For freshman recreation and sports management major Christie Chue, the journey began with a curious message on Instagram.
One year ago, Chue was a swimmer in Singapore who spent a lot of time in the pool with no one near. She didn’t necessarily want to be swimming alone, but, at local meets, she was racing past the other girls and leading the pack every time. And so, Chue chose to swim with the boys. They were faster than her but gave her a better feel for pace at practice.
This situation wouldn’t last for long. One day after practice, Chue’s Instagram inbox lit up with an opportunity. An FIU coach was reaching out to see if she wanted to become an NCAA student-athlete.
Immediately, she handed the phone to her mom.
“When I got it, I thought it was a scam. I didn’t know about FIU,” Chue says. “My mom was the one talking to the coach at first.”
“After she learned more about the university, she realized that this is a good opportunity to get a degree while improving my swimming.”
One year later, Chue is thriving at FIU. As a first-year student, she has earned an NCAA All-American Honorable Mention and found a group of ladies she thinks of as sisters.
"Here, it's easy to relate with my teammates because they are all girls, and they understand,” Chue says. "The difference between here and back home is that we focus a lot on unity and support.”
Victors of eight Conference USA championships in a row, FIU Swimming and Diving has developed a culture of excellence and camaraderie that is producing dynastic results.
“We look for three things: great students, great athletes and great people,” says Head Coach Randy Horner, who mentions that he has passed on many great athletes because they weren’t right for FIU’s culture. “The 'great people' part is very important because I’m not sure everyone takes the time to figure that out."
Horner’s Panthers take team culture seriously. The ladies posted a 3.61 GPA in Fall 2021. At the peak of the season, they spend 20 hours in the pool per week. And they dedicate many hours to personal development. The student-athletes all live in Parkview Hall, where younger Panthers get paired up with upper-class students in the dorms.
“It's like the person with experience is guiding you,” recalls Maha Gouda, who is now a graduate student in global strategic communications and a member of Egypt’s national team. “When I came here my freshman year, I had no idea what was going on. It’s not common to leave Egypt for the U.S. as a diver, especially for women.”
FIU goes out of its way to make sure student-athletes feel at home. When the swimming team finishes its portion of a meet, they run over to the diving pool to cheer for their teammates.
“The support is very valuable,” says Gouda, whose competitions outside of FIU are usually solo endeavors. “The life of a student-athlete is very hard and overwhelming. You need the support to move and compete.”
Outside of the pool, the team works to make sure that its mix of American and international students (from 15 different countries) feel at home. The team hosts an annual potluck dinner where each student-athlete makes something to represent their country. Tables are filled with pasta, English biscuits, tostones, monkey bread, sausage pastries, Chinese fried rice and lots of macaroni and cheese.
Chue recalls how she was feeling homesick at the beginning of the Chinese New Year in February. Her fellow Panthers noticed and decided to act.
“My roommates brought me out to eat hot pot, which we do in Singapore as tradition,” Chue says. "The team also knew that for me, I’m not allowed to wear black especially in the first three days of the new year because it's bad luck. They made the whole team not wear black for that time too.”
The result of FIU’s excellent culture: competitiveness and swagger that’s gaining national attention. The Panthers finished second overall and ahead of notable 'Power 5' programs at the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) National Invitational Championship, a meet for student-athletes who just missed NCAA finals.
Coaches at the meet voted Horner as the Women’s Coach of the Year. The CSCAA award stacks on top of Horner’s 2022 C-USA Coach of the Year award, which has gone to the FIU leader seven out of the last eight years.
With a culture of excellence, a powerful international brand and a fantastic location in Miami, FIU is primed to become one of the perennial Top 25 teams in the country. Horner says that he is proud to be guiding the team's rise.
“I’m very proud of building something and having a program that is part of the culture of the university and athletic department,” Horner says. “My motivation is not just trying to climb the ladder and go to the next place. I think that there's a lot of value to building something where you can develop student-athletes year after year and then graduate them and have them come back as alumni."