Swimming at Washington Set Course of Alumna’s Career
Danielle Sullivan ’98, Swimming, Hall of Fame 2011 Inductee
Danielle Sullivan began her swim career at Washington College with modest expectations.
“I didn’t think I belonged on the team,” she recalls. “Growing up, athletics hadn’t been huge in my life. I swam, but not year-round. I wasn’t a sporty kid.”
Early that first year, unsure of her place and whether she would stay at the College, Sullivan swam as a sprinter—until coach Kim Lessard identified her potential as a distance swimmer.
“I wasn’t happy about the change,” Sullivan says. “But I got good at it.”
That freshman season, she earned multiple medals at the Centennial Conference Championships. By graduation in 1998, she had amassed a collection of medals, two All-America honors, and multiple school and conference records. She was inducted into Washington’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.
While her individual success was thrilling, Sullivan’s memories of the team are what stand out.
“It was the people I swam with—the girls and the guys. We trained together, we were in the lanes together, we practiced hard,” she said. “I made it to Nationals, and that was great, but I was alone. But going to the Conference Championships, we were all there together. We were all so close, it was like a family.”
Sullivan attributes her accomplishments not only to hard work and talent, but to the atmosphere at Washington College.
“Being a student-athlete was a great experience for me. I knew everyone,” Sullivan says. “If I’d gone to a big school, I’d have been lost. In Division III, you have the opportunity to find the athlete you want to be.”
That opportunity not only allowed Sullivan to grow as an athlete, but it also set the course of her career.
Not ready to give up competition, she stayed on after graduation as an assistant coach and, at Lessard’s encouragement, trained for a triathlon.
“I didn’t know how to set myself up for a tri,” she says of preparing for her first race, a YMCA triathlon in Western Maryland. “But my brother bought me a bike, and I relied on my distance swimming.”
The strength of her swimming allowed her to win the race: “I came out of the water first, and it lit my fire.”
After that first success, Sullivan continued competing in triathlons and qualified for her first Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii at age 25. She improved every year, training some 20 to 30 hours per week.
Sullivan turned pro at age 28 and raced professionally for four years, retiring in 2011 to become a triathlon coach.
Now 46, Sullivan is still in the game. She is a perennial racer at Kona and coaches triathletes in West Islip, New York. Triathlon is now a collegiate sport, offered for women only.
“I’d love to coach at the college level,” she says. “My college experience shaped who I am. Kim led me in directions I probably would not have gone … It’s funny how that sets your life in motion.”