Ms. Butterfly

Girl grows up in Auburn, Maine. She leaves home and drives 6.92 miles — wow, across the Androscoggin River — to spend four years at Bates. Her swim teammates, coming to Lewiston from as far away as Utah, Washington, even the Czech Republic, declared the obvious: Townie!

Vanessa Williamson ’05, the local All-American not listed on the Denny’s breakfast menu, hated the nickname, even though in some ways she is the ultimate townie at Bates. She’s a native Mainer, her father is Charles A. Dana Professor of French Dick Williamson, and she blossomed as a swimmer and student at Edward Little, the public high school in Auburn.

She hated the name because it stinks of stereotype. True, Bates is in a town in a state where teen-age aspirations too often end with high school, but even so, it rankled Vanessa that her fellow Bates students view local kids “as either rednecks or druggies — they don’t see the nice sides of Lewiston-Auburn.”

Or the good people, for that matter. “Vanessa has shown what a local student-athlete can do at an institution like Bates,” says her father. Half of all Maine residents leave the state to go to college (compared to 19 percent nationally) so Vanessa’s decision to study in Maine is a point of pride. “She dispels the notion that you have to go away for a good college experience,” says Dick.

Out of the pool, Vanessa, a psychology major, works at Temple Shalom nursery school, assisting the same teachers she had when she wore water wings, and at East Auburn Elementary. She also helps coach the swim teams at Hebron Academy and St. Dominic High School, the Catholic high school in Auburn. Then there are Bates classes, pre-Leno bedtimes, off-season triple sessions, raisin diets, in-season lifting with WWF legend Tony Atlas (the man who pinned Hulk Hogan), an in-season alcohol ban (selfimposed), friends but still no such thing as Friday nights and, of course, practice.

Over at Tarbell, in the see-ment pond, Vanessa swims her laps, roiling the pool like a watermill. Her accomplishments go on and on, too: She’s won a combined eight All-America awards in the 100- and 200-yard butterflies and the 200 individual medley. She holds four individual Bates records (50, 100 and 200 flies and the 200 IM) and has been a part of four record-setting relay teams. She set the NESCAC record in the 200 fly, winning in 2003.

Growing up, Williamson lived overseas three times when her father taught abroad, so it’s not as if she’s never left Lewiston-Auburn. Bates is just where she wanted to be. “My first couple years I wondered if it would be different if I went to school far away, but I don’t have any regrets,” she says.

Long before Vanessa brought Bates teammates and other friends home for spaghetti suppers and sleepovers, the North Auburn home of Dick and Debbie Williamson was a popular Commons alternative for Batesies. Dick, a Yalie who played varsity hockey with John Kerry, coached the Bates club hockey team into the 1980s, and his players still recall gathering in the Williamsons’ kitchen, warmed by wood stove, hospitality, and “CCC” — chocolate, coffee, and cordials.

“My friends are always ranting and raving, ‘Your dad is the best teacher, he has so much energy,’” says Vanessa. “I’m like, I know! He has a lot of energy at home, too.”

This spring, Vanessa and her father both take big next steps. Dick retires after 29 years at Bates, and Vanessa graduates and will move to California to swim with the Nova Aquatics club team in Irvine. Vanessa will be a continent away from her parents who, for the first time, won’t have a child in college or living at home (Vanessa has a sister Melissa, 39, and two brothers, Chris, 37, and Dustin, 25).

Her goal? “Just making it,” she says. “If there’s room for improvement, then I’ll keep trying. I think of it as an adventure.” She’s used to forging ahead in a sport that in Maine, at least, is “by no means sexy,” says her father. “Swimming gets little publicity. But you go out and try the best you can — see what your limits are.”

Williamson won’t be in completely unfamiliar waters as she chases her Olympic dream. In high school she swam in meets with Ian Crocker of Portland, who won an Olympic gold last summer, and she met Michael Phelps at last year’s Olympic pretrials. She once swam in the lane next to her hero, Jenny Thompson, who is from New Hampshire, another state not known for producing swimmers.

“Before the blocks I was just having fun, jumping around, clapping, thinking I was making her nervous,” Williamson laughs. Truth is, Williamson’s own competitive style is to block out the competition. In the pool, “I close my eyes when I breathe so I don’t see anyone else. I swim my own race and just keep going.”