As a national championship-level swimmer in high school, Leah Fiorentino ’76, EdD couldn’t wait to join the Stony Brook University swim team. But what she didn’t plan for was that she would be joining the all-male swim team as the university’s first competitive female swimmer, and in doing so, she would pave the way for other collegiate female athletes.
During Fiorentino’s time on the Stony Brook swim team, she was the first woman to medal at the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Swimming Association Championships. She won the 1,000-meter freestyle against a field of men and, in 1974, was part of the record-setting 800-meter freestyle relay team. Fiorentino says it was the first gold medal awarded to a woman by the NCAA, at a time when the NCAA was a men’s only sport organization. She graduated with a psychology degree, has had a successful career in higher education and is now a sport business professor at Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business.
In addition to supporting Stony Brook’s Swimming and Diving program as part of the Ramsey Leadership Society, she is the executive director of the National Collegiate Equestrian Association, which champions the emerging sport of NCAA Equestrian and its many female athletes at universities around the country. Today, 19 Division I, three Division II and 30 Division III programs sponsor equestrian, and some credit her with saving the college-level sport.
As she prepares to be inducted into the Stony Brook Athletics Hall of Fame, Fiorentino reflects on how her time as a Stony Brook student-athlete shaped her career and role as a mother.
You swam in high school. How did you end up swimming at Stony Brook for the all-male team?
James “Doc” Counsilman, a U.S. Olympic swim coach, would run swimming clinics that I worked at based at Mercersburg Academy, and I would practice with him. When I mentioned that I was looking into colleges back home on Long Island, he suggested I look into swimming at Stony Brook University with their coach, Ken Lee. When I came home for winter break my senior year, I called the athletics department at Stony Brook and spoke with coach Hank von Mechow, who was filling in for Lee and invited me to campus to discuss the swim team. Afterward, he walked me to the admissions office and told them I was an excellent swimmer and that he wanted me on his team. He asked if it would be possible for them to enroll me in spring semester classes, and by chance, it was. And in January, I started classes and team practices.
What was the reaction to the news that a female swimmer would join the all-male team?
There was no discussion of me being a female athlete when I met the team for the first time. I quickly became everyone’s little sister. It was a family, and Coach von Mechow made it that way. No one doubted that a female could compete on the team. In fact, my teammates knew how fast I could swim, and they weren’t upset because it meant more points for the team. That was just the climate at Stony Brook, which was inclusive and welcoming. It was a unique time and place, and almost 50 years later, I’m still very close and connected with my teammates.
Did you join any other sports or activities at Stony Brook?
I played field hockey on the women’s team. Being around these positive and powerful women as a college student was an incredible experience. I still think about the wisdom and encouragement they shared with me, which shaped me much like my swim team experience. The team won the New York State Championship one year, but I do remember buying our field hockey jerseys, kilts, shoes and sticks. We also had to line our field, carry out the goals and even set up the bleachers. After graduation, I joined an outside league with some Stony Brook players, which led to games against Scottish and British teams — it was phenomenal.
Between the swim team and field hockey, sports were my life back then.
Going back to swimming, when you competed against other schools, was there any pushback because you were the only female on the team?
There were some places where I had to literally get dressed in the janitor’s closet, but others had accommodations for me. When meetings had to be held in the men’s locker room, they would have to drape a towel over my head and walk me through to the team area. But those were premeet things. As far as actual competitions, most people knew I was swimming for the men’s team since it was all regional back then, so there were no surprises when I arrived. I never felt real animosity toward me — just friendly competition toward wanting to beat Stony Brook.
Stony Brook didn’t have to follow Title IX rules at the time; it was just how the campus community functioned — men and women opportunities were equal … the football team had to carry bleachers to their field just like the field hockey team had to transport them. But it was the right thing to do in the right environment, and Stony Brook just did it. No one had to send a warning letter to the campus questioning compliance with that federal law. There was no question. The thinking was, ‘We don’t have a women’s swim team. But of course, you can swim on the men’s team.’ And I loved that. I believe that mentality has framed how I have dealt with other situations in my career and how I have raised my two daughters.
How did your time at Stony Brook shape your career?
I remember my first job as a physical education teacher and assistant athletic director at the first conference meeting. When I entered a room of all-male athletic directors, they asked me to take notes, and I felt like that request was because I was a woman. I looked around the table and politely stated that since this was my first meeting, I’d prefer that someone else take notes so I could learn the ropes. Without the acceptance I received at Stony Brook, I wouldn’t have had that sense of fairness instilled in me, nor the strength to take that stand as a new professional.
And my coaches and professors have influenced how I choose to teach. I can still remember how Professor David Hicks would lead his class around a conference table, where we sat in a small group and discussed his research in East Timor. It was so different from what I had experienced sitting in rows of desks, and to this day, I prefer to set up my classroom this way rather than in a lecture hall. I like to make my classes more personal so that they have the same impact on my students as my professors had on me.
You’re being inducted into the Stony Brook Athletics Hall of Fame. How does that feel?
It’s a bit overwhelming! When [Director of Athletics] Shawn Heilbron called and told me I was being inducted into the Class of 2023, I was speechless. Which is rare for me. But I am incredibly proud. My husband and daughters are my biggest fans — always have been, and the family is celebrating this special recognition. They will all be there with me in October when I accept the award.
You work as the executive director of the National Collegiate Equestrian Association to grow the emerging sport of NCAA Equestrian and provide opportunities for almost 2,000 female student-athletes. Can you describe your role and what drew you to the sport?
Equestrian is classified as an emerging sport by the NCAA. My oldest daughter, Logan Fiorentino Serzanin, rode for the University of Georgia and had a college experience I could only dream of. She is now a coach for the equestrian team at Texas Christian University. In 2014, when there was the threat of dropping equestrian altogether from the NCAA, the National Collegiate Equestrian Association asked me to serve as the executive director and help advocate for the sport to remain healthy within the NCAA. I couldn’t say no. I wanted other women to have the same opportunity that my daughter had. And, thankfully, we saved the program and kept it as an emerging sport.
What parallels do you see between your own experience as a female athlete in an emerging sport and female equestrian athletes today?
I was a first-generation college student in the ’70s, when many women did not attend college. But when I went to Stony Brook, I had everything my male teammates had. And today, my commitment to equestrian is to ensure these women receive the opportunities they deserve. But there is more work to be done. Many universities have club teams for women, but women would have many more opportunities if those teams were elevated to varsity.
What would you consider your greatest achievement in your career?
Can I say my children? They are incredibly successful young women, and I am most proud of raising them. They were my No. 1 priority. I do think it’s funny that they both said they wouldn’t become teachers after seeing how stressed I would get. But now, one is a coach, and the other, Kendel Fiorentino, who was the captain of the women’s swim team at the University of South Carolina, says her greatest joy in the sport business field is mentoring interns and young professionals in the sports world. But, to be honest, they are doing things now that have a bigger impact on their worlds than I ever could, and I’d like to think I was a small part of that.
What advice would you give students or alumni on achieving their career goals?
Our experiences as student-athletes provide lifelong lessons, and keeping those extended family relationships with teammates, coaches and peers is so meaningful. You can always rely on and support others in that network, whether you need help getting back up or have the ability to help someone else. Don’t walk away from that. My teammates are sending me messages about their grandchildren 50 years later. Hold on to that feeling for as long as you can.
Editor’s Note: Fiorentino was inducted into the Stony Brook Athletics Hall of Fame on October 21, 2023. Below are photos from that ceremony.