Maybe if I were coming up now, would it? I don't know! I liked it. I didn't like it that much. [laughs]
ZIERLER: And it's not like this was your only ticket to getting an undergraduate education.
MITCHELL: Correct, correct! That is why I feel so strongly that what is happening in college sports right now is ridiculous and will implode the system, and should implode the system. Because a young person, being given the opportunity to earn their college scholarship, to earn a college education, whether they would have anyway or whether they wouldn't have had access or money to do so, it's a perfect marriage. But it's not the thing in and of itself. It's the means to a different, better end, which is a college education. That's the thing, and that's what this whole thing is screwing up for a small number of people.
ZIERLER: It was between North Carolina and Texas?
MITCHELL: Yes. The beautiful thing about Mercersburg was—in those days, there weren't cell phones. There wasn't even email! Finally, these two guys called my high school coach. I remember one phone on a dorm floor of girls, waiting in line. The guy said, "I can call you at 7:15." "Okay, I'll try to pick up the phone at 7:15." My coach told me, "Hey, can you try to get to the phone at 7:15?" and I'm like, "Well, I've got study hall." Whether or not there was great demand for me and everybody knew about me or not, that's a moot point; I'll never know. My dad, to this day, is angry that Ohio State didn't recruit me. The Ohio State coach at the time—because within a short couple of years, then it was a much different deal, and everybody—and he asked him, himself. He said, "Coach Jim, why didn't you recruit my daughter? Our whole family—anybody who has ever gone to college on both sides of our family for three generations has gone to Ohio State; why didn't you recruit Betsy!?" He's like, "She's from Ohio?" [laughs] He was crestfallen! He had no idea!
I chose North Carolina because it was a smaller pond. At the time, it was a smaller pond. The coach seemed fine. I got there, and it was just awful. My college guidance counselor said, "You're a pretty smart young lady. If they will get you into the University of Chapel Hill, go there." At this point, it's better than the University of Texas, in whatever the rankings were. It's a little smaller—20,000 versus 50,000. "If they get you in there, you go there." "Okay! They've got a pool, they've got a good swim team. Okay." The coach and I just really didn't work out. So I quit school.
NCAA Championships and Quitting School
ZIERLER: You quit school!
MITCHELL: I quit school the Monday after the NCAA championships my freshman year. Now it was 1984. My freshman year was 1983-1984, and I quit school, because I was like, "I won't make it if I stay with this guy." Now, we're talking about three months.
ZIERLER: You won't make it swimming-wise?
MITCHELL: I won't make the team, right. I won't make it. I'm not maximizing my potential. He's got his eye on the wrong thing. We don't communicate well. This is not where I need to be.
ZIERLER: Was that something interpersonal unique to you, or you just thought he was not effective in his job?
MITCHELL: I thought both.
ZIERLER: It really emphasizes the importance of the personal relation between the swimmer and the coach.
MITCHELL: It was incredibly important for me. We got home Sunday, I packed up my little car Monday and drove home. I called my mom and I said, "Hey, I'm coming home." She of course thought, "Oh, good, it's spring break! Great, you'll be home for a week." I'm like, "No, I'm leaving school. We have to figure out someplace for me to go train, because I can't stay here and be effective." "Okay! Well, come home! Are you all right? Come home!"
ZIERLER: Were you enough of a standout at North Carolina where your decision to leave raised eyebrows about the coach?
MITCHELL: Oh, it was a huge thing.
ZIERLER: Did they try to get you back? Did they talk to you? What happened?
MITCHELL: Well, it was a huge thing for him. I'm sure I talked on the phone to him, but I'm also pretty stubborn. I'm also pretty intuitive. If I had already decided that, there's nothing that he's going to fix. Was he abusive? No. Don't let your mind race. It was just like, he has got his mind on other things, and I just wasn't comfortable with our training.
ZIERLER: The plan was not to just not do college; you just needed to figure out where you were going to transfer.
MITCHELL: Oh, Lord, no. No, no, no. I didn't know what would happen next, but I was like, "Now, wait a minute. The Olympic trials are in June. It's March. If I'm feeling uncomfortable, I've gotta get someplace where I'm feeling comfortable, to train to try to make it." That was a moment that I was like, "Wait a minute, swimming needs to come first for a small period of time."
ZIERLER: The Olympics was on your radar at this point.
MITCHELL: Sure, absolutely. I had won an international meet by then. I was third at NCAAs that year. Yeah, sure. That year, I had gotten a lot better versus the world.
ZIERLER: At this point, have you shed enough naïveté that you know yourself that the Olympics is within range?
MITCHELL: Yes, of course.
ZIERLER: Or are you still relying externally? You knew?
MITCHELL: Of course, of course. Probably my senior year in high school, now my first year—it was all happening in those two years. It was becoming something that—"Well, yeah, why not! Of course!" But it was never driven by that. It was always driven by, "I like training. This gives my life structure. I have all these other amazing opportunities." Who doesn't like winning? I mean, who doesn't like winning? I'm not that humble. But, it was always within context of part of my identity, not the whole.
ZIERLER: So you get home. Now what? How do your parents react?
MITCHELL: It's about a 12-hour drive from North Carolina to Ohio, so by the time I got home, I probably had it all figured out. I was like, "Okay, this is what we're going to do." Once again, just tell them. I'm sure they asked some questions, but—
ZIERLER: They trusted your judgment. They knew this was the right call.
MITCHELL: Absolutely, 100%. My mom will tell you that from the time I was really little—six, seven, eight—I would always say, "I can do it myself, Mom." If she were here, even if you didn't ask her, and you said, "What are the top three or four things about Betsy that you know?" she would say, "Well, from the time she was little, she has been pretty stubborn, and she's going to do it herself." They just allowed that to happen. So, I went to swim in Cincinnati. I had known that coach. I had known that team. I had trained there for a little bit the summer before. I just went and lived and trained for three months. And I made the team.
ZIERLER: You were not worried about picking up your undergrad at some point?
MITCHELL: No, I knew that would happen. Obviously time slows down when you're in moments of your life, right? I'm sure by the time I got home, I had the plan, and I communicated the plan. I'm sure I was thinking about it, but honestly my other secret sauce is the ability to focus. By that point, I was like, "Okay, I am putting everything I have into training." It was really the only period of time when I did that, when I wasn't ever in school or other things weren't also happening. It was a very short period of time that I was ever only training. By then, the word gets out, but it was in the runup to the trials, so nobody in swimming is focused on anything but that.
ZIERLER: Where were you doing your training?
MITCHELL: In Cincinnati. As I said at the beginning, it came down to UNC and Texas, so I'm sure in the back of my mind, it was like, "Well, I'll just call the guy from Texas and see if I can go down there." Which is essentially what I did. He was also on the coaching staff, so between the trials and the Games, there's a six-week period of time where the Olympic team is just training together, before the Games, and he was around. I was like, "Hey, when this is all done, I'd really like to talk to about coming to Texas." What do you think he's going to say?
MITCHELL: I mean really, right? Now with my adult cynicism, what the hell is he going to say? Of course he's going to say—but, he did not put me on athletic scholarship. So, I transferred, and I didn't get my scholarship back for two more years. My dad was like, "Wait, what? Why not? We're an Olympic champion. We're an American record holder. We're not getting a scholarship now?" I'm like, "Dad, I transferred schools. He already figured his class out. We'll probably get one, but it's not going to be this year." "Okay."
ZIERLER: How do you receive the news that you make the Olympic team? How does that happen?
MITCHELL: Well, you win a race, and you see it on the board.
ZIERLER: And that's it, simple as that?
MITCHELL: In the moment, you know. If you're first or second, you're on the team, and if you're third, you're not.
ZIERLER: What was that race?
MITCHELL: 100 backstroke.
ZIERLER: In Cincinnati?
MITCHELL: In Indianapolis.
ZIERLER: What were you feelings at that point, when it dawned on you that you would be on the Olympic team? Did you take it in stride like everything else, or was it different?
MITCHELL: Of course in the moment I was happy because I had won the race. I had won the race. I won Olympics trials. That's the first reaction, joy and excitement. Then, on you go.
ZIERLER: Did you see it as a life-changing event?
MITCHELL: No, no. Just another race.
ZIERLER: Looking back, do you see it as a life-changing event?
ZIERLER: You don't?
MITCHELL: No. Just another race. I don't see being an Olympian as a life-changing thing. It's awesome. It has certainly opened doors for me. But I don't see it as a life-changing thing. Because it's only part of me.
ZIERLER: That's extrinsic. You were talking about what's intrinsic.
MITCHELL: Exactly. And my life is not external things. My life is between my ears.
ZIERLER: All right, so you make the team. What happens next?
MITCHELL: You train for six weeks.
ZIERLER: Also in Indianapolis?
MITCHELL: Actually, we came out here, and we went down to Mission Viejo and lived in a hotel for three or four weeks. Then we came up to L.A. when the Village opened and swam. We just lived there, training.
ZIERLER: Is it a coed environment?
MITCHELL: Yes. There's about 50 people on the Olympic swim team.
ZIERLER: Demographically, is everybody about where you are? Your age, socioeconomic background? How diverse is it?
MITCHELL: Well, thank God now it's a lot more diverse. Then, no. No. A bunch of white kids. But also for that Games, very age-diverse, because the '80 Games had not happened, so we had a bunch of young adults who had hung on, so a lot of the '84 team were in their mid and late twenties, which at that time was very unusual. Because they had finished college, they were coming to the peak of their careers during college in the late ‘70s. For '80, we didn't go, but they hung on, and a lot of them made the '84 team. I was probably in the middle. I was on the youngish side. There were a few girls 15, 16, 17. I was 18.
ZIERLER: You were essentially a college freshman just out of college right now.
MITCHELL: Correct. Given the three or four Games directly before that, there was more age diversity than there had been. But given the reality of the world today, it was more like that, because now there are professionals swimming that are 30, 35, and there are also teenagers. Now, it's even greater, but then, it was more of a newer thing.
ZIERLER: Just a cultural question—1984 Los Angeles, was anyone out? Were there any openly gay swimmers at that point?
MITCHELL: Openly, no. Greg Louganis and Bruce Hayes were certainly gay, and they knew they were gay, and some of us knew that they were gay, but they were not out.
ZIERLER: Because that's career suicide? It's dangerous? It's just not something you do?
MITCHELL: I would not have had any idea. Contemporaneously I would not have known. Bruce Hayes was a lovely guy. He was a teammate of mine. But I—"Okay, he's gay." I don't even know—like, I'm 18; I don't know what the hell that means. I don't. Same with Greg. Lovely people. "Whisper-whisper." Okay, I don't—whatever. I don't know why they weren't out then, other than Bruce was only a year or two older than I am, so probably part of his just natural process of things. But I don't know. I've never talked to either one of them about it.
From the Olympics to UT Austin
ZIERLER: On the Olympic team, do you have that singular relationship with a specific coach that you would in college?
MITCHELL: You do, but in those days, it wasn't your coach. It was just a group of people who were named Olympic coaches because of results. So, some of the kids had their coach, but then the rest of us just had to jump in with them.
ZIERLER: In the way that the relationship with the coach at North Carolina was so important for you that you left, did you develop those kinds of relationships that were really important on the Olympic team?
MITCHELL: No, actually, I did not. I did not. I was in a training group with two or three other backstrokers. They were all men. We were given a coach. That was a period of time when I was then—and I remember thinking this—"Just trust your gut. Your gut got you here. Just trust your gut. Just do what's right for you. Just do what's right for you. If he's asking you to do something in the pool that you don't feel like you need to do, just swim through it. Just navigate." Which has always been a strength of mine—"Stay within yourself."
ZIERLER: Being an Olympian, you're representing something that is much different than a high school or a college. Were there any classes on protocol or things like that, things you can do or not do, or you were just on your own?
MITCHELL: On your own. Now, there certainly are now! [laughs] In the overprogrammed world, there certainly are now! I think when we went to LAX to pick up all our free gear, I think they gave us a 30-minute like "How to talk to the press" thing, but that would be it. That was it.
ZIERLER: Did you feel a sense of patriotism that you were representing the United States?
MITCHELL: Sure, absolutely. That grew throughout the six weeks' time and culminated when we were at the meet, and when we were all in red, white, and blue, and there's 10,000 people. I had never swum in front of 10,000 people before. Absolutely. The opening ceremonies, it is quite a thing. I'm from small-town Appalachia. I knew, I understood, how important my doing this was to the people back home that I don't even know. I don't know them. I know some of them; it's a small town.
ZIERLER: You know there's a lot of people you could make proud.
MITCHELL: Absolutely. Whether my suit split off and I did a fart while I was doing a back dive, they wouldn't care. I was there. I was them. That was their connection. They didn't know my swim times. They didn't care if I medaled or not. I was there. If your next question is pressure, don't ask it, because I didn't feel any.
ZIERLER: You didn't feel it?
MITCHELL: I didn't feel any. But I was certainly absolutely aware of and heartened by, "I'm representing Marietta, and I'm representing this country." Of course! Of course.
ZIERLER: I'm thinking of 1980 and the "Miracle on Ice," Lake Placid. Was the Cold War something that you felt? Was beating the Russians a thing that registered with you?
MITCHELL: Well, that's a whole other set of questions.
ZIERLER: Thank you!
MITCHELL: It wasn't really the Russians. It was the East Germans, because they were doping. It probably should have been the Russians, because they're the ones that did a little boycott, and that's who we boycotted.
ZIERLER: It was known that the East Germans were doping?
MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. About the same kind of secret as Greg Louganis being gay. [laughs] If there was any competitive fire, for us, on the women's side, it was absolutely to beat Eastern Bloc countries, and to show that—not Good and Right with a capital "R," like capital "T" Truth, but like doing it the right way, you can still win. That fueled me pretty well for the next couple years, for sure, certainly to a world record.
ZIERLER: Were you aware of individuals representing other countries that would be your competition?
