Madeleine Brown is gone.
On Dec. 16, 2006, Brown, a 19-year-old member of the Emory women’s swim team floated alone in the deep end of the school’s pool— her face submerged, her brain desperate for oxygen, her heart as quiet and still as the water itself.
She died three days later.
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Her myriad health problems — asthma, epilepsy, hypothyroidism, among others — likely contributed to the accident in the unsupervised open swim. To that point, she’d bettered those obstacles, earning a spot on an elite women’s swim team vying for its third consecutive Division III national championship.
After only one semester of collegiate swimming, she was on her way to helping them do just that. Brown qualified to venture to the national championships in Houston to compete in the 400-yard individual medley and the 200-yard butterfly.
She never made it to Texas. Madeleine Brown was gone.
Though, among Emory swimmers and coaches, she lingers.
Rather than dwelling on her death, the program celebrates her life. The long shadow of a moment’s horror is eclipsed by the memory of her semester of energy, enthusiasm and joy. The aquatic center that took her young life now bears her name. The women who’ve since come to Emory to swim — women who never met her — all know her name. They’re reminded of her every day by a locker room memorial touting her exuberance and love of her teammates.
“I didn’t know her, but [the memorial] talks about her passion for the sport and her teammates,” said Emory sophomore Sadie Nennig. “And that’s something we really work toward; being all for your team, all for your teammates and giving it your all.”
Jon Howell, Emory head swimming coach since 1998, spends time seemingly every day privately remembering Brown. He, and assistant coach Chris Marshall, say that losing Brown has driven them to forge a more close-knit, supportive team that embodies her selfless, team-first attitude.
“You’re a little bit more connected emotionally to what they’re doing both inside the pool and outside the pool,” Marshall said. “It’s definitely created more of a sense of a family rather than just a team.”
Howell maintains that her death — and her life — have heightened his appreciation of the bonds he forms with his swimmers. He works to ensure that the ripples of Brown’s four months at Emory roll on unabated for years.
“I don’t think anyone can go through something like that and not be affected, especially with Madeleine and how great she was,” he said. “I think it’s forced me to really cherish the time I have with the kids and not take anything for granted. There’s the spirit of Madeline that lives within our team and our program. It always will.”
That spirit is evident on a pool deck in Indianapolis five years after Brown last set foot on the pool deck in Atlanta. At this year’s Division III Women’s Swimming and Diving National Championships, the Emory women are among the most vocal in the IUPUI natatorium during events. They stand on metal bleachers to encourage teammates— screaming, jumping and cheering vociferously. Before warm-ups, they’re at ease, regularly joking, chatting and smiling as a bevy of their competitors brood. There are no sullen or nervous looks—their collective senses of togetherness and confidence are palpable.
And, much like Brown’s freshman year, they’re swimming for a third consecutive national championship. After three days, they’ve amassed a seemingly insurmountable lead — 82 points — on their nearest challenger, Williams.
Elite swimmers have been drawn to Emory by the recent run of success. Some, like Nennig, have had the chance to swim at Division I, Ivy League institutions, but turned them down. She chose Emory because of the success of the program and the sense of camaraderie amongst the team. Senior Claire Pavlak, who has been part of two relay championships this week in Indianapolis, credits that amity, in part, for the team’s string of national titles.
“Most people come in pretty good, but they leave a lot better than they were to begin with,” she said. “That has a lot to do with our team atmosphere and our coaches.”
Years later, Brown’s legacy remains an integral part of that atmosphere. Every year since her passing, the team has bestowed an award bearing her name to the swimmer who exhibited the most positivity and team spirit throughout the season. The award symbolizes what she did while she lived at Emory, not how she died there.
“We only had one semester with her,” Marshall said. “But in that semester she truly embodied what we do. Her spirit was at the top. She lived Emory…for one semester she absolutely lived Emory.”
She still does.