Clarkstown South High School Class of 1978
Katherine Nowell emerged as a champion swimmer in the formative days of the sport in Rockland County and New York State. While Rockland was home to amateur standouts such as national champion Gloria Callen and Olympian Elizabeth Ryan in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasn’t until girls’ swimming became an officially sanctioned sport in New York State in the mid-1970s that competitive swimming opportunities expanded for high school girls. College scholarships for female athletes, stemming from federal Title IX gender equity policies enacted in 1972, gave further impetus to aspiring champions.
Rockland girls’ swimmers forged an enduring legacy beginning in the 1970s, with names such as Patty Dillon, Connie Snedeker, Marianne Milliken, Joni Neuendorf, Jenny Mulderig and Lynn Kennedy forming the foundation for future success. Katherine Nowell was a cornerstone of that grand tradition. All she did was capture three State titles; finish undefeated in every one of her high school dual meet, County and Section 9 races; go 12-for-12 in gold medals in County and Sectional competition in 1976 and 1977; set State records in the 100-yard butterfly, 200 freestyle and as anchor leg on the 400 freestyle relay; and break numerous records in County and Section 9 competition.
It’s no surprise she earned High School All-America honors in her junior and senior years for posting one of the top 15 times nationally for her events, or that she was selected Journal-News Female Athlete of the Year in 1978. Later she was an inaugural inductee into the Clarkstown South Hall of Fame and chosen by that organization as the school’s top female athlete of the 1970s.
After a decorated swimming career at the University of South Carolina and Ramapo College, Katherine returned to coach at Clarkstown South and guided the 1983 Vikings team to a No. 1 New York State ranking and No. 14 nationally. The 1984 club also ascended to No. 1 statewide during the season and that squad was so well-regarded that it reaped honorable mention accolades in a poll of Journal-News readers of the top high school athletic teams in Rockland from 1960 to 1985.
Katherine started as an assistant coach on the South boys’ swimming team in 1981 and later was head coach for Clarkstown district merged teams in both boys’ and girls’ swimming, finishing her coaching tenure in the early 1990s. While coaching the South girls, she had the privilege and challenge of competing against her mom, Ellen Nowell, who was head coach of the Clarkstown North girls’ program.
Katherine got her start in swimming as a 6-year-old living in Atlanta, watching her brothers frolicking in the pool with the North Crest Swim Club and finally overcoming her fear of the water and joining the club team. That first year she won “my most valued memento from my swimming career,” a trophy for Most Improved Swimmer. “After that, swimming was all I ever wanted to do,” she says. “The pool was my sanctuary. I’ve loved it ever since.”
Born in Coral Gables, FL, Katherine moved with her family in five-year intervals as her father’s job with Prentice Hall required. After Atlanta, the Nowell family moved to Dallas and finally settled in New City. At each destination, Katherine flourished in age-group competition. At age 12 she set a national record in the 100-meter butterfly and three years later established a Texas state mark in the same event.
Although in Clarkstown she was not permitted during sophomore year to compete on the high school team due to her participa- tion on a local club team, the Dolphin Aquatic Club, the policy was changed the following year and she swam for both Clarkstown South and the Dolphins. It was a grueling schedule, to say the least. “Club practices were mornings before school and pretty much every afternoon,” she says. “I had to juggle making it to both, sometimes skipping club practices for school practice, and vice versa.”
The highlight reel for Katherine Nowell was laced with many watershed moments, but one memory stands out above all others: the 1977 New York State championships at West Point, when she set state records en route to victory in the 100 butterfly and 200 freestyle, and anchored a Vikings quartet to second place in the 400 freestyle relay with her best 100-meter split time by a full four seconds. The results were secondary, however, to the feeling of complete relaxation she felt that day, unburdened by expectations or external pressure or having to validate the years of hard work that got her to that point. “I was just doing what I wanted to be doing,” she says simply. “It was probably my most comforting day of competitive swimming.”
Although she matched strokes with some of the greatest female swimmers to come out of Rockland County, citing in particular Snedeker from Clarkstown North, Mulderig of Suffern and Neuendorf of Tappan Zee, Katherine says she derived the greatest inspiration from the girls she coached, especially the modestly talented members who gave their all every day. “I was as proud of the kid who came in last by a minute in the 500-yard freestyle who never thought they could do it, as I was of any champion I coached. They were a part of teams that made it into no record books but that were the best teams I ever was a part of.”
Katherine received a full scholarship to the University of South Carolina and performed admirably for that Division I school, meriting All-America honors for finishing in the top eight in the AIAW National Championships (pre-NCAA days) in three relays, including a third-placing showing in the 200 medley relay. Maybe the most memorable aspect of that effort, though, was the team’s 10th-place overall finish in a powerful Division I field, and winning a bet against their coach that they could achieve a top-10 finish. Their reward: earning the privilege of shaving his head.
After transferring to Division III Ramapo College in 1980, Katherine did not miss a beat, churning out All-America citations in six events over two seasons, gaining Outstanding Swimmer honors for the Metropolitan Swim League in 1981, and eventually earning enshrinement in the Ramapo College Sports Hall of Fame. Her most prominent memory of her two-year tenure at Ramapo was the Division III national championship meet in which she swam so many events back-to-back that “I was totally taxed as a swimmer. It was the most grueling day I’ve ever had in a pool. I left everything I had in the pool that day.”
After graduating from Ramapo in 1983, Katherine, who’s 55, embarked on a career as a special education teacher, first at the Birchwood School in Clarkstown and then for many years at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Orange County. She resides in Monroe with her husband of 26 years, Terence Burke, and their three children: daughters Alden, 23, and Selby, 21, and son Tristan, 18. Irony of ironies: All but Katherine are non-swimmers, prompting her to quip, “I can’t understand how they’re a part of my family!”