MITCHELL: Not really. Again, I'm sure I was, but I was not—that's the great thing about swimming. You use other people for racing, like in the moment, but you're racing a clock. It's not like basketball, like us five have to put more points on the board than you five. You're always racing the clock. My girlfriend now will say, when she gets frustrated just in everyday stuff, "I just have to remember that you're just wired to go fast." Whether it's emotionally or whether it's logistics—how much can I get done in two hours and have time to—I will work myself into a frenzy to get it all done, so that we have an hour to relax. Or whatever. Or driving my car or whatever. she's like, "God, you just go fast." I am always aware of the clock.
ZIERLER: Once you're on the Olympic team, is everybody there in contention to be a medalist?
MITCHELL: No, no.
ZIERLER: It's not like that? I'm much more familiar with cycling. The Tour De France, 98% of the members of the team—
MITCHELL: It's possible.
ZIERLER: —are there for the leader to get the yellow jersey.
MITCHELL: It's possible, that's right.
ZIERLER: Is it similar in swimming?
MITCHELL: No. It is because everything is time-based, in a controlled environment.
ZIERLER: You're just as likely as anyone else?
MITCHELL: If ten times in the last year you've swum one minute over this race, chances are that even if you do the best you're ever going to do, you're going to go 59. Maybe you'll go 58, you might go 1:02, but you're going to be in that range. If there are 50 people in the 100 back in the Olympics that make it there, because their country entered them, there is no time standard. There might be now, but there was not then. There's not a time standard to make the Olympics. You win in your country, your country wants to send you, you go. It has long been known—and it is still absolutely this way for swimming and I'm sure for track, and even things like cycling, although I'm not as familiar with that sport, but marathon, whatever, individual endeavors—it is harder to make the finals in the United States Olympic trials in most individual sports than it is to make the finals at the Olympic Games. There are eight women in this country who are better, by and large, than the best in 50 other countries. You're asking me, was I aware of Kristin Otto from East Germany? Well, sure, because I was first in the world, and she was third in the world, and our times were less than a half a second apart, so let's see who gets better this summer. Let's see who gets better this time. Then it's just a race. I never went my best time at the Olympics.
ZIERLER: The gold medal was not your best time?
MITCHELL: Not by a stretch. You haven't asked me the question that I carry around, right?—and everybody assumes that—my best swims were never at the Olympics.
ZIERLER: I didn't even think to ask.
MITCHELL: But it was races, right? I got first or second. But no, never. Doesn't matter. Once you get there, the time doesn't matter.
ZIERLER: The clock tells you, once you are part of the Olympic team, that you are within striking distance of getting a medal. The numbers are the numbers?
MITCHELL: The clock doesn't; the world rankings do. Constantly held. Like right now, we could go online and we could—why are these people not in their masks?—there we go, Kev…
MITCHELL: The baseball coach is giving a tour. We could go on right now, world rankings. You'd see who the top ten are, and what the spread is in difference between their best times. "Oh, the world record is a minute. Oh, I swam a minute-point-one. I'm going to be in the top three in the world. Maybe the next time I swim it, I'll set the world record. Maybe not." But if I win and I don't set the world record, then who's to say I'm satisfied? Only me, because—right? That's when I got out of swimming, was when it started to be more of an external thing, as there was money involved. That would never drive me. Again, privilege, right? [laughs] Again, privilege. But I created all that for myself. I'm college-educated. My parents launched me okay. I would never be motivated by money more than passion or philosophy or intent. That's just me.
ZIERLER: All right, so some pop psychology: why do you think you never swam your best times at the Olympics? What is that about?
MITCHELL: [pause] Because the Olympics, when I swam in them, were organized for too many peaks during the year. Peak in March for the national championships, peak again in June for the trials, wait six weeks, peak again at the Olympics; you don't have three peaks in six months, period.
ZIERLER: That's just physiology?
MITCHELL: Training had not evolved to do that. That's just physiology. You train for bigger macro cycles, tapering and peaking once or twice a year, but never within six months of each other. Maybe every six months. Again, this is my improvement curve. Oh, I'm getting better, better, better, better, better. Now I'm going to peak three times in—? How's that going to work? I'm a racer. I can freakin' put my hand on the wall first. But physiologically—now, it was close, right? There were microseconds. Again, at that stage, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. That's not what they're for.
My best time—when I set a world record in the 200 back, I trained for that meet for nine months. It was the year after the Olympics. I was not swimming in college, because I had to sit out. From the summer before, all the way for a calendar year, I was focused on, "My next major meet is to try out for the World Championships team." That's when I set a world record. Not the up, down, up, down, up, down. People, even now, choose the meets they peak for. Really, really, really good swimmers, if they're dominant, will not peak for the NCAA championships. They'll peak for a meet in November, December; fall training, peak; and then what's coming up in the summer on the international circuit. Because they're going to win NCAAs whether they peak or not. That would have been my boat.
ZIERLER: Exercise science just wasn't there.
MITCHELL: Correct, it's exercise science. In my junior and senior year at Texas, we did a mini-taper for NCAAs, because you want to be sharp, and you want—but it wasn't—that's important from a psychological standpoint. "I'm part of a team. I want to do everything I can." But I was so good, I was going to win anyway. I didn't know that at the time, but of course that was the case.
ZIERLER: Just doing what you're doing.
MITCHELL: Doing what you're doing. Racing.
ZIERLER: What was the sequence of your medal counts at the Olympics? What did you get first?
MITCHELL: I don't know. Gold medal in the medley relay, and then silver medal in the 100 back.
ZIERLER: The gold medal came first? What's that like? What's the feeling like, just getting called up there? I know you're an expert at taking things in stride; that's clear. But did it feel surreal at the time? Was it like suspended animation?
MITCHELL: No, because I had won races before! The scope is bigger, the audience is bigger, but honestly, I'm sort of used to it.
ZIERLER: It's not a different beast is the question, basically.
MITCHELL: No. In my twenties and thirties, when I did a lot of public speaking and motivational speaking, people wanted to get at this essence of, "What's the secret sauce?" Like, "Why you?" In fact, it's because I don't see them differently. It's the clock.
ZIERLER: It's exactly that.
MITCHELL: It's exactly that. It's me. It's the clock. Yes, there are people here with me that I want to beat, but I'm not thinking about the person next to me. I'm not thinking about the people in the stands. I'm not thinking about what comes before or after. I'm thinking about right now. It is the essence of being present for one minute. It is the definition of laser focus. If you want to know the secret sauce, it's unconditional parents, and it's the ability to laser focus for the minute of the race, and incremental work ethic. "Today, I'm going to work as hard as I can, for these two hours." Wipe the slate clean. "Tomorrow I am going to work as hard as I can." And I'm going to accept the result of that. Not every day is the same, but I'm not going to beat myself up about it. I'm not going to let some dumb-ass coach beat me up about it. I'm going to work as hard as I can right now.
Do people get overwhelmed at the Olympics and swim terribly? Of course they do. Because they are mentally aware or able to be like "This means everything!" No, it doesn't. Because I have a balanced life, because I have parents that love me, and I'm going to go on my family vacation to the Grand Canyon no matter what happens! I'm going to be in eighth grade. I'll graduate from college. I'm going to be thinking about my life after this. I'm going to be preparing for my life after this, not thinking that my life ends when this is over. That's the pop psychology.
ZIERLER: All of this suggests, I assume, that the experience of winning a silver and winning a gold were really not that different for you.
MITCHELL: Never. And when I got fourth place in 1988, it's not any different. The difference is, other people don't know to ask me about my fourth-place finish.
MITCHELL: They think it means something. What it means to me is, yeah, I didn't swim very well that day. It doesn't mean I'm sad or mad, because if I would have swum my best time, if I would have finally swum my fastest swim, and it got me fourth place at the Olympics, I would be fuckin' over the Moon! Excuse my French!
ZIERLER: That's quite all right.
MITCHELL: Like, I'd be over the Moon! But I swam terribly. I swam awful. I was done. It was over. I didn't want to be there. I was not motivated. I just wanted to get on and get to my job and move on with my life. I didn't want to be there! No wonder I didn't swim well. This is not rocket science. This actually is Psychology 101.
ZIERLER: What about that crush of attention after the medal ceremonies? What was that like for you, the media?
MITCHELL: Thank God I'm not one of those people with a beautiful face or a perky personality because [laughs]—Mary Lou Retton handled all that!
MITCHELL: I just got to slide on home and figure out how to transfer to Texas, as far as '84 goes. But, certainly. I went home. I went to Marietta. There was a parade. It was lovely. They met me at the airport. You can find all these pictures.
ZIERLER: Were your parents at the event? Were they in Los Angeles?
MITCHELL: Oh, yeah, my parents and my brother were there. Yeah, for sure. But, I went home, and there was a parade, and they put me on the courthouse steps, and—2,000 people. It's a tiny town. And that was lovely! But again—
ZIERLER: Two thousand very proud people.
MITCHELL: They were very proud people. Very proud people. And I gave them what they needed, right? But then it's just, "What next?" "Hey, the garden needs weeded. Get out there!" "Okay!"
MITCHELL: A little creative license, but seriously! I took a driving trip with my boyfriend. I hadn't seen him for a long time. Just get back to life. I am humble, and I do downplay, but I do that so people understand that that is what was unique about me, that it was not all-consuming in a bad way. People will try to get you to say that after the fact. They want me to have some neuroses now, or some broken spirit, or somebody did me wrong, or I sacrificed so much. I had an amazing childhood! I had an amazing young adulthood! If anything, when I think back, I feel guilty about my privilege, given the state of the world today, and so many people in the world today, and my big heart. I don't have anything to worry about. That's really interesting to me. In part it's because people today—some, not all—high-level, professional athletes—will write or speak or podcast or get interview and publicize their personal problems. They will publicize that. They will trade on that. That is part of their therapy, for their problems. Maybe really bad things did happen to them, and that's awful, but they trade on it. They trade on it. They're not only healing from it; they're trading on it. People make those assumptions about me, and there's nothing hurt or broken about me. It was hard. It was awesome. I was supported. There were certainly moments that probably weren't fun, but they go in the rear-view because that's a life skill. [laughs] You gotta just move on. Like the UNC thing, it's like, yeah, that didn't work out. That was kind of not great. Act, get out of there, see what comes next.
ZIERLER: On that point about what comes next, thinking about going to Texas, this next stage in your education, is that when you really start to think about education and administration and leadership?
MITCHELL: Absolutely. The seed of, "Wait a minute, this didn't go well. How can I be part of making sure it goes well for others"—absolutely. Then to see that. The grace of the coach, of Richard, who had come in second, right? Didn't win me. Of course I called him, because one of the last things he said when I told him, "Hey, I'm going to UNC" was, "That's too bad. I really hope you have a great experience there, and we're always here for you."
ZIERLER: What's Richard's last name?
MITCHELL: Quick. And, rest in peace. He was graceful, and he was focused on me getting what I needed, so of course I was going to call him! Which is the best strategy, right, is like, "Uch, well that stinks, but if something—maybe you'll need us in the future."
ZIERLER: What course of study did you pursue at Texas?
MITCHELL: Education. That's what it was at the time. I ended up in a lot of classes with current teachers returning for continuing credits, so I actually had to take a lot of classes in the late afternoon and I would miss practice. I would go in and practice on my own or I just missed, because that was my school. At North Carolina, I said, "I want to be an education major," and they were like, "No, no, no. A smart girl like you? You're going to be in business."
MITCHELL: I'm like, "What are you talking about? It's my choice."
ZIERLER: "Don't we need smart teachers? Wait a minute." [laughs]
MITCHELL: "It's my choice. These are the classes I'm signed—" Their approach was male. It was dominant sports. It was, "We will tell you—you are a commodity. We will tell you." Literally. Michael Jordan and James Worthy were my breakfast table partners. "We will tell you what we can get you through." "All right." So that Fall, I took a bunch of business classes. I didn't like them. I did fine, but I was like, "This just is not sitting right with me. I want to take pedagogy. I want to take child development. I want to take guidance counseling. I want to take all the things that make up a general undergraduate education major." "No! Accounting! No! Calculus! No! Business Finance!" "I don't want to take those things!" So, it was easy to be like, "This is just not working." Then Texas, with the Donna role model, with Richard saying, "Hey, whatever works for you. We're here. Sorry you made a mistake the first time. Sure, of course come on down." Would he have said that the year before? I'd like to think so. Does it hurt that I was a sitting Olympian? No. But okay, he gets credit for that. He could have said, "Screw you, kid. I don't have an athletic scholarship for you. They don't have space on your team for you. Pay the price." Be mad. No. "Come on!"
ZIERLER: Did the prospect of the 1988 Olympics influence the way you competed for those four in-between years?
MITCHELL: No. I'll say that because what quickly became really my favorite—you haven't asked this question, but my favorite thing about swimming, in the time when I was good, like nationally good, was absolutely my college swimming experience. It's why I do this. It's the specialness of team swimming. It's the specialness of going through four years with a group. It's a little different than club swimming where you're really in it for yourself and you really only do what you want. You're learning team lessons, even in an individual sport. You're learning what it means to be on a team—work for each other, work with each other, get pushed by each other, push others, all within the context of getting better together.
ZIERLER: That's unique to college?
MITCHELL: It is unique to college, it is absolutely unique to college, and it is what should be college athletics, whether you're on an athletic scholarship or not. That's not the problem. That is actually why our country has invested in and allowed college sports to be, and it's uniquely American. There aren't college athletics like this in other countries, period. It is one of the things that drives why the United States leads in the sporting world. We pump out a lot of professional golfers. Our country decided we wanted to watch professional golfers on TV and advertisers needed product to sponsor on TV. Okay. But, all those guys played college golf! [laughs] Ernie Els comes over from South Africa, and three guys come from Scotland, and it's just very different. Then you have the PGA Tour, which is populated by these amazing college golfers. Which is again why it's imperative for us to sort it out and fix college sports.
The Seoul Olympics and Path to Graduate Study
ZIERLER: Had you graduated already by the time of the '88 Olympics?
