Short answer

Physical memories

Alumni reminiscence about swim tests and PE.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

In September the College announced that students would no longer have to pass a swim test or take physical-education courses to graduate, emphasizing instead a greater range of voluntary courses for physical fitness. “That nonacademic requirement was created by the University dean of students in 1953,” Dean John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, noted, “and it has never been part of the credit-based curriculum of the College.” When we asked alumni to share their PE memories, we were inundated with submissions—including more than a few confessions.



I was horrified at the prospect of trudging to class with frozen hair, since to this day I have no patience with hair dryers. But I had never had swimming lessons. And the test was lengths of the pool! Different strokes! Then float for ten minutes!

I arrived in the locker room ten minutes before my appointed time. Luckily, another student had been on the swim team, and I quizzed her: “Which one is the breast stroke? How does the crawl go? Show me the butterfly.”

Powered by my determination not to get wet in the middle of the day, I dove off the block. I made it through the side stroke, the crawl, the breast stroke, unwisely saving the butterfly (what non-Olympian even does the butterfly?) for last. I made it to the float. The minutes crept by, while I engaged in a stimulating conversation with myself: “I can’t do this. Yes, I can. I’m swimming to the side. Quitter! Forget it, I’ll just take the freaking class. Frozen hair!” I was so involved in the argument I almost missed the sound of the whistle. I passed.

Kathi Thomas Rosen, AB’77



I miss the swimming requirement. I think it fits well with the Renaissance ideal of the courtier we try to live up to at the College.

When I took my swimming test in 1990, I dove into the pool in Speedos (my mom had been on the Czechoslovak national team and I’d never been allowed to wear American long trunks) and was asked by the coach if I’d join the team before I completed a lap. I think he vastly overestimated my abilities based on the then-uncommon briefs. I thought about joining the team, but in those days swimmers shaved their body hair off, so I gave it a pass and fenced épée instead.

Honza Prchal, AB’94



I joined crew, before I took the swim class. Every time I went out for crew practice, I kept thinking, “Don’t fall out.” Little did I know that the Lincoln Park Lagoon is only four feet deep.

I also took ballroom dancing. My partner was 6’4” and when we danced the polka, we formed a right triangle—he was the hypotenuse. For those of you who don’t know how tall I am, our base was approximately 3’8”.

Narni Ilagan Yoder, AB’98



When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1966, I was disappointed to learn that my high school AP credits wouldn’t count for anything. And I would have to place out of a PE requirement by passing a swim test and running an obstacle course. I was small but quick. Fencing coach Stan Patterson grabbed me as I finished the obstacle course and said he’d pass me only if I came out for the fencing team. Four years later I owned four varsity letters and had competed in two NCAA championships.

Seth Masia, AB’70



The first rule of Social Dance: you do not talk about Social Dance. Some people seemed to be having fun, but I was part of a group whose faces ached after a whole session of grimacing. As a quarter-end treat, we were shown the Japanese film classic Shall We Dance? I wish I had achieved such character development through dance as the salarymen in the film had.

Helena Lang, AB’06



It took four attempts, one F, and staying an extra two quarters after completing my academic requirements for me to graduate.

First I took step aerobics. Great class, but it met at 8:30 a.m., so I failed for missing classes. (Meanwhile, I took step aerobics at 5 p.m., a more civilized hour, to get some exercise.) I was asked about that F in job interviews.

Next up was golf. That wasn’t so bad, except that I was constantly hitting the ball outside the field and hitting pedestrians on the street.
The following quarter was ballroom dancing. I had that one down pat—stay long enough to be marked as present, then warn my partner that I was dancing out the door and down to the Pub as soon as it opened.

Finally it was spring quarter, and there was no option other than jogging. I don’t think I had run across the street to catch a bus, so I looked forward to this one with trepidation. Similarly to ballroom dancing, I figured out how to run away.

Ironically, ten years after I entered the U of C, I ran my first marathon, and today I race road bikes and my friends think I am a “crazy athlete.”

Faye Steiner, AB’95



I was somehow able to place out of two of the required three quarters of PE. I couldn’t find a way to place out of my work-study requirement, however, and obtained a part-time job at a University research institute across the Midway at the far southeastern corner of campus, about as far from my lodgings in Pierce Hall as could possibly have been the case.

The best way to break up the long trek, at least in one direction, and to fulfill my PE requirement at the same time, was to take billiards in Ida Noyes. In reality, the long walk, if uninterrupted, would certainly have been more aerobic and better exercise, but billiards was an enjoyable diversion. I do not recall my grade but do remember worrying for a time whether “billiards” was going to appear on the official transcript that would be sent to the graduate schools to which I would eventually apply.

Steve Goodman, AB’82



It was obvious that the University did not feel very strongly about the requirement to pass a swimming test already in 1967. I was amused to watch other freshmen who looked as if they had never been in more water than a bathtub, clinging as surreptitiously as they could to the side of the pool as they struggled the short distance required during an inordinate amount of time, while those in charge of testing clearly looked the other way, saying things like, “Take your time.” I didn’t see anyone fail.

