From Drinking From the Firehose…to Playing in the Pool

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on December 19, 2014 · 2 comments

in Alumni Life, Campus

Newly certified swimmer Lita Nelsen ’64, SM ’66, SM ’79 with her instructor Betty Lou McClanahan.

Newly certified swimmer Lita Nelsen ’64, SM ’66, SM ’79, left, with her instructor Betty Lou McClanahan.

Guest Blogger: Sarah Goodman, DAPER

“Can you teach an uncoordinated old lady to swim?”

“I can teach anyone to swim.”

This was the question and answer, respectively, from Lita Nelsen ’64, SM ’66, SM ’79 and MIT private swim instructor Betty Lou McClanahan.

And why did she ask? Nelsen was one of only 22 women in her graduating class at MIT and finished as the top student in Course 10. She also earned two master’s degrees at MIT, one in chemical engineering and the other through the Sloan Fellows program. Nelsen spent two decades working on biotechnology for several prominent companies. In 1986, she joined MIT’s Technology Licensing Office and has served as director there since 1993 and she is a highly-regarded expert in the field.

Despite these accomplishments, she still joshes that she is an illegal graduate of MIT. Why? Nelsen never passed her student swim requirement.

To be fair, at that point in MIT history, women were not required to fulfill the physical education requirements expected of their male peers. Regardless, Nelsen established the goal of passing her MIT swim test before her MIT 50th class reunion in 2014. To do so, Nelsen sought help from McClanahan, an instructor with MIT Recreational Sports, whose approach—breaking the task into discrete parts and doing many repetitions—was especially helpful to Nelsen.

Though she was an avid participant in the MIT Outdoor Club, Nelsen did not feel that PE was important during her tenure as an MIT student. However, in retrospect, she thinks it is very valuable because it promotes skill-set development that extends beyond graduation. Nelsen described how her husband, also an MIT graduate, took up sailing with no prior experience, became a national champion, and sails to this day. Nelsen says the worth of physical education goes beyond learning physical skills. “It’s play. I think the variety of stuff at DAPER [Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation] allows people to do a lot of experimentation. You don’t have to get an ‘A.’ Try different things. It’s fun.” Nelsen also finds value in doing an activity to simply enjoy the process, and she believes this mindset would benefit the high-achieving, outcome-oriented MIT student, especially at an institution with a history of celebrating and respecting amateurism.

Nelsen offered additional pieces of advice for MIT students, especially women entering a male-dominated profession like engineering:

  • Do what you really like, because if you’re here, you’re certainly smart enough to do whatever you like well. You’re going to do what you really like better.
  • Fear of failure is a handicap. Find a way to get over it.
  • Find a mentor that gives you perspective, not just encouragement, but the perspective that you need to build a career.
  • Yes, you can combine career and family. You’ve just got to do it, and the first step of doing it finding the right partner.”

Nelsen achieved her goal of passing the MIT swim test by her 50th reunion last June. She called up the Office of the Bursar and director of physical education to make sure that her official MIT transcript was updated to “passed swim requirement.”  Now, just like any MIT student, she has already moved on to conquering the next challenge: the flip turn.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Azhar Nadeem December 20, 2014 at 8:39 am

Yeh…”Do whatever you like” is the most important message, I took from this write-up


Emil Friedman December 22, 2014 at 10:30 pm

I remember being required to take one quarter of swimming because of my poor performance on the initial test. I don’t remember ever having to retake the test.


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