MITCHELL: I graduated from college a couple of weeks before the '88 Olympic trials. I trained for four hours the morning of my college graduation because we couldn't train in the afternoon and we had to get the work done, so we got up at 4:00 a.m. to get all of our work done for the day. Sort of a funny story. Then was trials, and then the end of the summer—well, really in September or October—was the Olympics. Same thing—peak, peak, peak, peak. I was so done. I was there because I was supposed to be there. I was there because I was the leader. I was there because I was the dominant female in swimming for our country. I was there out of obligation. I was not happy. Did I enjoy it? Of course I did, because I was filling a different role. At that point, I was serving. But I knew my best swimming was behind me.
ZIERLER: This is purely an extrinsic question, but just your undergraduate experience, house party on a Saturday night, are you like the gold medalist in the room? Is that known about you?
MITCHELL: Oh my God, they had no idea who I was.
ZIERLER: No idea.
MITCHELL: No idea who I was!
ZIERLER: And that worked for you.
MITCHELL: Absolutely! Also, I didn't go to frat parties. We would have parties with the swim team. Did I go to a bar? Did anyone in Austin know who I was? Hell, no! Come on! There were football players for that.
MITCHELL: At that point, there were baseball players for that!
ZIERLER: They weren't gold medalists, though.
MITCHELL: They were not. Some of the track guys were. They were not. But no! Nobody—come on! Nobody—and by and large, that is because there was no social media. Could Michael Phelps enjoy that anonymity at the University of Michigan, even if he hadn't already taken the money, and even if he was an actual student? No. He wouldn't have enjoyed that. In fact, he got himself in trouble and he lost touch with his main motivation when that stuff started happening to him. That's when his mental health went down the shitter. Come on! Again, this is not the rocket science part! But people don't name it.
ZIERLER: Did you have a relationship with the athletic director at Texas? Did you appreciate that somebody did that role?
MITCHELL: Well, that was Donna Lopiano, so absolutely. Absolutely, I did. 100%. And she was around. She was there. Even the men's athletic director, DeLoss, he came to a swim meet. Of course. They were our advocates. They cheered for us. They held us to account when we stepped out of line. They were absolutely involved.
ZIERLER: Did their leadership plant a seed that this might be something for you to pursue as a career?
MITCHELL: One hundred percent.
ZIERLER: Did you talk to them about that? Graduate programs, next jobs?
ZIERLER: What kind of advice did they give?
MITCHELL: Donna was my graduate advisor, so I sought her out. I said, "How do I do this? What do I do?" She said, "Enroll in a master's program, start your master's, and be in our program." It was the sports administration program, and she was a teacher in it.
ZIERLER: You got to stay put?
MITCHELL: Yeah! Totally.
ZIERLER: Did you go straight into graduate school?
MITCHELL: I did.
ZIERLER: Two-year program? What was it like? As a graduate student, there's more than undergraduates do. There is research. What were the things that you studied?
MITCHELL: Courses in budget and finance. Courses in kinesiology. Courses in counseling. Courses in law. Courses in risk management. I split it, and I went back to Mercersburg to work for a year. Then I took an online class, early days. I took a course at Tuck, the business school at Dartmouth, when I then went to Dartmouth. It wasn't a traditional two years and done, but I took lots of different courses in lots of different things. Same as when I went back to school at Harvard, then, after I had been a swim coach. I took four courses in the College of Education. I took a course at the JFK School. I took a course at Harvard Law School. I took a course at the Harvard B School. Again, because that is what being an athletic director is. There is so much.
ZIERLER: Those are the 27 hats.
MITCHELL: Those are the 27! There's so much. The baseball coach is giving a little tour to a family; I'm like, "Hey, they don't have their masks on." Why would I think that? Who cares? Well, that's a risk management question, right? I'm looking at the people on the treadmill, and I'm like, "Eh, they didn't put their treadmill all the way down." There are just a thousand things. About school, yes, purposefully, intentionally seeking a path of not—it was the anti what I saw. In those days, a lot of athletic directors had been former football coaches, because they didn't know what else to do, or they lost enough games that their university just made them the administrator. Well, now, what makes you think that somebody who is losing a bunch of football games is going to be a great administrator? "Oh, well we've already signed a big contract; we've got to make him do something." That's not leadership. [laughs] That's not strategic. I knew I was not going to be that. There aren't many people who have been a high-level swimmer that are athletic directors, or even worse swimmers that are athletic directors. A handful. But I knew what I didn't want to be. That's sort of a theme with me; I knew what I didn't want to be. I didn't want to live on the infamy of an external reward. I had teammates who slept with their medals on, and they haven't amounted to much, because they just can't—they've lived the greatest part of their life before they were 25. I intentionally saw that, and I didn't want to be that.
ZIERLER: It would also suggest that careers would open up for you because of some past accomplishment and not because of your intellectual abilities.
MITCHELL: Correct. I was not going to be the dumb jock. That has absolutely driven me all my life, banging into that myth, proving that myth wrong. Absolutely.
ZIERLER: Did you do swim coaching full-time?
MITCHELL: Yes, at Dartmouth. I did that for six years. That's the same question my grandmother asked me. I called her and I said, "Hey, I got this job. I'm going to be a swim coach." "Where are you going to do that?" "At Dartmouth." "Oh, that's nice, dear. Are they going to pay you to do that?" [laughs]
MITCHELL: In those days, it was a valid question! "Oh, you love swimming. Great. But will they pay you? Is that a job?"
ZIERLER: My question was, your educational trajectory was more, I thought, on the administrative side, where you were going to have additional responsibilities.
MITCHELL: Sure, and the answer there is, in those days—
ZIERLER: I bet you took those things on, at least unofficially, anyway.
MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. In those days, if you were going to be an AD, you were either going to come out of law school or B school, because you were going into the ticket marketing money side of things, facilities side of things—that would be your path, your trajectory—or you were going to be on the student side, educational development of young people, the coaching side. Of course that was mine. Lopiano was like, "Which one of these suits you more?" and I was like, "Coaching. I don't want to do it forever, but I know I need to understand it if I'm going to hire coaches, work with coaches, be the boss of coaches, I'd better have some gravitas in doing what they do."
Coaching at Dartmouth
ZIERLER: What did you come to appreciate about swimming that you could only get from the perspective of being outside of the pool?
MITCHELL: I don't know that I have an answer to that question. I think I was pretty aware when I was younger. I don't know that I know! I was very aware of what I was learning when I was learning it. I think because I knew I wanted to be a coach and an administrator, I was listening to that stuff while I was doing it.
ZIERLER: This was a seamless transition for you in some ways?
MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. I wouldn't have imagined anything else.
ZIERLER: What were your proudest moments at Dartmouth?
MITCHELL: The Dartmouth women's swim team had never won a meet in the 25-year history of women's swimming at Dartmouth, and in the third year, we won two or three meets, and by the fourth or fifth year, we won six or seven meets, and in the last year, we were 8-3. Transforming that team was absolutely—I was very, very proud professionally. It felt really good to do something by leading, not by doing.
ZIERLER: Now here's the secret sauce question. You have explained very clearly how you have made all of these things work for you as an internal conversation. But what about transmitting that to other people who might not have that perspective, didn't have those parents, didn't have those genetics, all of the above? How do you transmit that externally to create that level of success so quickly?
MITCHELL: You mean at Dartmouth or here?
MITCHELL: Tapping in to each swimmer's sense of self, sense of internal motivation, talking about that. I don't care if you come to practice, but the fact is that kinesiologically, physiologically, you won't get better if you don't come to practice, if we don't do these things. Explaining the why behind the training to actually get them better in the pool. Whoever was there, whether they were any good or not, we were going to get the most out of them. They were going to connect to their goals; their goals, not my goals for them. Sometimes that meant kids would step away from swimming, because they realized they didn't actually have any goals, and they weren't actually that interested in swimming in college. I'm like, "Great! Go be your best self! You don't have to swim!" Releasing them from that. For the ones that didn't want to be there, that was great, because the dead weight got out. But tapping into that for the kids who did want to be there, that they were doing it for themselves. They didn't have to do it for me, they didn't have to do it for their parents, they didn't have to do it for their club coach. Talk about an empowering moment. "Do it for yourself. Whatever you want to do." We need to have incremental improvement so everybody feels like they're achieving and getting better, but that becomes a self-fulfilling motivation.
ZIERLER: Were you involved in recruitment?
MITCHELL: Yeah! Sure!
ZIERLER: What did you learn about spotting raw talent? Before you even get to meet a person, when you're just looking in the pool, is it just about the clock?
MITCHELL: Yeah, absolutely. The clock makes this really easier in swimming. But then the thing you have to listen for is this: whether they actually want to swim. Whether they're still really enjoying it, or whether they're really doing it for a bunch of other bullshit reasons. Those kids are always going to be trouble. They're going to take a lot of your time. Because you're going to just have to be helping them as a person and work through all their shit. So you listen for, and you find out about, you ask questions about, are they really enjoying it? What are your goals? If they can't speak to what their goals are—"I don't have goals for you. I'm not paying you to do this." Selling that notion that, "This is for you."
There can be a great variety of motivations on a team. Who am I to say? Some kids at Dartmouth, they knew that what they needed from swimming was to be on a team, to have a social place to belong, and if this is what the behaviors were that were needed to do that, "Okay. I'll get up and come to training, and I'll be a good teammate, and I'll work hard at practice. I don't have any time goals." "Cool. Just don't step outside of the bounds of our team expectations. I don't care if you don't care." But without fail, those kids who started—"I just need a place to belong"—"Great!" But they would start swimming faster, without fail, and then they would love it. That's the change agent, right?
ZIERLER: This is all very reminiscent of your dad's message to you—"I'm not gonna wake you up."
MITCHELL: "I'm not gonna wake you up!"
MITCHELL: "You do it! You don't want to? Okay! Fine!"
ZIERLER: When was it time to start thinking about your next opportunity after Dartmouth?
MITCHELL: Twofold. Again, one professional and one personal. Professionally, when we got to 8-3—or maybe it was 7-4, the year before we went 8-3—I was like, "This is about as good as this team is going to get." Dartmouth was not going to give me more resources. We were where we were in the pecking order there.
ZIERLER: There were structural challenges.
MITCHELL: Versus what was happening at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as it related to women's swimming, sure. Dartmouth was like, "You have to bring up the GPA of the ice hockey, football, and soccer players." Meaning your kids, right, that we let in. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were giving significantly more slots to their swimmers, because they were already an established power. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were the ones I never beat, but I beat everybody else in the Ivy. So, structurally—and I said that to my athletic director, "Love it. We're doing this. What are the plans?" "No plans." I was like, "Okay, cool." At least that's an honest answer. Great. He's like, "We're really happy with what you've done. We expect to be in the middle of the pack. We want a balanced experience." That's why it was resonant for me there in the first place. I never had any outcome expectations; I was a swim coach. Give the kids a good experience. It was like, "Okay, that helps me frame it." I had done all I was going to do. Where is the challenge in that? Where is the puzzle? What is the next—?
ZIERLER: Administratively, you were very bounded.
MITCHELL: Absolutely. Also, now I'm 28 or 29. I'm realizing that I'm gay. Hanover is a very small place.
ZIERLER: You're becoming aware of this at this stage in your life?
MITCHELL: Yes. I was like, "This isn't going to be a good long-term fit." Plus, I'm not wired to do one job for 50 years. I knew that about myself, too. Like, "I don't know what comes next, but I know I'm not going to live in Hanover and do this all my life." Because it tied me to swimming, rather than expanding. Those two things happened at the same time, when I was 27, 28. We had a great year. I knew we were going to finally beat Cornell. I knew we were going to be in fourth place. Took some kids to Nationals. That was fun and new for them. Then I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to go back to school and take the next step." I applied to Harvard and went to the one-year program. That was a transition of, "Yep, I want to move into administration."
ZIERLER: Besides checking a box intellectually, academically, was that really important for you, the Harvard year?
MITCHELL: Sure, but let's be very clear: I'm not dumb, I had okay GRE scores; I'm sure they let me in because I was an Olympian. Of course, of course! My thing says the same as everybody else's, and of course I contributed when I was there and I got a lot out of it, credentialing aside. It's funny because intellectually, that was about the time that I made the decision, "I'm not interested in pursuing a PhD."
ZIERLER: Which would have put you on the professorial track, or that would have just been like an accomplishment to do?
MITCHELL: I didn't want to teach. I wanted to be a practitioner. I didn't want to talk about administration; I wanted to be the administrator. I made that decision for me. Athletically, I have a terminal degree, or two. World record, American records, Olympic medals—there's nothing I don't have other than a bronze medal.
ZIERLER: [laughs] That's a great line. [laughs]
MITCHELL: Literally. NCAA championships, national championships, world championship—there's literally nothing I don't have. So, for me, on the athletic side, if somebody doesn't see that, I can't make them see that. That's okay. Just straight up educationally, that was the thing: should I go back and get a second master's, or, should I start a PhD program? I was like, "But I don't want to only teach about it." That was the decision that got made then. I've done extensive executive education at very fine schools, but that's more about being a practitioner.
Self Realization and Program Building in Cleveland
ZIERLER: What doors opened for you at that point after Harvard? What were you considering?
MITCHELL: None, because I'm such a non-traditional candidate. At that point, Lopiano was pretty mad at me, because she expected me to go be a ticket manager at a Big 10 school. Now we're in the mid 1990s, and the business side of collegiate sports is really roaring. We're coming out of the 1980s, so our economy is big. Sports had been latched onto as a commercial entity. I didn't want to be a ticket manager! I didn't want to be a marketer! I wanted to make an impact on kids' lives!
I've never been an assistant anything. I've only ever been the head coach, or the athletic director. That doesn't mean I'm not a humble servant. I wanted to get experience. I was like, "How do I do this? Where is an appropriate first bite?" I looked for high school jobs. She once again said, "If you go to the high school ranks, you will never make it out. You will never make it from high school to college." I'm like, "Don't tell me I'm never gonna—" Right? "Why? That's really stupid. That's spoken by somebody that doesn't know the prep school world. Who never was in the high school world." I also know that my medals have to mean something at some point, and of course they are going to be door-openers. So the combination of those.
