Leah Swiss and Chrisalyn Johnson have an uncanny amount of things in common. They’re both Dimond High grads who now play for the Seawolves on a team that advanced further than any in program history. They’re both sophomores and both outside hitters, providing power at the net. And their GPAs (3.79 for Chrisalyn, 3.67 for Leah) are as high as their vertical leaps.
That’s no accident. “Academically, they set a very good example. Their noses are in books all of the time,” Seawolves head coach Chris Green noted. “On the plane, as we’re driving in vans, they’re studying.”
Another commonality: Leah and Chrisalyn are both committed to their state, with academic majors (logistics for Leah, mechanical engineering for Chrisalyn) that will open a world of opportunities in Alaska.
Chrisalyn made her choice on the advice of a family member, who said engineering had opened many doors for their friend in Alaska. So Chrisalyn—who knew she liked math and science, but was unsure what she wanted to do—went that path too. “Engineering is basically in everything,” she acknowledged. “I chose mechanical engineering so after college I have more opportunities.”
Leah, too, opted for a future of options with her major in global logistics and supply chain management, with a minor in economics. Alaska’s remote communities, wealth of natural resources and polar location make the state a critical hub in both aviation and marine shipping. “It’s a really big growing industry,” she said of logistics in her home state. “I know there’s an opportunity for a job.”
But that’s all down the road. For now, they’re midway through their college careers and making the most of it.
Early mornings at the arena
Like all college athletes, Leah and Chrisalyn’s academic achievements are magnified when you understand their schedule. The volleyball team practices nearly every day, with extra lifting sessions throughout the week. Mandatory study halls and online courses help focus their minds and lighten the load, but the schedule is demanding—the athletes are frequently in the gym hours before most college students roll out of bed. Even though they’re out of season, the team still practices during the spring semester, and many athletes take this time without away-game travel to load up on demanding courses like engineering labs.
It’s a life of focus and performance. “You just can’t procrastinate with anything,” Chrisalyn said. “If you have time, you have to be doing something with it. You have to be productive whenever you can.”
Leah agreed. “You don’t have a choice.”
After participating in Coach Green’s summer volleyball camps and attending UAA matches in the Wells Fargo Sports Complex with their Dimond High teammates, these two are now in the spotlight.
Alaska has a strong volleyball scene, as evidenced not only by the UAA roster—six of the 14 athletes on the nationally ranked team hail from Alaska high schools—but also by the fans. For the third year in a row, UAA boasted the highest average attendance in Division II (1,128 per game in 2016, far ahead of second-place Angelo State with 814).
That adds a bit of pressure, but a welcome dose of support. “No matter how you play that game, they’re still going to want to give you hugs and want to see you,” Chrisalyn said of their youngest fans.
And that support hasn’t gone unnoticed. “We have a really good crowd,” Leah noted. “It’s awesome to have everyone you know in the stands, and all that support.”
Some of those fans even followed the team to Sioux Falls, S.D., for the national tournament—including Leah’s parents, who hoisted supersized copies of the athletes’ faces. And what about Chrisalyn’s folks? “I told my mom specifically not to come,” she laughed.
Though they obviously wanted to claim the national title, the second place finish for the ninth-ranked Seawolves was an incredible accomplishment. “We just go game by game,” Leah noted. “It was kind of all crazy—we just kept going.”
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Chrisalyn added of their historic season.
These two have a lot to look forward to (and, as fans, so do we). Moving into their junior year, Coach Green expects Leah and Chrisalyn to serve as athletic and academic leaders for the team.
“I know they both are very dedicated to trying to be even better than they were this year,” he said.
And both athletes have nothing but love for their teammates. Even though half the roster was new this year, the team’s quick success is a testament to their tight bonds.
“Everyone on our team is really, really nice,” Leah shrugged. “We’re always in a good mood, even if it’s 5 in the morning.” And with two graduating seniors—Morgan Hooe, the West Region player of the year, and Erin Braun, UAA’s all-time blocks leader—that leaves 12 athletes from the national runner-up squad who can return to the courts next season for another championship run.
In the classroom, Chrisalyn and Leah are just as optimistic.
“I have a couple years left,” Chrisalyn noted. “I just want to keep doing the best that I can right now and choosing the right courses.”
Across the table, Leah nodded. “I’m just excited to see where it takes me.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement