Senior Spring: Men’s swimming captain James Verhagen ’16

by Brandon Lee | 4/21/16 5:01pm

A swimmer from South Africa, James Verhagen ’16 knew almost no one in the country when he set foot in the United States for the first time his freshman fall. But he will leave with his name in the record books.

“I knew I’d be going into a good school, [but] I had no idea about the athletic environment I’d be going into,” he said.

Since arriving on campus, he hasn’t looked back. Verhagen has seen immense success, setting multiple pool records, finishing with an array of awards and building a legacy of camaraderie within the swim team.

Teammate Aaron Athanas ’16 described Verhagen as “a brother… [and] the consummate professional. He works hard, and although he may be quiet, he is heard when he speaks, and when he does it carries a greater weight. With that being said you also could not ask for someone more consistent. He has quietly gone about being one of the best backstrokers in Ivy League history and the undisputed best at Dartmouth.”

Yet for the swimmer, his journey to excellence all started in Johannesburg, South Africa. While Verhagen played field hockey in high school, swimming was always his sport of choice.

“I kind of just progressed from learning to swim in classes, through club swimming and high school swimming,” Verhagen said.

And while he developed later than most, Verhagen did not let that frustrate him, turning into a superior athlete within his club program, which he explains is the primary swimming program in South Africa, rather than a school organization.

“I grew very late in high school, so that was quite correlated with how my times descended,” Verhagen said.

Under Peter Williams, head coach of the Waterborn swim club, Verhagen built up his foundations as an athlete and grew into a competitive swimmer. It was during his junior year that Verhagen realized that he could come to the U.S. and compete at the college level.

“Williams was a huge inspiration,” Verhagen said. “He was a quality technical coach and mental coach. He has a mind for the sport and a mind for people.”

Immediately upon his arrival, the butterfly and backstroke specialist began contributing to the team, taking first in the 200-meter backstroke at the Dartmouth Invitational his freshman year. That same season, he would go on to break the Dartmouth school record for the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the Ivy League championships, as well as lead off the 400 medley relay team that finished just .14 seconds off first place.

“I think that 400 medley relay was one of my prouder moments,” Verhagen said. “I was a freshman on a relay, which was an awesome experience for me. We were very competitive, and we kind of surprised everyone.”

The men’s team finished the year with its highest ranking in program history at No. 9 in the Collegeswimming.com mid-major poll, which “gave us hope… and sparked a revival,” according to Verhagen.

Verhagen would continue to break records throughout the rest of his time as a swimmer, placing third and fourth in the 100 and 200 backstroke respectively at this past season’s Ivy League championships, be recognized as an Academic All-Ivy student athlete his junior and senior years and be named captain his senior year.

For the swimmer, more incredible than his numbers are the people he has spent time with, the relationships he has built throughout his career and what those people have to say about him.

“Never has there been such a supportive, humble leader of our team in my years of coaching,” former Dartmouth head coach Jim Wilson said. “He never has a bad word to say about anyone and is always there to help, whether it be in training, at a competition or working with small children at our swim school. He will be greatly missed.”

While the chapter on Verhagen’s collegiate career has come to a close, he will take the lessons he has learned from swimming through his entire life.

He has secured a job at a consulting firm in New York, and although he is not “completely married to the idea,” he may move back to South Africa.

For now, he seems to be content to roll with the tide.