Laurel School for Girls was looking for a change agent athletic director. Cool. I'm from Ohio. It's on the east side of Cleveland. It's closer to my parents. Great! See if they need help. They were also looking for a change agent. They were looking for somebody to do a massive facility project. They liked me, and I liked them, and I spent six years in Cleveland. Then the pivot is like, "Then what?" Well, just the confidence that the right place, the right match and fit will see these as the exact same skills. Small colleges, independent high schools; it's the same skill set. It's the same scope. It's the same everything.
ZIERLER: Did you have the resources you needed to be that change agent?
MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. The same thing as coming here. The board had decided, "We're going to be better at sports, and we need to make an athletic campus. We need somebody who can be inspirational but also has the skill and that we can get." It just worked out.
ZIERLER: You must have loved the concept of being in such a small pond where for you—
MITCHELL: Loved it, loved it! Are you kidding!
ZIERLER: —the challenge was enormous.
MITCHELL: Let's be honest; I don't bite shit off that I know I can't chew. I know I can do it. I have to sell it a little bit. But of course! That's low-hanging fruit!
ZIERLER: Are you out at this point? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you keep this private?
MITCHELL: My journey in that way—I don't know that I was ever in the closet, truly. When I moved to Cleveland, I started dating a woman. I had had this notion about myself, but I hadn't actually started dating women. That was all 28, 29, 30. I went there when I was 30. I wasn't not out, is the way I say it. Did I tell my parents and my brother? I did. Were they surprised? Peter was not surprised, my mom didn't even know what to do, and my dad was like, "What?!" But as with anything, their question really became more about, "How could we have not known this?" I was like, "Well, I'm only knowing it. I'm only figuring it out. I'm telling you so that you know. I'm not not telling you. I'm telling you! But I really only am figuring it out." My mom was really only concerned with, "How could you feel like you couldn't tell us?" There was a little bit of that in there. As I said to my mom, "It's not you, but if you would stop and listen to some of the words that come out of dad's mouth for the entirety of my adolescence, from where we lived, you would not be surprised." Like, "If you really think about it."
ZIERLER: Meaning what? What words?
MITCHELL: Meaning it is a rural place. There are more uneducated people than educated people. There is a sense of other—"If I don't know, they're other than me." That's all I'll say about that. Me, as an adult child, realizing that I can love my father for who he is and was, and also disagree with him, as I now have an adult sense of the world; that's as much about growing up as it is about my dad.
ZIERLER: Internally of course, the opportunity in Cleveland was no professional risk for you.
MITCHELL: None! Only upside.
ZIERLER: But going from Dartmouth, Harvard, to this small school, were you worried at all that it would close doors for you?
MITCHELL: No, I really wasn't, because again, great opportunity. I was fired up to be there, I was fired up to do what I was doing, and I don't worry about tomorrow. I was just focused on what's right in front of me. "They want to go from here to here. I'm going to get to write up a map and then execute it! I don't know how long it will take. I think this. It might be that. And then we'll do it and we'll see what happens next."
ZIERLER: Was it about mission accomplished in six years?
MITCHELL: Absolutely! I still have the napkin that I drew the first conceptual athletic campus. When I was leaving from my second visit, which turned out to be my final visit, about "Do you want to come work here?"—the recruitment visit—I was like, "Wow, cool. What would I do?" The headmistress said, "Think about it. Really think about it and let me know what you think. Whether you come and take the job or not, let me know what you think." So I'm flying back to Boston or wherever I was going, and I drew it up. I sent it to her. I Xeroxed it and I sent it to her, and I was like, "I think this would be really the way to go at it." "Please come and do that for us." So, I just had a great opportunity. I didn't worry about that stuff.
ZIERLER: Did you start thinking about next moves after you had accomplished what you wanted to? Did you have a next step afterwards? I get the sense you wouldn't have gone anywhere if you weren't done with what you came there to do.
MITCHELL: Well, that's true. No, I built the campus. The teams got better. Added a couple sports. Starting sending kids to state championship. The culture was infused with a positive way to do this. It wasn't just, "Girls don't sweat." It was like a good, robust, first-class program for those young women. Energy, certainly—it took a lot of energy—and now I'm 35 or 36. I knew I wanted to be at the college level. I knew that. I was certainly applying for jobs. Some people couldn't, as Donna told me, see the connection, so I started consulting. I just started making up programs and selling them to people—teambuilding, sportsmanship. I did some program reviews. I just out of the air started a consulting firm of me, myself, and I. My credit card still says, "Betsy Mitchell Consulting" on it. It's dumb, right? I'm 36. I'm applying for some things. I'm making a name regionally for myself. I finally just say, "There's no more to do here," and I do just go out on my own, like, "I don't know what comes next." Sort of like the moment after North Carolina; I don't really know. "I've got a few things going on, I'm paying my bills, but I can't stay here. I don't necessarily know what comes next, but I gotta go." On that note, it's 12:30, and so I have to make sure we put a pin in it for now.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, September 30th, 2022. It is great to be back with Betsy Mitchell. Betsy, thank you so much for having me again.
MITCHELL: Thanks for coming back.
ZIERLER: We are going to pick up today in the narrative in that year of consulting for you, 2004. You had done what you wanted to do in Ohio, you had left a great program, you were ready for your next adventure. It was also the first time perhaps ever that you were unmoored institutionally. You were all out on your own without a clear plan of where this was headed. Looking back on that year, before you knew of your next opportunity at Allegheny College, what did you learn about yourself, being out by yourself, just in terms of skills? It was a one-woman show. What did you learn that you were really good at yourself, and what did you learn that when you are part of an institutional organization, there are things that need to be done that are best delegated to others?
MITCHELL: A two-part or three-part answer, but what I confirmed for myself was that I'm good on my own, [laughs] and that was sort of a skill that had built so much confidence in me during my swimming years, that I brought from swimming into my professional career, so it was good to feel and reaffirm for myself. In a personal way, I took a great leap by following my then-partner and leaving Cleveland and going to Columbus and following her, and sort of giving myself space to let that be important and not be worried about that, and not think it meant anything bad, rather to focus on that it felt something good. There was some of that personal work at play there.
The skill that I developed in that year or 18 months was that my thoughts on how educational athletics should be done, and thus talking to other high schools, other small colleges, learning the skill set of actually marketing one's thoughts, was fascinating. It was really fun. It was a little scary, but to know that there was a hunger out there for confirming that perspective for an institution. I was doing a range of projects, from actual hands-on student service, like leadership programming—go into a high school, go into a college, do leadership training for their captains, —or program review, peer review, how do we do this better. Realizing that it wasn't just me at an institution making it up as I went along, but that there was a market for it, was really fun, and just confidence-building. Not that I have ever lacked too much external confidence.
ZIERLER: What did you see as the knowledge, the expertise you had built up to that point that was salable in the consulting world? The kinds of ideas that people were clamoring for that were valuable to them.
MITCHELL: The use of objective data in the building of programs. Rather than rely on our cultural values, which are really anecdotal and hit or miss, and are shaped by the loudest voice in the room, which by and large had left women out, which by and large had left out—insert any minority category. Data, right? "Here are the laws. Here's the data. You are making decisions for your football program differently than you are making decisions for your tennis program. Why are you doing that?" Exposing that by asking questions. But giving them another tool, which is, "We'll use some objective factors to make decisions." Translating—well, of course we want to treat all the students the same. But how do we actually do that, when our donors are yelling at us to just buy another set of football pads for the football team, and who cares what the tennis team needs? "Oh, those tennis kids are rich; they'll just buy their own racket."
It's like, "Wait a minute. The law doesn't say we have to be equal; it says we have to be equitable." Those are slightly different concepts. The same quality of experience for a football player is, are you paying both of those 18-year-old boys the same for a lunch, or are you giving the football group unlimited—"just go feed ‘em"—and you're giving the tennis player $9 apiece, or things like that. Bringing these objective ways of doing business that is then defensible was helping a few institutions navigate coming out of the 1990s when really the gender equity in sports particularly was hitting educational institutions. Yes, in the 1980s, but not really, but then in the 1990s, people were actually digging into the conversation. Things like that. An objective framework on how to support educational sports.
ZIERLER: What was going on culturally in the 1990s that allowed these kinds of questions to filter into the athletics discussion?
MITCHELL: In the 1980s, the first generation of—the NCAA basically took over the AIAW, which was the women's predecessor, separate but non-equal. In the 1980s, I think women's programs, just that there were scholarships for women was seen as enough. "Oh, great. You've got some swimming scholarships for women. Super." Then the 1990s was women had just enough taste of it, their parents and donors had just enough taste of it, that then, "Wait a minute. Why is the football team getting six pairs of shoes that they can't possibly wear at once, and I'm not getting a pair of shoes?" Then it was like, "Okay, well, if we're going to do that for the men, all the gear, all the whatever, all the bells and whistles, we have to do the same for women." I wasn't advocating that the football team needs six pairs of shoes.
ZIERLER: But if they do, you're going to go with that.
MITCHELL: Right. If you're going to do that, then you've got to give 19 swimsuits to your swim team. There was that. Then, the 1992 and 1996 Olympics were the first time when the women's national teams and the women's United States athletes did better than the men, overall. So there was this cultural view of, "Oh, Title IX really worked. In the 1980s, they did this, and then now we're starting to have national teams of full-time kids." There was a great awakening culturally that when you support women the same, they're going to dominate the world. That was happening. Then put on top of that the next step seems to have been the right awakening in the 2000s of, "Let's get at the underlying real hot button, which is the power and control issues between the genders in our country." Maybe in the world, but in our country. Thus was born the #MeToo movement. Again, I'm not a historian, but I'm a woman who lived through all four of those decades, so it seems to me that those are related.
The other thing you have is, as was the case with my father, you have more and more generations of men who are saying, "Don't tell my daughter she can't do what she wants to do" and getting involved in youth sport coaching, and seeing, "Wait a minute. My daughter can earn a college scholarship." The whole thing just jump-shifted up in terms of value. Youth sport culture took on the bad [laughs] from the men's youth sport culture, transferred it into women, but the whole thing just exploded. The commercialization of youth sports in the 1990s and 2000s was just incredible. That's what was going on then, in the 2004, 2005, 2006 world.
ZIERLER: In your employment background up to that point—experience at the college level, at the private school level—in the consulting business, did you tend to draw continuity between high school sports and college-level sports? Is it basically the same outlook, just different levels of education?
MITCHELL: It is in my world. I think maybe we touched on that last time, but when I went from being a college coach to being a high school athletic director, my mentor Donna said, "That's dumb. Nobody is ever going to hire you back the other way now." I just fundamentally disagreed with her.
ZIERLER: And proved her wrong. [laughs]
MITCHELL: Apparently proved her wrong, but probably in her mind not, because I'm not at Texas, or I'm not at Stanford, or I'm not at Princeton; I'm at a Division III member. She was always interested in people being where she thought they could do the most good, as opposed to—I'm doing a lot of good for these 275 athletes and this 5,000-person recreational community. I don't have to win the war for the world. I just need to win the battle for this community. So, yes, and fundamentally, if you're focused on student development, of course there are differences between what 14- to 18-year-olds are doing developmentally, and 18- to 22-year-olds are doing developmentally, but it's more similar than dissimilar, in terms of the systems that support them, in terms of the values, communication, organization, priority, health and safety, equitable experience, sportsmanship. Those things are the same when sport is connected to educational institutions. They're more similar like that than disconnected in the commercial [world, again in my view.
From Consulting to Allegheny Directorship
ZIERLER: When did the opportunity at Allegheny arise, or were you recruited? How did that work out?
MITCHELL: I was doing some consulting work for a small college in Ohio as one of my clients. I was doing a program review and helping them with a strategic plan to improve their program. Allegheny was in the market. Someone at Allegheny was colleagues with the president at Marietta that I was doing the review for. That president said, "Oh, you ought to talk to—" They called, and that was that.
ZIERLER: You were fine in the consulting world? You were doing well? You weren't specifically looking for anything?
MITCHELL: No, I really wasn't. I knew I wanted to do this work at the college level. Ever since grad school and when I was a swimmer, I thought, "Oh, being a college AD, that would be really great." But I was really just doing purposeful work, for me. That seems to always stand me in good stead, is to not worry about what comes next, and not always be looking, not waiting for the other shoe to fall, being really content where you are. So, I was surprised, and I made a quick change, but it was exciting. It was very exciting. That was really a time of learning, and again another time of affirmation. Because it's one thing to say, "Oh, it's the same work, just add another couple zeroes to the budget" or add another 30 employees to the staff or whatever, but I know there is some scope and scale difference. It is a little cavalier of me to say that operationally it's not different. So, it was exciting to get in there and learn that puzzle. Honestly, the high school that I was working at in Worthington, Ohio, was coed, it was a 2,200-student institution with 90 teams and a bunch of part-time coaches and facilities all over Worthington. Actually the Allegheny operation was a little smaller than that—2,000 students, centralized facilities, full-time staff not part-time staff. But certainly a larger budget, because of the travel. I was excited to take on a new puzzle.
ZIERLER: What were your early impressions when you first visited campus?
MITCHELL: It was beautiful. It was rural. The student body had great spirit. It was an established program. I was trying to listen for, is this a maintaining job, or is this a change job? Is this exert your will, grab everybody, and go, or just support and tweak? It was a support and tweak job, and I had never had one of those. I also took it on thinking, "Okay, what do I need to do differently? What do I need to learn about differently? I'm not just flying in there on my broom and smashing a bunch of mirrors, putting up new walls. I've got to assess differently and get to know the head coaches differently, and if change is needed, make it deliberately, not just blow it all up and start over." That's a very different skill set.
ZIERLER: As you mentioned last time, you never had a dramatic coming-out experience. But at this point, after learning about this and talking with your family and having a girlfriend, professionally were you out at that point? Was that part of your professional identity? Did you not talk about it? How did that work?
