A Christmas Surprise: Swimming Scholarship in Honor of Former Coach Rich DeSelm

By: Andrew Stilwell

The DeSelm family were opening their presents around the Christmas tree last year when former UNC Swimming and Diving Coach Rich DeSelm was told by his wife, Tracy, and his two children, Grant and Claire, that they had one more surprise gift for him. But it wasn’t your typical Christmas gift of socks or the latest iPhone.

Instead, Tracy, Grant and Claire would be endowing a Swimming & Diving scholarship at Carolina in the former head coach’s name.

“In all honesty, we usually have breakfast after exchanging gifts, so I was just expecting us to eat soon,” Rich said with a laugh. “All joking aside, when they told me, it took me aback. I had no idea that Tracy would have brought up that subject with Grant and Claire. I was thrilled that they had discussed it and Tracy told me they were all in trying to help make this happen.”

According to Tracy, a physician and clinical assistant professor with the UNC School of Medicine, they wanted a gift that would honor Rich’s time and dedication to the University, not only as a former head coach and assistant coach, but as a student-athlete as well.

“We were trying to figure out some way to honor Rich's dedication and commitment to the University and the Swimming & Diving program,” she said. “I thought about a scholarship because he was so grateful when he received his scholarship and he's always had such a good relationship with his swimmers. It felt like such as a lasting gift; one that he could participate in now because of the scholarship dinners and watching the athletes participate in meets. I thought he would really enjoy that part of it, more than a plaque or some other tangible thing.”

The DeSelm children were quickly on board with their mother’s idea.

“Grant and I had the privilege of being Tar Heel born and bred as we watched our dad pour his heart into the University and program,” Claire said. “UNC Swimming & Diving is the family we grew up with, and the love and support from this family has overflowed through both successes and challenges.”

“Since becoming a UNC student-athlete in 1974, this program has shown unwavering support throughout my father's life,” continued Grant. “Creating an endowment allows our family, and more specifically our father, to help support the needs and mission of the UNC Swimming & Diving program and its student-athletes in the long term.”

Rich traces his love for Carolina back to his first on-campus recruiting trip in May of 1974, and he was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship to swim at Carolina. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., DeSelm recalls his parents telling him he would be responsible for any costs above the costs of attending college in the Volunteer state.

“I fell in love with Chapel Hill on my recruiting trip. Between the place, the scholarship, the quality of school, and how wonderful and beautiful it was, I said yes immediately. I had a great experience here, swimming and training and meeting friends and getting my business degree, and staying on as a coach,” said Rich, who was an assistant swimming and diving coach at Carolina from 1978-1993 before returning to Chapel Hill in 2006. “My life is really all centered around my Carolina experience.”

A scholarship recipient himself, it wasn’t until DeSelm began coaching that he realized the benefit a scholarship could have for a potential student-athlete.

“As a coach and recruiter, it’s always that dance of trying to find the best talent and the right personality that’s going to fit your team culture – who has the right skillset, talent, speed, competitive level, along with the finances,” Rich said. “For some people, a scholarship, be it books or be it a full scholarship, is the difference maker. To be able to make an offer and share with a family that UNC wants to offer their son or daughter a scholarship to come here, and then for them to say yes – they’re so excited about it.

“Those are impactful and meaningful events in a young person’s life,” he continued. “As a coach, it was always fun to try to seal those deals.”

The DeSelms have first-hand experience on both ends of those “deals,” as Claire, a former swimmer at Notre Dame, was also on a partial scholarship for her college career.

“Swimming in college challenged me to grow and learn to love in ways I hadn’t before, ultimately leading to my desire to become an educator, as my dad was, and continues to be,” Claire noted. “I can’t think of a better way to honor my dad, his passion, and the work he has done than to help provide another student-athlete the same opportunity he gave me.”

“It allows another student that maybe otherwise couldn’t do it to be exposed to the Carolina Way, and Rich embodied that as an athlete, assistant, and then head coach,” Tracy added. “In a way, I feel like this a ‘full-circle’ deal, if you will. We, Rich especially, were given opportunities, and are now able to provide those opportunities back for future student-athletes.”

Whether through endowing a scholarship or smaller annual donations to The Rams Club’s annual fund, Rich notes the importance of supporting Olympic Sports at Carolina and their student athletes.

“To invest in or be able to support UNC Athletics is continuing to provide those opportunities for young people to have this experience and have it impact their lives, most assuredly in a very positive manner,” he said. “Perpetuating the great things that UNC embodies and stands for is a great reason for me.

“Our family knows and understands the impact an athletic scholarship makes on an individual, their family and their team,” Rich continued in closing. “We are excited to participate in helping future UNC swimmers and divers be better able to afford a UNC experience and pursue their goals and passions in the classroom, the pool and as they grow in life.”