The story of Janet Swanson, alumna, founder of the women’s rowing program, legendary head coach of the swimming program and one of the most influential figures in Northeastern history
By Sara Corey
Janet Swanson, a recreational therapy student from Philadelphia, was studying on the steps of what was then Dodge Library when a couple of girls approached her and asked if she would help them start a women’s rowing program at Northeastern University.
She already was a full-time student, a teaching assistant, and a four-sport athlete. She swam and played field hockey, tennis, and lacrosse.
“I was already very busy, but I looked at them and said, ‘Why not?’”
The three women set out to collect the required 200 signatures of support. They got 400.
80 women showed up to the first practice, and Swanson became Northeastern’s founding coach as a graduate student herself.
Over time, the number of team members settled to 30 women. These dedicated women learned to row in an antique barge and practiced in the tanks in the basement of the Cabot Athletic Center at four in the morning. To be an official varsity team, however, these women had to prove that they could compete.
On a cold, snowy Boston day, 15 women showed up at Riverside Boathouse along the Charles River ready to race against Boston University and MIT. Unfortunately, one of BU’s rowers had broken her leg, so they only had seven rowers and no spares. Without a full boat, the race would not go on. Swanson sent one of her rowers to row for the Terriers so her crew could race.
In the middle of that snowstorm in 1976, Northeastern women’s rowing earned official varsity status.
When Swanson founded the program, she started from scratch. She did not receive funding or assistance from the administration; she was on her own.
“I had a team, but no boat and no oars. So I had to ask for help from anyone who could.”
She was fairly new to the sport herself – she was a swimmer with the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia before she picked up an oar. The first time she ever rowed was at the suggestion of her coach, Mary Freeman Kelly, an Olympic swimmer and wife of Olympic rower Jack Kelly, Jr. The 1964 Olympic gold medalists of the men’s eight were her coaches. With every stroke on the Schuylkill River, Swanson developed a passion for the sport that guided her to make the Northeastern program a reality.
She approached the men’s rowing coach, Ernie Arlett, for help, but since he was still establishing his own program, he said he could not help her. Swanson respected his decision and reached out to Jack Kelly in Philadelphia.
“Jack sent me a boat, but no oars! So I figured I had to ask other coaches in Boston.”
Swanson was still searching for a set of oars when Arlett told her that her team had left trash on the dock. She looked at him puzzled, but proceeded to check on the situation.
There were eight oars on the dock.
Swanson remarked that “Arlett was always supportive in the background.”
She continued to coach women’s rowing concurrently with both the men’s and women’s swim teams before exclusively coaching the swim teams at Northeastern full-time. She elevated the swim team to varsity status in 1976. Both swim teams practiced at the same time and traveled together. Eventually, she was awarded recruitment money so she could better establish the team, which became nationally competitive and earned her three Coach of the Year honors.
In 1991, a recession forced Northeastern to downsize. For the university’s women’s athletic department, a full-time coach had to be let go. Swanson looked around the women’s athletic office. The basketball team needed a coach to be competitive at the national scale. The field hockey team was only beginning to gain its footing as a varsity sport. Swanson’s swim team was fully established and had seen both athletic and academic success. She had done her job. After calling Northeastern home for 23 years, Swanson retired to save the other budding women’s athletic programs. She sacrificed a job she loved for the greater mission of women’s athletics. In 1994, Swanson was inducted into the Northeastern Hall of Fame.
Women’s sports experienced a dramatic evolution, and Swanson was there every step of the way. She watched as the athletic department shifted with the passing of Title IX. The rowing team grew from having to borrow a shell and oars and racing local crews, to a nationally recognized program with its own fleet, including an eight named the “Janet S. Swanson,” and competing annually at the NCAA Championships.
She has watched as Northeastern swimmers earned hardware at conference championships and bids to the NCAAs. “It’s truly amazing,” says Swanson. From the time she began at Northeastern to now, the athletic department’s athletic and academic opportunities for women have expanded for the better. To the female student-athletes, Swanson urges them to “fight for what they deserve and stand up for their rights and opportunities.” Trailblazers like Swanson paved the way for women’s athletics, and it’s imperative that those efforts are not taken for granted.
Swanson has been one of the greatest supporters of Northeastern Athletics. Not only has she hosted the baseball and women’s rowing teams at her home in Florida with her husband, but she has also provided financial support. In 2012, she was the first person to give a six-figure donation to women’s athletics at Northeastern. Since then, she has continued to support women’s athletics, particularly rowing and swimming.
To her, it’s simple. She loved her time as a student-athlete at Northeastern and wants to provide that same experience to current and future student-athletes. Additionally, while earning her degrees, she earned a small athletic scholarship. She believed she owed something to the university, and it was her responsibility to pay it forward to the future generations of Northeastern athletes. Her selflessness, dedication, and caring nature have been integral in shaping the department.
To other alums, Swanson, Class of ‘74, urges them to “get involved, attend games, and get to know the athletes. It is important for the athletes to know the history and be appreciative of early struggles – to understand where [the teams] have come from. They have to support the programs that they worked to build.”
Success on the ice, on the field, and on the water is not possible without people like Janet Swanson. Every facility, every training session, and every piece of gear and equipment would not be possible without the incredible support from alumni and friends of Northeastern Athletics. It is their generosity that wins games and races. It is their passion for the mission of Northeastern Athletics that shapes student-athletes to be the next generation of leaders and thoughtful thinkers, ready to pay forward the lessons they learned at Northeastern University.