MITCHELL: When I moved with my partner—again, I have never felt the need to make a statement about who I am, to anyone. I didn't feel that when I was 14 and wanted to go to the eighth grade dance with John Moser. I didn't stand on a soapbox and say, "I like this boy. I'm going to the dance with him. I must be heterosexual." I literally never had a moment like that. That doesn't mean as I was realizing that I was attracted to women and wanted to be with women that I didn't think about that internally. But I'm not a public person; those are private things. For me, it's not fear. I've said this to others, and they just think I'm like not in touch or something, but it's not fear. I don't have anything to be scared of. This is who I am. This is who I want to spend my time with. You're asking me how the two came together. When I moved to Allegheny, my partner and her children moved with me, and we lived in the big house on Main Street, and she comes to faculty parties, and I reference having to go get the kids, and—it's a non-issue if you make it a non-issue.
ZIERLER: If you're comfortable with yourself, other people will be comfortable around you.
MITCHELL: Or not, but I can't do anything to help them. Certainly there were people in Meadville, Pennsylvania—not at Allegheny College, but in Meadville, Pennsylvania—that were very uncomfortable with that. Not my problem.
ZIERLER: That's where I was going with the question, because there's the internal/external dynamic. There's who you are and what you can control, and there is small-town Pennsylvania, and you're there with your partner, how to manage that, or not to pay it any mind.
MITCHELL: I was too busy helping two kids and working a job and trying to just have my own life. I certainly am aware of what other people think of me, and to say that I don't care is not right. Also, what I have learned after my adolescence, being under public scrutiny like that, is that there is nothing I can do about what other people think anyway. If I break the world record by three seconds, or the American record by eight seconds or whatever it was—I don't remember; I'm making up numbers, but it was substantial—people are going to think what they think. They're going to say, "Ooh, Betsy Mitchell's on juice. She's using steroids." "No I'm not. No, I'm not. Take any of my bodily fluids you want! No I'm not!" So, "Ooh, Betsy Mitchell's gay." Well—I am! [laughs] So what! That's your problem, not mine.
ZIERLER: So you get there. What's the plan? What needs help in the athletic program? What is going strong and you're there to just keep it strong?
MITCHELL: What is going right at Allegheny is they've got a fair complement of teams, 20 or 21 different teams, led by and large by really caring professionals. It is integrated into the college writ large. It is a huge part of the identity of Allegheny College to have a strong athletic program. Making sure that our athletes are positive leaders on campus, keeping our grades high. Most teams have winning percentages. There was a need to create a bit of a master plan. What facility needs fixed next? Are we going to add sports in the out years? At that time, Allegheny was, like most national liberal arts colleges, flipping, so it was going from around 50/50 to more women than men, the polar opposite of where Caltech was in those years. Figuring out what do we do about that. There were some staffing changes that needed to happen, so figuring out how to do that with long-term employees in a kind, thoughtful, but clear way. Doing quite a bit of fundraising to connect to those facility projects. That was the plan, was just sort of to learn and live and lead there, support them.
ZIERLER: This applies to Caltech as well—how do you slot in, in the overall fundraising? Where do you come in on that, in working with the development office, working with alumni? How does that work?
MITCHELL: Well, anywhere else—this is not the same as Caltech—anywhere else, the athletic director is a very key part of the development team.
ZIERLER: Because sports are so big.
MITCHELL: Because many, many, many places see the affinity that students had as a key way to get them interested in the philanthropic needs of the college or the university. At many places—land grant universities, big privates—they have doubled down on the backs of their alumni, both athletes and non-athletes—quite frankly, non-athletes give more than athletes in overall philanthropy—to living past a reasonable budget. They have funded that on soft money, so it creates all the pressure, if you follow that. But in many other places, a lot of small schools that are very enrollment-driven, that sense of front porch, that sense of school pride, that sense of marketplace, that sense of having a strong athletic program not only brings admitted students to come to school there, which is the most important thing—keep the doors open—but also to use—and I do mean use—athletics to tie all alumni back to philanthropic giving. It's not that the athletic budget is living above its means or what it needs to put it on for those kids; it means they're drawing it for the library, for the endowment, for faculty, for financial aid. It is just the heart of the idiosyncratic American higher education experience everywhere else.
ZIERLER: That means that—again, not at Caltech, but at a place like Allegheny—you're fundraising but not exclusively for the athletic program. You're fundraising for the college.
MITCHELL: Correct. For both, but absolutely for the larger good.
ZIERLER: Tell me about interacting with alumni and tapping into positive memories and things like that. What does that scene look like at a dinner or something like that? How are you engaging with these people?
MITCHELL: It's so much fun. I mean, we had two fundraisers in our department there, but by and large, I would meet regularly with the lead in development, and they would be doing all of the work and saying, "This guy that we want to approach for $10 million was on the baseball team 30 years ago. We want you to come with us." We would whip together—What position did he play? What was their team record? Who was their teammates?—so that you could just sit and talk with him a little bit about his experience. You just get him talking about his experience, because by and large, alumni want to talk about their experience, right? What was special. You just ask them questions to pull information out of them, which then the development office would use differently. But then really, my role was to be the strong connection to, "What's life on campus today?" Because I'm so student facing. Obviously the development office would also take faculty out to talk to donors. What are we teaching in the classroom today? I would talk about our baseball team, talk about our baseball coach, talk about the facility projects that were coming up or the things that we were wanting to change, whether the gift was for us or not. Just the state of the team, state of the department. It was just so fun because it was always such a positive thing for them. Whether they were the star pitcher or the scrub water boy, it was during a time in their life that was magical, and that's what we were connecting to. We were just connecting through the door of their athletic experience. So, just a good conversationalist, I guess. That's the point of it.
ZIERLER: You really had to learn the culture of the community in order to be able to tap into that? What Allegheny is all about, what makes people excited about it.
MITCHELL: Sure. I think one of the challenges is that again—I might call it a no-nonsense approach, but I don't know what else to call it; I see objectively that it is about the person being 18 to 22. It's not that there's anything special about Allegheny College. It's that—
ZIERLER: It's a special time in their life.
MITCHELL: —we were where they were when they were 19 years old. You had your first kiss, or you went on your first date, or you and the boys got in a bar fight, or whatever the thing is that you remember. Or that you really had a strong connection with your economics professor, and now you're a world-leading economist, or whatever it is. It is the same thing that I had at Texas. It's the formative years. It's a very defined formative experience.
When there are pockets of people who had a really shitty time, perhaps here, or, in many places, in the Vietnam years, or—I mean, add your thing—if it is a collective imprint from the university, it's going to be really hard to squeeze blood from those stones, which is why you'd better try to get the fun stuff. You usually don't go see the kids that flunked out. That's unusual. If they with hindsight see that, "Well, now I can see that those were good years even though I didn't make it through," great. But they have other reasons for giving. I don't think that's rocket science.
ZIERLER: As AD, what is the best interface with students? In other words, when should students be—not with sports stuff, but with life stuff—when are students best served interacting directly with their coaches, and when are they coming to you?
MITCHELL: Oh, students are absolutely best served with their coaches. The most important thing I do is hire, develop, and terminate when necessary, head coaches, and help them pick great assistant coaches. That's bar none the most important thing I do. Because, when things are going really well, the kids go to the coaches. When they're going really badly, they're going to come to me. Because that's bar none the most important thing I do regardless of level or place, I manage by walking around. I pop into practices. I know what's going on. If there starts to be a rumble, I know it, and I don't know it because the kids come to me; it's because I can see it. If a kid comes to me and says, "Miss Mitchell, when you're in the gym, our coach talks very differently," that's a problem. I can't have anybody on my staff—
ZIERLER: —who's not real.
MITCHELL: —who's not real. Who the kids could figure—that a kid would come and say that. That's—death. That's death. When we hire coaches, the kids are absolutely involved. They don't pick; I pick. It's my job. But they have time with the candidates. I expect them to give me feedback. I prep them. I give them their role. They are engaged. And they are rarely wrong with their feedback. It doesn't mean I always hire—I in fact tell them, "I don't want them in priority order. That will sort itself out and I will know that from all the different feedback. But give me pros and cons." I go back to them, and I have conversations with them, and they're just never wrong. That's why, by and large, we have awesome staff. We have awesome coaches. It doesn't mean that they stay forever, because they have lives, too, and all sorts of things. But we do hiring really, really comprehensively here because—it's the only thing. It's the only thing. If I get that wrong, [laughs] nothing else matters! We've got all kinds of trouble. Because whether it's high school kids or college kids here, they will not use their precious time if it is not something of value. They won't. I wouldn't, but they sure won't. And especially our kids, because they've got a lot of other amazing stuff capturing their imagination. They won't sit the bench if it's not really something special to be a part of that brings joy to their day, that brings stress relief to their day. Bar none, that is the most important thing I do.
ZIERLER: At Allegheny, did you inherit a strong staff by and large?
MITCHELL: By and large. As I said, I had to make a handful of changes, but by and large, I inherited a very strong staff.
ZIERLER: To go back to the metrics question—the win/loss record as one but there are many—what sports were most in need of your direct intervention at Allegheny? What needed the most help?
MITCHELL: Baseball. Men's basketball. Football. Those were challenges.
ZIERLER: All men's sports, too. What's the bigger story there?
MITCHELL: Well, the bigger story is, if you really get down to it, people who aren't changing with the times. I'm not talking about having a female boss; I'm talking about having young men who are having a different experience in the world than those coaches did. The world moves on, and if coaches stay stuck in only coaching from their own personal experience, they're not a professional coach, in my opinion. They don't have a growth mindset. They're not keeping up with the research. They're not understanding. They're not going to the seminar on how to work with millennials. Whatever the thing is, you cannot coach from, "This is how it was for me, therefore it's going to be the way it needs to be for you." That's not good education. Good education is, "You, student, are this kind of learner, and I, the teacher/coach, need to figure out how to present the material so that your learner type can understand it." If you can't do that, you're going to either have to do that—and we'll help you, we'll teach you, we'll get you to places to learn—but you have to be open-minded to that. You have to understand that that is not just a perspective; that's your boss's perspective. Somebody hired me to tell you [laughs] what the perspective was! How you do that, especially—especially—with the dynamic at play, and then in rural northwest Pennsylvania, that was some fun times. That was really fun. I would just pull my hair out. But good-hearted coaches—gotta grow. Grow or die. Change is the only constant.
ZIERLER: Now that you've had this experience of being head coach, AD at Allegheny, what was the difference in terms of recruitment? What are the different roles that you play in terms of encouraging somebody that you really have your sights on that they should come to your school? First of all, are you going out to high schools? Are you part of the scouting process, or that is all happening at the direct-report level to you?
MITCHELL: Are you talking about at Allegheny or here?
MITCHELL: No. My role as AD in any of the major areas that one of my direct reports is working is making sure that their strategy is sound and within our values and operational parameters. That is what my role is. High-level discussion. Not, as is some places because it doesn't work, a role might be, "Oh, baseball coach, Admissions and thus the CFO says you need to bring in 12 freshmen for the baseball team so that the baseball team has a total of 48 kids on it," all trickled down from a financial model. That was not the case at Allegheny. What is the case at Allegheny is, "Okay, baseball coach, what is the right number and distribution of positions to bring in every class so that we have a healthy team size over four or five years?" Start from what is a healthy team size to get us competitive, and so that you can provide a great educational experience for these kids, so they have a meaningful experience. It can't be too big, because you can't keep them happy if they're not playing. No magician can keep them—not even John Wooden can keep people happy if they're not really playing. So, high-level strategy, and then equitable allocation of resources, it was like, "Okay, I'm going to ask you to do that." "Oh, you want to bring in six or eight players a year; here's the resources to do that. Go get them. What other help do you need from me? You're the content expert. You know where to go look for baseball players. You know how to tap into all the—" So asking questions is my role, and then providing literally any other kind of support that they need.
Back to the strategy, every year, every sport, at any place, I say, "What can I do? Do you want me to write to the admitted students? Do you want me to call their moms? When they come on campus for their visit, I'm here. Drop by. Let me say hi for two minutes. Whatever you want." The most successful recruiters understand that me offering that is something they should take advantage of because of who I am, of how I read situations, of how I make people feel. You want them to feel important? Because they are important. We're not selling them a bill of goods. And that transparency. My baseball coach knows and wants his recruits to see that I'm the biggest fan of the baseball program there is. The swim coach—those swimmers better darn well know that this athletic director is for them. At either Allegheny or here, the most successful recruiters find a way to capitalize on my support of them. It doesn't mean that I'm doing the work, but what makes sense to you. In the same way as here, you better find out what that kid is really interested in. "Oh, you like rocks? You want to be a geologist?" Get Dr. Grotzinger to write him an email!
ZIERLER: [laughs] That's great.
MITCHELL: "Oh, you want to be the next world-leading astronomer? You want to go work on the Thirty Meter Telescope?" You better get Dr. Sargent to stop by when they're here! More likely, get the host to stop by Dr. Sargent's office and—"Oh, hello." It's strategy. It's those kinds of strategy things in all the major areas—team culture, what's the schedule, recruitment. But it's high-level conversations. I don't tell them what to do. The smart ones, the ones that we've hired, are going to know a bunch of that on their own, and if they don't, they're of a growth mindset that if I'm going to say some things like that, I'm going to think about them and be like, "Oh, why would that be bad? That can't be bad." The only people that think it's bad are people who don't want me in their business, because they don't have the confidence, or, they don't really know what they're doing, and they're making it up, and they have a little fiefdom, and that's what they're interested in. As soon as we get to that point, that's no bueno. That's just no bueno!
ZIERLER: The most successful people understand how to leverage what you're there to do.
MITCHELL: Absolutely, and to accept that it's in support of them. It's not threatening. It's not in an ego way. It's actually to the ego of the 18-year-old and their parents.
