PASADENA, Calif. — Getting an education and playing a sport can be demanding, but it gives new meaning to the term student-athlete when you do both at Caltech like swimmer Isabel Swafford.

"I think at Caltech, everyone's a student first before athlete, and that's a thing that's emphasized by the coaches and the athletics staff. We're all student-athletes here, not just athletes, so we're focused on our studies and classes, doing research outside of practice and outside of classes, so we're very committed to that academic focus and then also where we're going to go after school as far as our careers," Swafford said.

What You Need To Know

  • Caltech has had athletics for more than 130 years

  • Students are achieving national success and earning one of the most valuable degrees in the country

  • Student-athletes generally practice 4–6 p.m. to compete at a high level and focus on academics

  • Caltech is a member of the NCAA Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Conference, or SCIAC

From missions to Mars through partnerships with NASA at JPL to detecting gravitational waves predicted first mathematically by Einstein, Caltech deals with things such as antimatter, quasars and mapping the human genome.

It's in part why the university uniquely typically limits practices for all sports across the board from 4 to 6 p.m. to give their students the time to solve thee "problems." Swafford studies astrophysics, and although it's quite complex, it does give her an advantage in the pool.

"I know some people have done data analysis for their sports. Some people have gone on to work for different baseball organizations doing data analysis, which is pretty cool. I think for me personally, it makes it a little easier to keep track of the send-offs, the times that we're leaving on swimming, doing quick math like what kind of splits I need to get to get a certain time. But I think the biggest thing is the effort and the hard work we put into our academics just translates pretty directly into sports," Swafford said.

But for all that's well-known about Caltech's academic achievements, their lesser-known athletic accomplishments are growing.

Senior tennis player James Wei is one of the NCAA Division III student-athletes that make up 25% of the undergrad population. The university has had sports for over 100 years and even boasts three former Olympians.

"Our tennis team has achieved a lot more than I ever expected when I was a freshman here. Before I came here, we had one previous national ranking at 40, but now we've cracked the Top 25, and we're improving every single year, so I think that most people might not know that Caltech even has an athletic program, it's definitely been improving a lot, and I'd say it's only going to get better from here," Wei said.

Most students here take five classes, which is about 45 hours of work altogether; already more than a full-time job. 

According to Swafford, the commitment to their sports and competition is an opportunity to give their minds a much-deserved break.

"You get to just forget about whatever problem you've been working on for hours and just dive right in the pool, get in the court, wherever you're practicing, and you just laugh and have fun with your teammates," Swafford said.

Caltech is a member of NCAA Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Conference, or SCIAC, a Top 5 conference in the country across all sports. 

Some highlights from the past couple of years include:

  • Men's and women's tennis - Top 25 national rankings in 2018-19, sent multiple individuals to NCAA National championships
  • Cross country, volleyball - 2019 best seasons in program history (XC 4th place SCIAC conference)
  • Women's basketball, women's swim and dive - 2018-19 best seasons in program history (swim and dive 6th at SCIACs)
  • Baseball, men's basketball - more wins in the last four years than the previous 70 combined
  • 3 former Olympians in track & field, 29 team SCIAC titles
  • Caltech also has 10 Nobel laureates recognized in the last decade.