A Balancing Act: Whitman swimmer sets records while taking a walk on the creative side

Thursday, Oct 4, 2012

sollom swim

His path to Whitman was anything but ordinary.

Galen Sollom-Brotherton ’14 was a swimming phenom who once raced in the same heat as Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and was recruited by The Ohio State University, a collegiate swimming powerhouse.

But after years of daily doubles, waking up at 3:45 a.m. for practice and slogging through training swims that sometimes ran as long as 11.36 miles, Galen quit swimming his senior year of high school.

He was burnt out.

“I didn’t feel well-rounded as a person,” Galen said. He had become uncomfortable because swimming began to define him.

His respite from the pool didn’t last long, however. After he graduated from Dublin High School, in Dublin, Calif., the coach at local community college, Diablo Valley College, talked Galen into returning to the pool. 

“It was a more relaxed program. I didn’t have to practice on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve anymore. I started doing it more for fun.”


It was at community college when Galen decided that he wanted to swim at Whitman. Why choose Whitman over powerful Ohio State?

His brother, Noel Sollom-Brotherton ’09, swam at Whitman. However, family allegiance only played a small part in Galen’s decision.

“I didn’t want to be an athlete-student. I wanted to be a student-athlete,” Galen said. “Every alumni member I spoke to told me the same thing, ‘At Whitman, you will learn how to learn.’ That seemed like a good life skill, because information is so easy to get it makes sense to know how to use that information.”

Galen now embodies the term “student-athlete.” And Whitman has enabled him to discover other ways to define himself. He’s majoring in art history and studio art. His exploration of his non-swimming self has led him to sculpting. He plays the ukulele and steel guitar. Through his art classes, he’s become a craftsman, and he plans to pursue a career in building guitars. He earns stellar grades and has become an Academic All-American.

Oh, yeah, he swam the second-fastest mile in the nation for NCAA Division III schools last year (15:35.53), breaking the Northwest Conference record. He led the Whitman men’s team to second place in the NWC, and he placed 8th at nationals in the mile, earning All-American honors.

“Swimming is such an individual sport, but this is the first place I’ve ever been where swimming has really felt like a team sport,” Galen said. “When I came here, nobody talked to me about my times for swimming. That was big for me. I felt like a member of the team but was no more important or less important than anyone else.”

The concept of team, becoming part of something bigger than one’s self, is ubiquitous at Whitman. Students often talk about the bond they share with their fellow classmates, and alumni often speak about feeling part of the Whitman family.

This stems from the fact that Whitman is renowned for being more collaborative than competitive. Galen’s swimming experience is an example. The team has a tradition that whenever a record is broken, the swimmer who broke the previous record sends a message to honor the former record holder. Last season, Galen’s freestyle relay teams broke two of his brother’s relay records.

“He’s going to get a signed note from me,” Galen said with a smile.

Galen’s development as an Academic All-American, like his development as a swimmer, came on the back of training, dedication and lots of hard work.

“I remembered the people at the community college, some in their 30s or 40s, taking classes for no other reason except they wanted to learn. I brought that with me here,” Galen said.

“My first semester was tough, but then I found my stride. At Whitman, it’s not just about getting through classes. It’s about learning as much as you can.”


—Edward Weinman