ZIERLER: A very basic question about athletes and D-III and athletic talent. Is there such a thing as a high school D-I level athlete who wants a D-III experience? Do you get D-I talent at a D-III school because they don't want to be at a Texas or a Florida?
MITCHELL: Do you mean in general?
ZIERLER: Does that happen?
MITCHELL: Absolutely. 100%. Look to the top 15 D-III programs, and you will find them populated by kids who absolutely could play at a Division I level somewhere, and they've chosen to leverage their athleticism to get them into Amherst or Middlebury or Johns Hopkins or MIT or Princeton. Not Princeton, but they're kids who are in those recruiting battles with mid-major D-I's. They won't go to the University of Akron if they can go to Amherst, and that's freakin' smart of them. Oh, pay $15,000, or pay $75,000 but come out with an Amherst degree? Hell yeah! That's not an "us" thing. But if we were to go look at whoever the top 15 or 20 D-III schools are, by and large, they would be highly selective, nationally known, liberal arts colleges, that most educated people that know higher education would be like, "Oh yeah, those are the good small schools." Of course they do, and they're very good at athletics, and they have athletics central to their admission strategy. They want to say they don't, but they do. The reason I know is because I've been a finalist for AD jobs at many of them. [laughs] I'm not making it up!
ZIERLER: You have the data!
MITCHELL: I have the data! The anecdotal, personal data!
ZIERLER: If I can flip the question around, is there such a thing as a D-III level athlete in high school who gets to college and they turn on the rocket booster and they discover that they're actually a D-I talent? That's a more basic question about physiology and maturity. But are there such things as 18-year-olds whose peak athletic capability is not fully realized until they get to the college level?
MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. And unfortunately, for many—and an awful, terrible trend in Division I recruiting, which is affecting everyone, but is the D-I coach who says to the 14-year-old standout soccer player, "Give me a verbal commitment. In three years, I'll give you a letter of intent and an athletic scholarship provided you don't get hurt between now and then."
ZIERLER: This is corrosive.
MITCHELL: It's death. There are very few kids like that who then go on and continue this trajectory in their athletic world, because they are so specialized and they put so much pressure on themselves and they probably are going to get hurt. That's a separate question that I answered. But are there kids who are not as good in high school who then get to college, wherever they are, and are better in college? Absolutely. Absolutely. I would say that Division III is the best level for them, and that is probably where they are.
Now, the rise of the transfer portal—you may have read something about that—even at the Power 5 or the mid-major D-I places, there is so much more transferring these days, because the original recruited message to a kid, and then they get to the school, and that is not the reality. The reality of where they were recruited to and what they were told is not the same, or they aren't getting playing time, or they don't really have the major that they're interested in, or whatever, or they get hurt and cast aside; then they go someplace else. You're seeing more kids play for five and six years, especially in the men's pre-professional sports. Those kids are transferring left, right, up, and down. If I'm the third quarterback at Alabama and I never see time, and I could be the starter at Nebraska or Akron or somewhere and that's my way into the draft, I am out. If I went there, for whatever reason—because Nick Saban is a pretty good person to learn how to be a quarterback from—awesome. Maybe you were thinking you were going to be better than you were. Even if Nick Saban said, "You're my fourth quarterback. There's 12 quarterbacks on my roster. Two of them are going to play." Even if he's completely honest with you, you might go there, red-shirt your freshman year, learn from Nick Saban, maybe get a half, maybe get a quarter, maybe get in a game. But now you're at Alabama and you're his property. Now you're thinking, "How am I ever going to get in the draft? Oh, I'm going to go to Middle Tennessee State and be a star, and show them what I can do." Now all of a sudden you're in the draft and you're a tenth-rounder because you are pretty damn good! You just never showed them. You don't have any college stats. Basketball is worse. Baseball, just pre-professional, so it's really not that bad. All the kids that are going to college know what team they're already signed with, because the rules are different.
ZIERLER: Have you found yourself in a situation, either here or at Allegheny, where there was a dual loyalty, where there was a great athlete, and they could have gone to a bigger school, and you want to do what's best for the student, but you also want a really strong program? How have you weighed those kinds of decisions, those advice-giving moments?
MITCHELL: Other than when I was at Dartmouth, I wouldn't have ever been in that situation. I wouldn't have ever been in a conversation with a kid about that.
ZIERLER: Because generally they shake out where they're supposed to be?
MITCHELL: No, I wouldn't say that. Generally, they've decided where they want to be. Take a female high school lacrosse player. I have said this in speeches, in publication, in things where I have been asked about this. What I've said is, "Look, if you play high school sports, you can play college sports. It's just where your ego will allow you to go." If you're paying 500 bucks a month to be a club lacrosse player in high school, and you know how to throw and you know how to catch, and you say you want to be on a team, and you're not a negative influence on that team, somewhere in America, you can be on a college lacrosse team. You may not get a scholarship, it may not help you get into school. There are so many teams that if that is the only goal, you can call yourself a college lacrosse player, because you will find some school, and they will be like, "Sure. We've got a roster of 40. Come on!" It is all about individual ego, and finding your level. It's more about kids and parents than it is about—Occidental College has 15 kids on their team who would never play in a game for Occidental College, but they're on the team, and they're getting a lot out of it. Hopefully, they're getting a good experience and it's helping them get through college because they're connected and there's social belonging. That's what D-III sports can be about. Because at many places, it is the enrollment. It is keeping the doors open.
ZIERLER: To foreshadow to your move to Caltech, by about 2009 or 2010, had you come to a sense of completion at Allegheny, that you had accomplished what you had set out to do?
MITCHELL: [pause] I would say yes, in that we had made some hard staff changes, and we had set the stage for fundraising and facility projects that needed to be done. Those things were in the pipeline. That was moving forward. It certainly did not feel like I had accomplished the same kind of thing as Dartmouth, bringing the team from zero to eight wins, or Laurel, creating that whole 140-acre athletic complex.
ZIERLER: As you said, this was a maintain-and-tweak job.
MITCHELL: This was a maintaining and tweaking thing, so I thought, "Well, I do need something different. I need a puzzle." In reflecting. I liked working in the institution, I liked the camaraderie there, I liked the stability of that, differently than the consulting piece.
ZIERLER: But the two big things, improving the staff and getting the fundraising, that had been accomplished and was entrained. It would happen.
MITCHELL: The pipelines were moving, absolutely.
ZIERLER: Did Caltech reach out to you? Did you hear about an open position? How small is the AD world? Do you talk to your colleagues? Is everybody in the know about open positions? How do these things work?
MITCHELL: They're often posted on the NCAA job board. They're posted on other trade search sites. There's an association of athletic directors, although it's not really what you think it is. I responded to the posting.
ZIERLER: You were looking, and you were thinking about this?
MITCHELL: I wouldn't say that I was looking for another job; I was looking for the right job. I wasn't applying to lots of different things, because I was perfectly happy, but I was like, "What would it take, what kind of place would it be, what would the situation present itself, that would be really interesting?" It wasn't just, "Oh, I need out of here." Although it was Meadville, so I kind of did.
Learning About Caltech
ZIERLER: What had you known about Caltech up to that point?
MITCHELL: Oh, I knew nothing about Caltech.
ZIERLER: Like maybe some faint idea?
MITCHELL: I don't know that I had ever even heard—
MITCHELL: Honestly, I don't know that I had ever even heard of Caltech. Now, that may be an overstatement, because my brother is an engineer, and when my brother was looking at schools, he looked at the ones around central—Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, and MIT, so I may have actually heard the words, but I didn't know anything about Caltech. I knew it was in Pasadena. That was pretty exciting. At that point, my brother had actually lived in California for 15 or 20 years, because he worked for McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing. In fact, it was a bad thing, because the only thing I knew about his world was that he lived in Long Beach and bought a house in Lake Forest when he got married, and he had an hour-and-a-half commute each way. He would call me, and he would be in his truck, driving home, and we would talk forever, and I'd be like, "What are you doing?" He's like, "I'm in the truck. I'm still driving home." I would think to myself, "No way. I could never do it. I will never do it."
At that point in my life, I started thinking about, "What does it really mean to be satisfied, and what does it really mean to have personal success, and what are the things that matter?" I've since told this to anybody that works for or with me—I said to my first assistant AD—"Oh, you can get an AD job"—same thing as the lacrosse example—"You can get an AD job. Do you want to live in Twin Forks, Nebraska? Do you want to live in Rome, Georgia? Do you want to live in Meadville, Pennsylvania? Where do you want to live?" Once you start narrowing that down, whatever your factor is—are you a city person?—it is the same as a recruiting pitch. What do you know about yourself? I know I'm not a city-city person. I don't want to live in downtown L.A. I don't want to live in Manhattan. I don't want to live in Chicago. But I also don't want to live in Hanover or Mercersburg or Marietta or Meadville anymore.
ZIERLER: Pasadena fits the bill, then.
MITCHELL: Perfect! It's perfect. Has its own identity. It feels Midwestern. It's old, despite being in California. And as long as—
ZIERLER: Midwesterners founded Pasadena.
MITCHELL: Yes! It's green. I'm a gardener. Mountains and ocean and lots to do. The most important thing then was I knew—and this was why I was like, "Eh, I'll throw one in there, but I'm really not that interested"—because you do the cost of living thing, and it was fivefold Meadville, because Meadville is one of the least expensive places to live in the country. It was literally fivefold to even have close to the same quality of life. By then, they had the phone interview, and I'm thinking, "Oh man, if they're really serious that they want this to be done well, and they really want a change job, and they really have this puzzle and quite frankly this blank slate"—
ZIERLER: You got immediately this was a change job.
MITCHELL: A hundred percent. Jonas Peters, Bob Grubbs, Anneila Sargent—"This is what we are, and we don't know what it needs to be, but we know it can't be this." Basically.
ZIERLER: What was communicated to you in terms of "We know it can't be this"? What was missing? Right off the bat, what did you get?
MITCHELL: From Dr. Sargent, who was the VPSA at the time—they had had kids come to President Chameau and say, "We can't have this anymore. It has to be better. We have to have an experience that is valued. There's just nothing." That triggered an internal review, and an external review, which revealed the depths to which it just was a façade. It wasn't a department, there wasn't an athletic program. There were activities. There were part-time staff. There was nothing modern or professional about what was going on here. There were facilities, and there were activities, but there was nothing—
ZIERLER: In our last talk, you spoke so eloquently about how what you came to do was really connected with the founding mission of Caltech, and really in higher education, that recognized the real key importance of athletics in education. What was your sense of when that got dropped, in the Caltech story? Because clearly what was here in the 1920s and 1930s, which was obviously strong, and what you inherited—when did that go by the wayside? Do you have a sense of that?
MITCHELL: In the 1970s and 1980s. Again, I wouldn't know, because, unless you can find it, there is no actual written record of operational things or decisions.
ZIERLER: Maybe it was more benign neglect?
MITCHELL: It's neglect, and it's lack of value. Somewhere, in the 1960s and 1970s, and then in the 1980s, as coeducation really began to hit Caltech, and as resources began to get more scarce—I don't know why; I don't know the financial history of Caltech—but then this building was built in 1992. That was the only building and pool for a while. I don't know, but where you see the dip in no athletic alumni that want to have anything to do with us, you've got to look to the late 1960s and 1970s and early 1980s. Then you reemerge with some women's club teams. Then in the 1990s, you start having a couple of women's varsity teams. It has to be benign neglect in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, where someone just said, "Well, that's not what they're here for." President Rosenbaum is, I think, quite good at communicating that there is a dual mission—research and education. I'm going to guess, with respect, not all presidents have always emphasized the education part, from when it was a research institute above the undergraduate level and that is where the sole focus was. If you do that, you're dealing with 22- to 30-year-olds, and theoretically, they are adult, and they are certainly responsible for themselves, and they are having a professional work apprenticeship, not a formative educational experience, which is still what higher education is.
ZIERLER: I wonder if ironically, you coming here, some aspects were more similar to what you went to Ohio to do, where you were really building something, as opposed to maintaining something at Allegheny.
MITCHELL: One hundred percent. One hundred percent.
Revamping the Program
ZIERLER: What was most urgent when you arrived? Of all the things to do, what did you focus on first?
MITCHELL: You have to remember I'm responsible for three things, and they are each different. Each was in a similar state of disarray, because their resources were—lacking is not the right word, but they were lacking. Organization was lacking. Communication and messaging was lacking. Just professional standards were lacking, in the staff. Connection to what people in 2011 in our culture wanted from a community recreation facility or from an athletic—it was utter chaos.
ZIERLER: How much of that did you appreciate before you took the job, and how much was apparent to you by year one or month one?
MITCHELL: At the end of the first month, I would say my eyes were opening to the depth of what wasn't, because I was understanding the staffing structure, and I was understanding the resource picture. Then that summer, when I went to get us organized—none of the staff were here. It was literally just me in this office because no one was a full-time employee.
ZIERLER: That's amazing. [laughs]
MITCHELL: Which legitimately goes to the 1950s. In the 1950s, the athletic director also coached three sports and taught ten classes, right? But there were only 500 kids, and they were all men, and not the legal, moral, social, cultural expectations or laws that you have to keep up with, even just as a starting place. It's even hard to describe. Especially because it was like stepping into a time capsule. It was really like stepping into a time capsule. That summer, I picked up the phone, and I'm getting ready to do the team startup for fall. You have to check the eligibility of the kids that are going to play, put them on a roster, file the roster with the NCAA. Basic. I ask the then track coach, who had been the interim AD and was still in the office next door, who did not get the job—I said, "Hey, who in the registrar's office do you call to verify the eligibility of the kids?" She looked at me and she said, "What do you mean?"
MITCHELL: Now, mind you, she had been here 20 years, and mind you, it was her direct responsibility to certify the eligibility of the kids, as the assistant director, much less a head coach. She said, "What do you mean?" In that moment—
MITCHELL: —in that moment, I was like, "What do you mean, what do I mean?!"
ZIERLER: You realize you have your work cut out for you at that point.
