By Leslie Gaber, GoDuke the Magazine
The last half-decade has seen Duke’s swimming and diving program steadily rise the ranks both within the ACC and on the national level. Integral to that success over the past three seasons has been a swimmer whose name decorates the record board in Taishoff Aquatics Pavilion, as well as the Blue Devils’ all-time lists of top performances and award winners.
For senior Leah Goldman, the 2017-18 campaign presents an opportunity to cap her collegiate — as well as lifelong — swimming career on a high note.
As a member of one of Duke’s first recruiting classes following a move by the athletic department to make the women’s program fully funded, Goldman has been part of several milestone moments. At her first ACC Championship meet, the Burlingame, Calif., native became just the second female swimmer to capture all-conference accolades as a rookie during head coach Dan Colella’s tenure at Duke. With her second-place performance that spring in the 100-yard butterfly, Goldman placed herself in the company of another Blue Devil standout — 2011 graduate Ashley Twichell, an All-American performer who has gone on to excel nationally and internationally in open water swimming.
Goldman punched her ticket to the NCAA Championships for the first time her freshman season, competing in the preliminaries of three individual events.
The following fall saw Goldman and the Blue Devils take another step forward, as the women defeated ACC foe Florida State in a dual meet format for the first time in program history. Goldman and classmate Isabella Paez both eclipsed a 37-year old Taishoff record in the 100 butterfly at that meet, with Goldman establishing the new record at 53.77. She would go on to compete on four Duke relays at the 2016 conference championship, guiding the 200 and 400 freestyle relays to top-five showings, before rounding out the season at the NCAA Championships once again, racing to a top-25 finish in her marquee event.
The summer prior to her junior year, Goldman was among the record-setting 18 swimmers with Duke ties to take the blocks at one of the biggest meets in the country — the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Neb. She placed 35th overall in the preliminaries of the 200-meter individual medley.
That momentum helped carry Goldman into her junior campaign, which saw her make her third straight appearance at the NCAA Championships. This time, she was joined by seven teammates, as Duke featured four individual qualifiers and three qualified relays. Goldman moved up six spots from her 100 butterfly showing at NCAAs the year before, taking 18th overall, and helped lead the 200 and 400 freestyle relays to top-25 finishes. She also got back on the podium at ACCs, sprinting to the wall in second overall, and helped lead the Duke women to a dual meet victory against North Carolina for the first time in program history.
“It’s one of the fastest meets really in the world so I’ve learned to just treat it as just a normal meet,” Goldman says of NCAAs. “Even though you’re racing the fastest people and the people put up the fastest times, you still have to swim your own races. You’ve put in the hard work. You know you can do it. You’ve made the meet — it’s not like you don’t belong there. You belong. Every year I’ve gotten closer and closer to that goal of finaling and hopefully that happens this year, but it’s always an honor to swim at the highest level.”
Another honor Goldman cherishes has been the opportunity to represent the United States twice at the Maccabiah Games, a two-week event held in celebration of Jewish Strength and Solidarity. This past summer, she served as a banner bearer for Maccabi USA during the opening ceremonies, and went on to put together an impressive meet, taking home four individual medals and two golds and a silver as a member of U.S. relays.
“The Maccabiah experience for sure has been life-changing with the people you get to meet and relationships that you gain,” Goldman noted. “Swimming in those meets is something I never thought I would do when I was 10, 11, 12 so it’s been exciting to be a part of those.”
With her final collegiate season underway, Goldman will be aiming to end the year as an All-American in Columbus, Ohio, the city that will play host to the 2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. Another priority for the senior captain is continuing to grow the number of NCAA qualifiers the team has, and to help push the Blue Devils towards a higher finish in the team standings.
“A goal I have for the season would be that team presence at NCAAs in those relays,” Goldman says. “It’s a pretty cohesive group we have this year and everyone’s really on board with trying to see those goals through … There’s nothing like being on a relay and the excitement that comes with it. Last year, we were so close to getting two of them into finals.”
Goldman hopes her impact on the program will be such that the Blue Devils break into the upper echelon at the national meet by virtue of her talents in the pool, as well as her leadership outside of it. She cites older teammates Katherine Plevka, the Duke women’s lone senior during Goldman’s rookie season, as well as 2016-17 captains Maddie Rusch and Lindsay Schlichte as examples of previous team leaders she hopes to emulate.
“I don’t think I ever thought in my personal career or even seeing a team really develop as quickly as it has — I didn’t ever imagine that I would have been a part of something like that,” she says. “I’m grateful for the opportunity and I think that what it means to me is hopefully it’s on the track to continue to get better and I can follow it once I’m done swimming and look back and know that my class was sort of the start of that big change.”
After she dons the Duke cap and suit for the final time later this spring, Goldman anticipates walking away from the pool and pouring her passion into another area. She has not ruled out chasing qualification for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials when the cuts are released, but regardless, knows she’ll be content with the legacy she’ll leave behind at Duke.
“I think, more than anything, when you exit the pool on your last race or you retire you have to have no regrets of what happened,” Goldman says. “To be able to look back and be like, there was nothing I would have changed or wanted to change or could’ve should’ve would’ve sort of things.
“I really hope to just end the year with a big smile and be really happy with everything that I’ve done for 15 years of swimming because it’s probably something I won’t be continuing after college. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process and know that I will miss it in the end and miss the grind.”