Ruben van Leeuwen: a story of success, change, persistence

When international students make the move to a U.S. college, they face many challenges compared to the rest. They have to deal with a new country, culture, education system and usually a new language. On top of that, if they decide to play a sport, the challenges increase as they have to adapt to a new coach and program. For fifth year senior swimmer Ruben van Leeuwen, adjusting to the U.S. was not a big issue, but being able to effectively perform while facing adversity through his college years was. 


A native of Eindhoven, The Netherlands, Van Leeuwen started swimming at the age of seven simply because of academic requirements. He would not even think he would become a junior national champion or NCAA DII third place finisher years later. 


“I was living in Curacao at the time and we were required to have three degrees to prove that we could swim in middle school,” said van Leeuwen. “When I finished the third one, the coach told me that he saw talent in me and asked if I wanted to try out for the swim team, and I did.”


As a youth swimmer, van Leeuwen was one of the best of his country. He became the Dutch national champion in the 200 butterfly and set the age group record for the event, among other accolades. Growing up he set big goals for his swimming career, which included representing The Netherlands at the Olympics, but never really thought about swimming collegiately until his late teens. 


“When I was 19 I realized I was never going to be an Olympic champion or anything like that because I wasn’t putting out the times,” said van Leeuwen. “But I still enjoyed swimming to an extent where I wanted to compete, and the U.S. was the only country that was offering a program where you could combine academics and athletics together; we didn’t have that sort of program at home.” 


van Leeuwen committed to swim for Indian River State College, located in Fort Pierce, Fl., in the fall of 2017 and made an immediate impact on the team. In the 2018 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Championships, van Leeuwen won four individual national events and was part of four winning relays, which helped his team gain their 37th national title. 


Two years later, he committed to Lewis and proved that he could also be a top swimmer at the NCAA DII level. After three years as a Flyer, van Leeuwen now owns four school records, has been a GLVC Championship finalist, runner-up, three-time NCAA qualifier and an All-American. However, he admits the road was not always easy as he had to deal with changes in his training within short periods of time.


“The most difficult thing for me was consistently performing year after year with different programs and coaches and different beliefs and perspectives on swimming,” said van Leeuwen. “Even with that, there is still an expectation that you perform well year after year… I came in with decent times but I didn’t know if I could keep dropping them as I was changing teams.” 


On top of that, the pandemic also affected key moments in his college career. At the 2020 NCAA DII Championships, van Leewen qualified for the final of the 200 freestyle, his main event, in third place, yet was not allowed a finals swim because the meet got canceled halfway due to COVID-19. A year later, van Leeuwen excelled at the GLVC championships but got COVID-19 two weeks before nationals and although he placed top 10 in the 200 free, he did not perform as expected overall. 


During the 2022 nationals, van Leeuwen finally achieved a third place finish in his event, breaking his own school record and tying for the highest finish in program history. 


“I would definitely consider this my proudest achievement at Lewis,” said van Leeuwen. “But I also want to leave a legacy on the team that goes beyond my records…I would hope that I have contributed enough in my part to change the team culture and team dynamics and bring Lewis to a place that we haven’t been yet, I think we can do better than what we have been performing over the past couple of years and I hope it will be a championship contender in the future.”


A double major in business administration and finance, van Leeuwen is looking forward to starting an MBA upon graduation in the spring, and hoping to step in the other side of the pool as a Graduate Assistant (GA) coach for the team.


Photo Credit: Meghan Bandy

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