David Reid, AB’71, MAT’73



When I was at the College, there was a required swimming test. The guys had to somehow get into the water and somehow go back and forth for five laps. One of my friends swore he held onto the side of the pool. The women had to dive into the pool, do two laps of crawl, two laps of breast or side stroke, and one lap of a back stroke—and it was timed.

I could easily have passed the guys’ test, but not the women’s—and since I could not do the crawl at all, I was put in a beginner’s class with many who were afraid of the water.

Our theory was that women’s PE needed money, and for every student they flunked, they got enrollment fees for the required swimming class. I still can’t do the crawl.

Barbara Schmitt, AB’78



I attended the University of Illinois at Navy Pier for the spring semester 1955. I took wrestling as required physical education. Although I got an A in the course, my career as a wrestler was not exactly a stellar one—I was pinned in the first ten seconds of my only intramural match.

I matriculated to the College in fall quarter 1955. Deciding that wrestling might not be the best sport to choose, I opted for golf, which I had learned from my father. The placement test consisted of talking about golf with a very kindly track team coach and showing him that I knew the basic rules of the game and could chip, pitch and roll, and use a putter. He said, “OK, you pass—good luck with your studies.” I haven’t played golf since.

Charles Schlossman, SB’59, MD’63



I spent four years (1944–48) in the College. We were 15 or 16 during our first few years, having started during the last two years of high school. In addition to meeting the College requirements, we also had to meet those of the State of Illinois in order to receive a 12th-grade certificate. Luckily, we could take bowling, tennis, basketball, billiards, archery, swimming, or ballroom dancing.

Ballroom dancing was very popular with the girls as we then had boys in the class. I remember the most popular boy in my class, who was handsome, smart, and a good dancer. We all wanted to dance with him—the foxtrot, tango, or a waltz. It didn't really matter.

What did matter was that a few years later, our favorite, Bill, turned out to be the serial killer William Heirens (X’49). Our astonishment, horror, and disbelief gave our memories of ballroom dancing a macabre tinge to it. Yes, I will always remember ballroom dancing.

Riva Berkovitz, PhB’48


And yet more PE stories ...


I took tennis first quarter, but because of an old injury exacerbation, switched to billiards, upstairs in Ida Noyes. Billiards, i.e. pool and snooker, for heaven’s sake, as a PE sport. Worked for me.

Carol Englender, AB’66



What? No swim test? No PE requirement? Seems almost impossible. I recall having to line up with all of the first-years during Orientation in Bartlett Hall, which was still a gym in those days (though wouldn’t be by the time I graduated) and taking this most inconsequential of physical tests. That there were people who didn't know how to swim seemed (and still seems) impossible to me.

I passed that swim test, the only portion of the PE requirement I was able to get out of. I still had to complete three terms of PE, which I didn't finish until my fourth year. In my second year, I took conditioning (two credits for the price of one) and in my penultimate quarter on campus I took CPR and First Aid, which was about as physically demanding as sitting in a study carrel at the Reg. It certainly involved less sweating than all of that cardio and resistance training for the conditioning class, which was actually kind of fun. I read half or more of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism while on a stationary bike in Crown.

David Emanuel, AB’03



I graduated in 1955 after coming to the College at age 16 from U-High. Due to dislocating knees that frequently dumped me unceremoniously on my face, I was put on “restricted gym,” so I took ballroom dancing. We learned to tango pretty quickly, but the instructor kept us practicing the waltz without partners for several weeks. There was much grumbling and the instructor (who clearly had been through this before) told us to partner up. In a very few minutes we had all been kicked, stepped on, or tangled in each other’s feet. We meekly went back to partner-less practicing and by the end of the quarter were whirling about with grace. I also took billiards, a truly useful life skill.

Elizabeth Robinson Cohen, LAB’51, AB’55, AB’59, AM’63



I'm sorry to hear that passing a swim test is no longer a graduation requirement for the College. It’s the only way I was able to learn to swim. It seemed a tip of the hat to the idea that a well-educated individual is well-rounded and practically equipped to deal with the world.

Sabrina A. McCarthy, AB’79



Since my dad was a Coast Guard pilot, of course I passed the swim test in the pool in Ida Noyes basement. I don’t recall other fitness tests such as my son took when he started at the College two years ago. I took tennis in the fall, but never being very coordinated, the instructor told me to “find another sport.” Ouch. So I took fencing winter quarter, and that I enjoyed and excelled at. My boys were very impressed later when they learned that about their mom.

Suzanne Verhulst, AB’81



I failed my PE entrance exam (didn’t even attempt the swimming part, since I couldn’t swim) so was forced to take three quarters of PE. I took swimming, ballroom dancing, and jogging. I remember the ballroom dancing class being lots of fun (I especially enjoyed the polkas). Jogging wasn't bad, either, and I still jog to this day. So even though at the time I wasn't too happy PE was required, I'm now glad I was forced to take it.

