Bonnie Kestner’s swimmers came through for her Tuesday, as they have so many times over her 37-year career at Sweet Briar. On an emotional night marking her final home swim meet as a coach, the Vixens raced to a 131-66 victory over Ferrum College.
Kestner plans to retire from teaching and coaching at the end of the academic year. She stepped down as Sweet Briar’s head coach in 2003 while continuing to serve as an assistant to Jason Gallaher.
Before the start of Tuesday’s competition, all eyes were on Kestner as she was honored during a brief ceremony for her remarkable run at the College — one that includes founding the swimming and diving programs as a recent Yale graduate in 1977. She appeared to fight back tears as athletic director Kelly Morrison described a young coach who, influenced by her own mentor, legendary Yale University coach Phil Moriarty, made caring about her students her first priority.
Morrison noted that Kestner arrived at Yale in 1970, a year after it went co-ed. She became the first member and captain of the women’s swim team — the announcement of which elicited cheers from those who had gathered for the occasion. Before she was hired away by then-Sweet Briar president and Yalie Harold Whiteman, Kestner was an assistant coach for the women’s team at Yale.
To wrap up her comments, Morrison revealed her discovery of words Moriarty once wrote to his protégé, both startling and delighting Kestner as she read them: “‘To my Bonnie, 1973-74 captain: Your leadership and skills as the first in Yale swimming history have been the model followed through the years. We are grateful to you.’”
“Bonnie,” said Morrison, turning to look at Kestner, “you are our coach, mentor, teacher from 1977 to 2014. Your leadership and skills as the first Sweet Briar swimming coach will be the model followed through the years. We are grateful.”
Stepping to the microphone, Gallaher expressed his own gratitude for Kestner’s guiding presence over the past nine years.
“I could not respect an individual more than I do Bonnie Kestner. She has been somebody that I could lean on and still do lean on for decisions that we make for the swimming program. She truly loves Sweet Briar.
“On behalf of the swim team and myself, we are honored to have had the opportunity to spend so much time with you.”
Softball coach Danielle Delude, serving as the event emcee, concluded the remarks with Kestner’s list of accomplishments — beginning with winning the Small College State Championship in 1977-78. That year, her squad endured two-a-day practices in an unheated pool.
As head coach, Kestner’s win percentage is .752. She trained nine national qualifiers who posted nine top-10 finishes, coached 29 school record holders and 18 all-conference swimmers. She was voted Old Dominion Athletic Conference coach of the year four times. In 2006, ODAC swimming coaches named the swimming sportsmanship award after her.
Kestner has served on the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Committee and has been ranked by FINA as one of the top 10 Masters swimmers in the world in several events in her age group.
As a professor at Sweet Briar, Kestner leads holistic nutrition classes and wellness, helping students gain a better understanding of physical well-being. She has brought numerous guests to campus to speak on a variety of topics from nutrition to sustainable organic farming for the benefit of students, faculty and staff.
In turn, the College community expressed its appreciation by presenting her with several gifts, including a framed Vixen swimming T-shirt signed by every student athlete, coach and member of the athletic department.
They further honored her by complying with her wishes to serve only healthy snacks at the event. In place of the usual cheese tray and cookies were whole-grain crackers, carrots, an assortment of fruit, and several healthy spreads including olive tapenade and hummus, along with mixed nuts for added protein.
“Overwhelmed, humbled, deeply grateful,” said Kestner when asked about her emotions during the ceremony.
“Overwhelmed by all of the research done by department members to uncover facts about my experiences at Yale, my coaching record at Sweet Briar, etcetera.
“Humbled by the knowledge that none of this was my own doing but a result of being at the right place at the right time, by the grace of God. I came to SBC thinking I would stay only one year, but God had other plans. Grateful, because I have been abundantly blessed during my time here. Perhaps the greatest gift of my time at Sweet Briar has been my wonderful husband, Chuck.”
In 1977, Chuck Kestner was director of buildings. He designed Sweet Briar’s pool and supervised its construction — engineering an enduring and loving marriage in the process. Mrs. Kestner is still impressed.
“The pool has always been a bright and uplifting place to teach and coach, and thirty-seven years later we still consider it to be the best pool in the conference!” she says.
Reflecting back, that 1978 state championship meant a lot to her, but the relationships she has forged with her swimmers and colleagues are what she cherishes most.
With the night’s feting over, Kestner kept one eye on the stopwatch in each hand and one on her swimmers, calling out encouragement, signaling corrections and reveling in their success.
“It was gratifying to see some of them implement some of the changes we had worked on,” she said later. “The highlight for me was Megan Monahan breaking the school record in the 400-meter freestyle. Her comment to me following the race was that she had ‘kicked off of her turns’ — something we had emphasized in practice.”