MITCHELL: I did. And just to follow that up, because the story is so awesome, I then said, "Never mind." Because there was an outside chance that she was right, and what I had stumbled into, she couldn't be involved anymore, because then I was going to have to investigate her. Then I found out who the registrar was—Mary Morley at the time—and I pick up the phone and I call Mary Morley. I said, "Mary, we haven't met yet, but I'm Betsy Mitchell, and I'm the new athletic director." She said, "I wondered when you would be calling." I said, "Really!" She said, "Well, I'm glad that you're calling, but I think we better meet in person."
ZIERLER: Yeah. There's a lot to talk about. [laughs]
MITCHELL: I said, "Okay." I said, "Great. Anytime you want." I said, "But I'm working through something here today." I really just thought she was going to be friendly and help me understand. I'm like, "Yeah, absolutely, we have a lot to—" I said, "Just one question." I'm like, "Which is the system that I need access to, to get in—I don't have all my accesses yet, so what is the name of the system that I get into, to verify the kids' eligibility? Or do you want me to just send you the list? How do you do it here? Do I go in and look, or do I send you a list and you look?" She said, "I told him that's what we should do." I'll never forget—"I told him that's what—" I was like, "What?" She's like, ""I'm coming over right now." Which is then how our—the institutional lack of oversight came to be revealed, and thus started our trek to three years of probation and turning us in for lack of institutional control. But she's like, "I told him we should do that." "What do you mean?" [laughs] It was crazy! It was all I could do to keep from just—blasting in there with guns blazing! I'm like, "What?"!
At one point, I said to her, "We have to check—I need a list of the kids. There's forms they have to do. We have to check with the registrar. Then I have to sign it that we've done that process." She said, "Oh, yeah, we do that." I said, "Oh, great! Tell me how you check with the registrar." She said, "Well, the athletic director always did that." I said, "Well, apparently he didn't." She's like, "What do you mean?" She said, "Well, I could see that. They're all really smart, Betsy. You don't need to worry about that." I said, "That's not the point. It's not whether they're smart or not. It's do they have enough credits, do they have the GPA. I don't care whether they're smart or not!" The former guy used to work at USC, took this as a retirement job, was never here, phoned it in at best, and his idea of, "Oh, right, a little D-III—well, these are the smartest kids in the world; of course they're all eligible!" Forty-five kids had not been eligible! We had to vacate the only wins from the year before, because we had used ineligible kids! We had to hold seniors back from participating for their whole senior year because they weren't eligible!
ZIERLER: What are the basic standards in determining eligibility?
MITCHELL: Whatever the university says is full-time enrollment, and whatever the university says is appropriate academic progress. It doesn't matter what those standards are across the NCAA. The NCAA doesn't set those standards; the university sets those standards. All the NCAA says is—
ZIERLER: "Adhere to your own standards."
MITCHELL: Adhere to your own standards. Kids will pick where they want to go to school. All the NCAA cares about, as a membership organization—it's not some panel of judges sitting somewhere; it's a member organization. So the members say, "Kids need to be student athletes. We agree that college athletics is kids need to be full-time students, going to school to get a degree, and we're not going to stand in their way of that, and furthermore we're going to make sure that that is the point, and that we can play sports also." This is the educational athletic model. That's what it means, the essence of it. What does it mean here? It means there was no communication between the dipshit athletic director and the registrar's office, so this place was just whatever—whatever!—"Oh, you're really smart, great! Go play some sports!"
ZIERLER: Once you realized the depth of the problem, were you able to leverage that to make sure that you had the resources you needed to build? Not just financial resources, but as you say, all three areas needed help.
MITCHELL: Right. I would say that when I found that out in late July a couple of weeks before the kids were supposed to start, I did a couple things. One was I called my boss and then-OGC Victoria Stratman and I said, "Look, this is what I found, and this is what we should do. If we were anywhere else, this is what being a member of the NCAA means." I said, "It's so bad, you guys can tell me to just fix it, and we'll fix it, because we have to blow it all up anyway." Which at this point they knew, because we had had other conversations. I said, "Or, we can do the right thing." Vicky Stratman, and President Chameau quite frankly, said, "Betsy, what is the right thing to do?" I said, "The right thing to do is turn ourselves in, take probation, fix it, hold out some kids, vacate the four wins we had last year, and start over." They said, "Well, what's the downside?" I said, "People are going to laugh at us. But honestly, if you're asking me, you're the ones that told me the kids wanted to be taken seriously. If the kids wanted to be taken seriously and we're going to be a member of the NCAA, then that's what we should do. We should follow the frickin' rules. The moment to decide is now. Because if we're going to do it the other way—just come in, fix it, clearly it was all—you guys need to give me that instruction, because we're bound to do it the other way."
ZIERLER: Practically, what does it mean to be on probation with the NCAA?
MITCHELL: [laughs] You can't participate in any championships. Which at that point was not my worry. At that point, I was like, "Right on." So it did fit into my strategy, which is, start over. Draw it up on the back of a napkin, and start. Because the overarching strategy was going to take so long. Eleven years later, we win about half and we lose about half, so we're about where I thought we were going to be. That was my goal to get to in ten years. Even without COVID, we're there. But from the beginning, I think why Anneila—and maybe Dr. Peters too, I don't know, but certainly Dr. Grubbs—why I was the right fit for here, I think, was because I do truly believe that all three areas are critical to the health of an institution. I come from this world, but it is not just the athletes at a tip of a pyramid. A triangle has three corners. People focus on this one, but without these two, the thing doesn't stand up. For us, actually attacking recreation and physical education first were my plan, and it's what I've done. Then, as we address a facility plan, as we figure out who should be here and who shouldn't be here, charge a membership fee—now we get some resources—fix physical education so that it is actually—it's a core graduation requirement at the world's number one university; we can't have students teaching those courses. We can't have non-college graduates teaching for academic credit.
There were some major screwed-up things that again, people were like, "Well, who cares!" Again, [laughs] "Do you have people who don't have college degrees teaching physics?" "No, Betsy, that's stupid. We would never do that." "Oh. Well I have people teaching PE classes for your Core requirement that don't have a college degree." They don't have to have a doctorate; they'd better freakin' have a four-year degree. Or a two-year degree for that matter! "Oh." So, fix these other things. Make the facilities better. Start a membership program so it's not just literally the community center of Pasadena. Anybody was here—wander in, wander out—safety, security, liability, much less funding. The thing was upside down. All the outsiders had all the resources and the students had none. Start to fix that. Ten-year program, which we're about almost there. PE. Our coaches need to teach that. Well, our coaches can't teach that if they're part-time. Now I've got a full-time staff. Then the level of athletics comes up as everything else comes up. So yes, was there a master strategy? Absolutely. That's what it was. But it wasn't—I didn't take the job April 1 and say, "Oh, we have to blow the whole thing up." It imploded two months later when I realized, we're not running an NCAA program here. We're just not. Like, we're not.
Kerry Slater said—one of the lawyers who Vicky assigned to be like, "Okay, you and Kerry have to work this out"—so sitting right here with Kerry, and she's like—she listened for like an hour, and honest to God, her first question was, "Okay, I think you know what you're talking about. It makes sense." I'm giving her all the resources—"Go look at the NCAA manual. Go look here." She's like, "I've just got one question. Do we have to be a member of the NCAA?" I said, "Well, that's like me asking you if you have to be a member of the Bar. Do we have to? No. But we won't get kids to come here to play sports." I said, "It's not that big a deal if we're doing it right. It's just you guys haven't been doing it right." Even to this day, Kerry and I just laugh about that, like, "Well, do you have to be a member of the Bar?" "Well, yes." "Well, so do I, then! I mean, yes!"
ZIERLER: You drew a sharp distinction in terms of the fundraising role at anyplace other than Caltech. Do you interface with Development at all here? What does that tell us culturally about Caltech and athletics, the kinds of things you do and don't do?
MITCHELL: I don't know; should we go off the record? No, I'm teasing.
ZIERLER: We can keep the audio on, but you can take it out of the written.
MITCHELL: I am not a part of, the development team, and in no sense of the word am I a part of that team. At times, feels like I am actually being withheld from that team. If that is the case, I understand that. It's a very small place where distinctions like this previously have not been acknowledged. Meaning a Caltech grad is a Caltech grad, period. Everybody is open season. Okay, that's an approach. Lately, it has seemed as if there is more energy around using an athletic affinity as a helpful way into conversations, or at least stewarding and supporting donors for the Institute. When I got here, I asked for the list, and they said, "We don't keep that data. We don't know who the athletic alumni are." So, in 2010—in 2010, as opposed to 1930—this is probably the only institution of higher education that could not, at the push of a button—
MITCHELL: —tell you who their athletes were. The story is funnier when I say the next part, which is that I thought, "Well, that can't be." If we're going to be resourced, it's not a major factor, or even on the worst, you don't want me poaching—well, a dollar is a dollar. If it buys us a new pool versus it buys us a new lab, whatever, but okay. You don't want me involved? Okay! I've got a lot of other things to get to! It's a later thing. We're starting to do more of it now. I said, "Fine. The first thing I'm going to do is at least write to these people and say, ‘There has been a transition. I'm here now. If I can help you with anything, let me know. I'm here to help our teams get a little better, and make sure there's a good PE program and make sure the building is safe for people to come and exercise in.'" At the least, I want to write to these people and let them know. It wasn't the first summer; that was the implosion. But the summer of 2012, I said to my now full-time head coaches who now had something to do in the summer, "Take every roster that we have"—we had reams of paper; there were no electronic records of any kind—"Take all your rosters and just write down the name of the person that was on the roster. I want a list. We're going to make our own list." There were 3,500 to 3,800 names on that list.
MITCHELL: So now I've got the list. I send it over there and I say, "Hey, this list of people, I want their email address of record, and their snail mail address of record. I'm going to send them a letter." "Okay, great." I get it back, and I do it. I send two newsletters for the first three or four years—holidays, summer. Something from me. Now there are more and more and more. Sure, they fall off, but there's about 4,000 people that are living athletic alumni.
ZIERLER: —who do have those positive associations.
MITCHELL: Who do have positive associations. Not all of them, because by the way, the record was a losing record, so now we're into the myth and the lore of—to the people that were down here, to the guys on that football team, to the men who wrestled, to the first women's basketball team, it was their sanity. It was their savior. Look at the Hall of Honor videos and the people that we have had come speak. We didn't have one of those, so I started an Athletic Hall of Honor. Like, wait a minute, the stories are exactly what they would be anywhere else: "This was a tremendously impactful, positively impactful experience. I wouldn't have made it through Caltech without this. This was my sanity and savior." There are certainly those who are like, "We were the laughingstock, but we did it together." There is a small portion of those athletes who say, "Eh, it was good enough for us to lose. Why do you need them to win?" I say, "I don't need them to win; they want to!" It's not about the Wicked Witch from the East flying out here on her broomstick and being like, "Athletics matters most!" I am not that. These people do. These kids do. They do. Then, four or five years later—maybe it was when Brian Lee left; I don't even remember—because there's a revolving door in that particular part of our Institute. It would bear some interesting introspection. Anyway, at some point, somebody goes, "We don't have the list of athletes, but boy we'd sure like it." "Oh! Really!"
ZIERLER: [laughs] "Would you!"
MITCHELL: "Would you? How should we share that list? Might you invite me into some of those conversations?" There have been a series of years of herky-jerky, use me when it suits you and don't give me any other information. Like, whatever. I still write to the alumni. Our coaches cultivate their team lists. We are going to have our eighth class of Athletic Hall of Honor inductees. It's good stuff. We just truck along doing the things.
ZIERLER: One of the takeaways from this—ironically enough, the stereotype of Caltech being a bunch of nerds where athletics is not important, it is almost like the Institute itself, not the students, and not the alumni, are clinging to that.
MITCHELL: It's not ironic; it's accurate. We're just left to waggle over here. "Okay, well if you're not in class, do whatever you want. We're not going to help you." Now, somebody does. A bunch of people do.
ZIERLER: Totally different topic, and this became especially true when Tom Rosenbaum became president—the increasing importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. For you, with your own background, your own interests, where did athletics slot into promoting these ideas on campus?
MITCHELL: Instantly, he had these three or five published goals. I think it was three. One of them was to increase the number of women on campus. Just call it what it is, right? I don't know if he said to bring it to 50/50, but he said to increase the number of women on campus. That must have been about 2013, 2014, 2015.
ZIERLER: He comes in 2014.
MITCHELL: Okay. I met him. I liked him. He had overseen athletics at Chicago.
ZIERLER: Did you get that he is a basketball player?
MITCHELL: Of course. We talked about his sons, all of it. He runs. I read these things, and I think, "Okay, well, we've wanted to convert the North Field." Because it's terrible, and they won't put enough water on it, nor should they. We need to convert it to synthetic. But we sure can't do that if it is for two men's teams.
ZIERLER: It's unjustifiable.
MITCHELL: Right. Now, the president says he wants more women on campus. What can I do to help that? Let's start women's soccer. I literally wrote him a little note. I said, "I'm trying to think of what I can do to support your vision. This is what I think I can do." Anneila was obviously on board and thrilled. I said, "I can't do it if we don't do that field, because the grass won't take it." But if you look at the top schools in women's soccer collegiately, they're all smart schools— North Carolina, Stanford, Princeton, Vanderbilt. Go right down the list. "Great idea!" Thirty new women—10 new women a year—
MITCHELL: —on a small number makes a big pop!
MITCHELL: He's like, "Let's do it!" So, we did that. The other is to—and I don't like this turn of language, but to come out of the closet with the fact that we do market this place, and we do participate in the admissions marketing to appropriate undergrads, to come here. Our athletic program now in 2014 and 2015, we should be collaborating with, telling the kids what great things they can do here, and one of them is participate on athletic teams that are getting better. The other is having facilities that aren't laughable to come and work out in. Who will that draw? That will draw the broadest scope representing high schools out there. But if there is not a track program, for a stereotypically strong young man who wants to throw implements, if there's not one here, he's not going to come here; he's going to go to MIT! The guy that could go to Stanford but has a viable alternative, even if it's a little under his ability level, is not going to come here. He's not going to come here, if he can't do the thing he loves to do when he's not doing math. To say that it was targeted at Asian students or Black students or other underrepresented or first generation college is not true. But making our athletic program not laughable to the outside, so that the broadest possible group of young people can do the things they want to do here—that's how we help. That's how we help, is to not have it be laughable. Have it be purposeful.