Jennifer Hurtarte, AB’00



Umm, I hope the statute of limitations is long over.

In equal measure, I suffered and sailed, fought and faked my way through all of the three PE classes.

At my first, swimming, I managed to sprain my ankle—or at least I sincerely believed I had, while half submerged in the pool. After that, I had a good reason to excuse myself from the rest of the course.

My second was golf, which made me wonder where the Title IX dollars went: There were only men’s clubs but no women’s. And I was required to swing these ill-fitting clubs at far-flung driving ranges and golf courses, which I had no way of getting to without pressing my only dorm-mate with wheels into service.

Sooner or later, I found a good reason to excuse myself.

My last was jogging. No more accidents or reasons to skip class—but I did have lots of readings to do for the American civ class that followed. The jogging class met outside Henry Crown, adjacent to Pierce, which afforded the perfect location to stash my readings. After one lap, or merely half, I’d duck into Pierce to read for a little while and re-surface only toward the end to join my classmates on their final lap.

Violet Law AB’95



I was an early entrant and had to take six PE classes in order to get a high school diploma. I was also not interested in this branch of learning. So I took social dancing and basic sports skills (throwing a ball and such), golf and billiards (twice) and swimming (once). Only in my seventies have I learned the point of PE, having heard, early at U of C, the famous quote from Robert Maynard Hutchins: “whenever I feel like exercising, I lie down until the feeling passes.”

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, AB’59



Yes, I failed the one-mile run (too many teenage cigarettes) and refused to jump into the pool for the swim test (childhood fear after a near-drowning). Thus my first testing exposure at the University was, to say the least, dismal.

I went on to master social dance, and enjoy the company, and to swim for at least three minutes in the pool without sinking. I even pitched for the baseball team in 1989.

I learned then and there to fear nothing, including the mathematics of quantum electrodynamics and chromodynamics, intergalactic and interstellar dynamics, representation theory, and 2nd-order propositional logic.

Thomas G. Zaucha, AB’89



As a first-year at UChicago I played JV soccer, basketball, and baseball, so I was active in competitive sports each quarter. Thereafter I focused on soccer and was on the varsity teams in 1957, 1958, and 1959. As an early entrant I couldn't play varsity until I was a third-year and had graduated from high school.

William Hauser, SB’60



I have a kind of amusing PE story, but I definitely don’t want my name attached to it for all eternity. I was a male in the Class of 2005.

I didn’t do one of the arm extension exercises correctly during the test so I had to take one credit of PE in order to graduate. I put it off until my fourth year.

At the beginning of winter quarter I met with a PE administrator and gave him a doctor’s note saying I could not exert myself. My schedule for winter quarter conflicted with the non-exertion CPR class so I thought I would get an exemption. The administrator told me that if I had a class at the same time as the CPR class in the spring, I should contact him again. So I bit the bullet and took tennis in the winter quarter, and it was actually pretty fun.

LL, AB’05



It took me forever to pass the required Red Cross swimming test in high school—seven quarters to be exact. I knew that if I passed beginning swimming, I would be required to take intermediate and therefore dive off the board. There was no way I was going to do that. On the last day of my senior year swimming class, I passed.

Imagine my surprise and, I might add, horror when I found out that the first thing I had to do in PE at Chicago was pass the beginning swimming test yet again. So, in the Ida Noyes pool, I did it. But never again.

Nancy Barnett Yalowitz, AB’60



I remember as a woman fencing with the all-male varsity fencing team—and a very chilly ride up to a meet in Minnesota in a car with no working heater. Loved every moment of it. It was great to continue fencing in a laid-back and completely gender-neutral team environment.

Along with a swimming, ice skating on the Midway, and everyday bike rides from one end of the neighborhood to another, rain, snow, or shine, I was always able to enjoy exercise and nature in Chicago as I did growing up in Manhattan.

Iva Kaufman, AB’75



No swimming test? No required physical education class? What I would have missed if this was not a requirement—for some reason for women only. Like everything else about my undergraduate experience, physical education was an opportunity to expand my educational horizons in new directions.

I loved the U of C’s liberal interpretation of physical education, which apparently was anything that requires physical movement. My first class was bowling. I already knew how to bowl, but it was fun. My second was fencing. How fun to learn about lunges and ripostes. Since then whenever I’ve watched a movie with a fencing scene (even Daffy Duck as the Scarlet Pumpernickel), I know what’s going on. My third class was billiards, both pocket billiards (also known as pool) and three-cushion billiards. What fun. All the geometry. The satisfying click of the balls. And afterward being able to wow the guys at the fraternity house table by my new prowess.

Deanna Dragunas Bennett, AB’67



Although I did learn some worthwhile techniques in swimming, I have no fond memories of tennis outdoors in November at a level way beyond mine, or of poking sticks at people in fencing. But honestly I think everyone should know how to swim.

Georgia Marks Green, AB’66, AM’69, PhD’71


The next Short Answer question will be announced in the March issues of the UChicago alumni e-newsletter. (Photography by Dan Dry)