Scholar Stories: Olympian's Advice Helps Stitt Find Balance

March 8, 2017

Every Wednesday during the 2016-17 academic year, will highlight a different student-athlete and their academic path. These are our Scholar Stories.

When University of Michigan senior Cameron Stitt had to make a decision about where to attend college, he kept it simple.

He made a list. Well, two.

One of them featured schools with good swimming programs. The other had on it schools with acclaimed engineering programs.

If one school was on one of those lists but not the other, it was crossed off. In the end, he took four official visits. The last one stood out most.

The fact is, through the years, the U-M College of Engineering and the men's swimming and diving team have enjoyed a very harmonious partnership. Connor Jaeger and Sean Ryan, 2016 U.S. Olympians and class of 2014 graduates, were mechanical engineering majors. So was David Moore, a Rhodes Scholar currently studying in Oxford, England.

This year, 13 student-athletes -- more than a third of the team -- are enrolled in the College of Engineering, and that's not including the team's large freshman class, many of whom have not yet declared majors. Stitt is on schedule to graduate in December with a degree in chemical engineering.

As for the correlation, Stitt says it's due to an attitude that's been engendered within the team for years.

"As student-athletes, we're not too good to do hard work in school," he said. "It's not just engineers. We have guys in business, pre-med. It's an attitude we have as a whole, not taking the easy way out in school for sake of our athletics. We're here to do both, and we're going to do something challenging."

Chemical engineering, lovingly shortened to just "ChemE" by those who study it here, is the process of designing one thing and turning it into another via chemistry. For example, Stitt could be working on creating a distillation column, a product that a big chemical plant would use to separate different chemicals, but one that the public would surely never see.

It's work that's almost always done in a project's early stages. And most of the time, someone else finishes it.

"When I think of engineering, I think of designing cars or planes, something where you see the final product," Stitt said. "ChemE isn't really like that at all."

To gain further insight, Stitt got in touch with former Michigan swimmer and U.S. Olympian Den Ketchum through the team's alumni mentorship program, Blue Connect, two years ago as a sophomore. Ketchum, an Olympic gold medalist from the 2004 Games who now works for GE, told Stitt, in no uncertain terms, to find balance.

Heeding his advice, Stitt did two things this past summer. First, in conjunction with his minor (International Minor for Engineers), Stitt studied abroad in Costa Rica after Olympic Trials, spending five weeks studying Spanish and environmental marine biology in San José. Then he spent his last week volunteering on a coffee farm in Monteverde.

World University Games in 2015

Cameron Stitt

He swam three to four times per week, half as much as what he would typically do stateside. Stitt thought that would negatively affect him upon returning to Michigan in the fall, but it had the opposite effect. The time away served as a mental recharge for the long and grinding season that awaited.

Though Stitt had a successful run at the Big Ten Championships -- highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the 400-yard individual medley -- his times are not fast enough to crack the field at the NCAA Championships, thus ending his collegiate career. But it is not the end of his swimming, and that's where Stitt's second change comes into play.

In 2015, Stitt went to South Korea as an open water swimmer with Team USA for the World University Games. There, he was able to spend time not only around some of his college teammates (Ryan, Kyle Whitaker, Michael Wynalda), but also swimmers who would go on to be Olympians in Rio like Jordan Wilimovsky, Caeleb Dressel, Jack Conger, Josh Prenot and Jay Litherland. To date, it's been Stitt's only taste of international competition.

Open water swimming is different from pool swimming in that swimmers are out on a large body of water, often times a lake, for two-plus hours. Ryan and former U-M women's swimmer Emily (Brunemann) Klueh, both open water swimmers with Team USA, were the ones who initially encouraged Stitt to give it a try.

"The way we train in semi-conducive to it already," he explains, noting that he'll start doing 10,000-meter workouts on Saturdays following NCAAs. "Open water swimming is all about focusing on your position relative to other people. It's making sure I am where I want to be, not focusing on the fact that I still have an hour and a half of swimming ahead of me."

With his collegiate career over, Stitt has shifted focus to go all-in on U.S. Open Water Nationals, to be held May 19-21 at Castaic Lake in California. There, Stitt will try to make the roster for this summer's World Championships (in Budapest) or World University Games (in Taipei).

School-wise, Stitt is planning on staying at Michigan for graduate school, which he would begin next winter. Right now, the only thing that would alter that plan is a job.

"I've looked at jobs for this summer, but it's a question of 'do I want to swim?' or 'do I want to have a job?'" he said. "If I find a job that I'm interested in, it may take priority.

"But I haven't yet."

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