ZIERLER: That does increase and enhance the diversity of the school, without that targeted sort of move.
MITCHELL: One hundred percent.
Hitting the Benchmarks of Success
ZIERLER: Just this narrative of what you inherited and where it is now, from 2011 to now, a decade of reflection, what is the critical turning point? Is it halfway? Is it closer to now? Is it year three? What stands out in your memory as those real benchmarks that you're hitting?
MITCHELL: One would be late 2013 and 2014 when Provost Stolper agreed that there were going to be no more resources coming here to make this better, didn't have them, and wouldn't prioritize them, but that he wouldn't stand in the way if we did a membership fee and let me regularize the base, and keep the money. Even though, with a ton of respect—I don't know that he would call himself a supporter of athletics, or even recreation—but that's what Dr. Sargent and he did, was, "Here's the plan. Here's all the things. Let me highlight for you, let me surface for you what's wrong." Which was pretty easy but still didn't rise very high on the list of things here. "Well, what's your solution? Don't bring me problems; bring me solutions." "Okay, most other places charge a recreation fee, to the students, and to any adults who are going to use the facilities." There had been none of that before, so no wonder it was all run-down. Wild West, anybody not only on campus but in town, it was just open!—"Come over here!"
ZIERLER: Membership fees encourage pride of ownership, as well.
MITCHELL: Correct. But—"You keep it." I said, "Great. Every dime goes right back into these facilities and these programs for recreation." That was a watershed moment, when I got the "okay" to keep the money that we generated to reinvest in whatever it was we were going to do. Provost Stolper and Dr. Sargent did that.
ZIERLER: This was decisive.
MITCHELL: It was decisive. Certainly Dr. Grubbs, Dr. Peters, Dr. Grotzinger, they were all like, "Yeah, we've got to make this place better." I know that there were other people exerting support—absolutely President Chameau, and the former CFO, Dean—what was that guy's name? Dean. I don't know whether that was the last name or first name. The previous CFO. God! What's the last name? Dean Rice, maybe? I don't know. But it was intentional, and that let me figure out, okay, here's our ten-year facility improvement plan. Here's a portion of that that is going to support our general budget, which still has not had an increase in ten years. As far as the Institute is concerned, there has not been an M&S increase here in ten years.
MITCHELL: I'm a bit of a magician in that way. So, that is clearly a decisive moment. I think adding women's soccer may go down as a decisive moment, but I don't know that we're there yet. We had our first SCIAC win this week. Honestly, it was the year before COVID that we went to test-optional in order to support the broader look at admitting a differently inclusive group of kids. The national access conversation, and going away from SAT scores, I think that will go down as a moment that helped turn the teams, because it just simply allowed a different group of young people to apply. Not athletes, but just a different group of young people to apply. I think that's a moment. Every athletic program has its own moment, but none of them are more significant than the others. I could say when the baseball team broke a 30-year losing streak, but that's only about baseball. I could say when we sent tennis players and swimmers and cross country runners and track runners to nationals. That happened before here; it just happened in the 1950s and 1960s. I could say almost every little thing.
Athletic Hall of Honor—it represents, and this is why I did it—it represents we are not going to be shy about athletics' place here. We are going to celebrate those kids, those alumni, now, who really were excellent. We have Olympians, for heaven's sakes! We have All-Americans! We have people in pro sports leagues' front offices! We shouldn't be ashamed. That's what that embodies to me, is saying, "No, we're going to do this." We don't make a big deal about it, but the people who we enshrined are over the Moon. To the undergraduates here now, we're a real athletic department! We do all the things!
ZIERLER: You know what you're doing by celebrating the 1950s and 1960s; fifty or sixty years from now, this era, that's going to be a new Hall of Fame. Betsy, I asked about decisive moments to get to where you are now. What is the frontier for you? What are the unfinished projects? What do you have to do?
MITCHELL: Renovating the Brown Gym. Converting the pools to a 50-meter pool instead of two side-by-side 25s. Finishing the lights on the North Field so that we have more access year-round for people to play. Those are the facility projects. Then it will just be time to start over again. But for probably three or four shining years, this place will look like a modern athletic facility. Fifty years too late. [laughs]
ZIERLER: These are finishing touches? You have built what you needed to build, and right now these are like cherry-on-top kind of projects? Or they're things that are more fundamental?
MITCHELL: No, they're still essential. The Brown renovation is essential because it comes full circle with our recreation program. We made a lot of stuff better. We're attracting people to want to be here. Sure enough, even more people want to be members and I have to say no, meaning outsiders, because it's so nice here now. It's not a private health club. Well, it is a private health club, for us, for our community. But it's going to come full circle, because to do the locker rooms—the Brown Gym, if you haven't walked through there, is abandoned, and defunct, and there's so much more space we could be using. There's no HVAC, there's no hot water, there's only male locker rooms. It's just run-down. When we do that, we're going to see this amazing surge back for the recreational piece.
ZIERLER: Is there a capital campaign that needs to happen for this to all come into play?
MITCHELL: They've said no for ten years, so I'm just finding a way to do it on my own. So, no. But is there? Yeah. Eight years ago, it was, "Betsy, draw it up." "Okay, it's $40 million, two buildings." "Oh, you can't have that." "Okay." "Figure out what else to do." "Okay." We don't need more space. I never said we needed more space. You're the one that asked me to put together a $40 million building so you could go sell it. You have done nothing to build up your athletic philanthropy. Of course they're not going to do it! You have made them want to do the things you need them to do. Which is great. But then we can't do this. We don't need a bigger footprint. We don't have the space for a bigger footprint. We're going to renovate what we have. Okay, great. Back to the drawing board. $15 million. Nope. Okay. Literal renovation. Okay. $5 million. COVID. Now it's $9 million. Gonna do it. Gonna figure out how to do it. Gonna figure out how to pay for it from the fees—ten years, over time. So, there is still a lot of that kind of work to be done, but it is getting even more attention. As we emerge from COVID, it is getting even more attention that, hell yeah, people care about their recreation and their health and their wellness and their fitness, and it is an expectation now. It wasn't, then. It is, now.
One of our main challenges is that the majority of this community come here from one of two places—either a flagship, big university that has its own athletics—not with rec, campus rec—for tens of thousands of people. So, the scope and scale is off, and people come here with those expectations, and we can't meet them. What we do for our size and what we do have is awesome and outstrips other small places, but you can't compare it. Two is that students come from high schools with better facilities, and students come from communities with better community rec centers that were all built in the 1990s when culturally health and wellness became a thing. That's the lie. People that are thinking strategically for the Institute I believe know this, but then it never translates. That's my uphill battle is to get it to translate into decisions rather than just acknowledgements.
Once and Always Building and Improving
ZIERLER: You really are still in building mode.
MITCHELL: Of course.
ZIERLER: It's a different kind, but you're still there.
MITCHELL: Of course.
ZIERLER: That's good news; it's going to keep you busy here.
MITCHELL: It will keep me occupied! I don't know if it will keep me out of trouble, but it will keep me occupied.
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, I want to engage you on a topic you have thought deeply about, and which I think more people need to understand, and that is the role of amateur athletics in society. First, just at a basic level, why is this issue important to you?
MITCHELL: As a human being, but as an educator, the concept of amateurism is deeply connected to motivation, specifically internal or intrinsic motivation. Again, I don't have a PhD, and I'm not a psychologist or a social scientist, and I'm not a researcher, but I am a life coach. What I know about the power of internal motivation as different than external motivation is significant. It makes the whole difference for people because it's sustainable, because it is the process of incremental improvement as a human being, rather than all your eggs in one basket; that it either is or isn't. This is the age-old conversation about risk and reward.
That's why, because for the masses, most people, the process of intrinsically-motivated incremental improvement is what life is. It is the stuff of life. If your thing is to be a kinesthetic learner, if your thing is "I'm a tactile human in the world, I need to touch things, I need to move, I need to move things, that's how I feel success and satisfaction" or "That's how I feel relief and release"—if that's who you are, it's all the difference in the world. It's the same way if creativity is your thing. If you're an artist, same thing. It's sustainable. It's attainable. It's realistic. It's all that we know about goals and acquisition. If it's not smart, measurable, realistic, timely, it's not a goal; it's a pipe dream. Which is then frustrating. As an educator, the connection between doing it because you love to do it, and the process of doing something that's sustainable and achievable, attainable—that's why it matters.
I'm also not a philosopher, but there is something about the external reward or the outcome focus as not sustainable that is somehow hollow. My teammates from the Olympics who see it as an end to itself rather than a means to an end—it's just a medal. It's just a time written down on a piece of paper. There's no intrinsic value to that. As you find out two years later, and five years later, and when you still go to sleep with your medal around your neck when you're 56 years old, and you don't know where your life went off the rails, it doesn't mean anything. A Super Bowl Championship doesn't mean anything. Winning the baseball NL West Division pennant doesn't mean anything. The process of improvement means something. The process of working together as a team means something. If you define the meaning by a dollar sign—the Super Bowl Championship won the L.A. Rams' owner $500 million in profit last year. Probably means something to him, but to everybody else, doesn't mean shit!
That's why it matters to me. That's why it matters to our system of higher education, is because it is another way, it's a non-academic way, of developing this skill in people—"Keep plugging, keep being persistent, keep working by yourself or with others towards something, trial, error, keep going. It's not always going to be easy. It might be hard. Keep going. When you fall down, get up." It teaches all those things. The science lab can teach those things, too, but the science lab is not for everyone. It's for everybody here, but not for the rest of the world. For a lot of the kids that are science-based, this is another way to help them learn that. This is a laboratory.
ZIERLER: Who is the audience? What you are saying is so self-evident, but you have to hear it to appreciate the fact that it is self-evident. Who needs to hear it, in society?
MITCHELL: Any parent of any kid who wants their kid to be playing a sport for any reason other than their own development. Any higher ed administrator at a school where they're spending more money on coaches' salaries than they are on faculty salaries, or more money on building new stadia when you already have one right next door. Any higher ed administrator, any public high school administrator, that is spending public funds to buy football players six pairs of shoes. Buy them one; they can only wear one fuckin' pair of shoes at a time. Then you buy them another one. They wear through them, great, of course we should buy them another one!
It's funny because I above everybody else know, and COVID reinforced it, that you should approach these things like on any given day, you can kick everybody out and lock the door. Because it's an enhancement. It's an awesome enhancement. For some kids, it is the reason to try to go to college. As an educator, we have to assume that some college is better for everyone. Whether you make it all the way through or not, if you go and even try for one year, if you read one Shakespeare sonnet that you wouldn't have ever read before, that's going to make you better. If you never took calculus and you make it through calculus, that's going to make you better. It's going to make you a more productive citizen in this country.
Look, I love watching pro football on Sunday afternoon. I put it on in the background while I do my taxes or work in the yard. But I don't think it means anything. It's entertaining. This is also educational. It can also be entertaining, but we do it for the education of those who play; we don't do it for the entertainment of others. Anybody who is making dollar decisions about the value of the entertainment side over the value of the education side has really got it wrong. That's why the Board of Trustees at UCLA are so pissed that they were asleep at the wheel. Because I don't want my money sending the UCLA boys or the Cal boys flying across the country to play football in Ohio. More importantly, I don't want their poor swimmers to, or their tennis players, or their volleyball players. Football is not actually the problem. They're going to leave on Friday, they're going to get back on Saturday night; they're not going to miss class. That's okay. Those basketball boys are now pro basketball players; they're flying three days a week. They're not in school.
ZIERLER: What is your most satisfying moment from a student who has come to you, where you know you have improved them, in all of the ways that you have that unique ability? It doesn't have to be a single instance; it could be sort of a composite memory.
MITCHELL: Sarah Wright was one of the only but certainly one of the first 12-varsity-letter winners. She has 12 varsity letters, and four of them come from playing on the men's soccer team. She left to go be a doctor in the Navy in maybe 2012. Maybe she got out of here in 2012 or 2013. But, she saw both: before, and as we were starting on this path. When she graduated, she came in here and she was crying. I thought, "It's got to be because you're happy you're getting out of here." She said, "I just wish this had happened so I could have had the full experience of it." Something like that. Like, "I see what's going to happen, and I'm just so happy, but I'm so sad that I didn't get to do it." That sticks with me. Kids come back, and they send their coaches notes. The top tenured four or five coaches have been here four or five years, and the kids come back, and they talk about the things they learned, or the fun they had, and that's all. That's all.
Sometimes you have to hold a line with a kid, and it means they step away from a team, or sometimes you have to discipline them. I've had to hold people out for different things, to get their attention on things. Usually that is in the first or second year, and by the third or fourth year, they are still on the team, and you know they know. You know that they know that if you hadn't held that line, they'd be down a different path. They're just so grateful. I mean, these kids are so grateful for everything that happens over here. That's not saying they're not grateful for what happens over there. I just—they'll say things. They'll say things.
ZIERLER: And that's what's real to you.
MITCHELL: Of course! Of course.
ZIERLER: Betsy, this has been a phenomenal group of conversations.
ZIERLER: Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really appreciate it.
MITCHELL: Thank you.
- Athletics and Caltech Excellence
- Wellness and Connectivity for Students
- Keeping Up During the Pandemic
- The True Meaning of Parental Support
- National Level Competition in High School
- NCAA Championships and Quitting School
- From the Olympics to UT Austin
- The Seoul Olympics and Path to Graduate Study
- Coaching at Dartmouth
- Self Realization and Program Building in Cleveland
- From Consulting to Allegheny Directorship
- Learning About Caltech
- Revamping the Program
- Hitting the Benchmarks of Success
- Once and Always Building and Improving