It’s a mile or two from Kenyon College to the Wiggin Elementary School in Gambier, Ohio, and once a week 25-time swimming All-American Hannah Orbach-Mandel would make the walk down Duff Street to mentor third-graders in math, reading and English.
“I would always find time to do it,” she says. “It was important to me.”
Orbach-Mandel found time to do volunteer work for the Salvation Army, participate in the Walk to End Alzheimers, compile a 3.9 GPA, fulfill the NCAA’s Branch Rickey Mentorship, captain the NCAA’s No. 2 Division III women’s swimming team, win her conference’s Pam Smith Award for athletics/academic excellence, and earn a A-plus grade — summer school — from the London School of Economics studying the history of bubbles, crashes and inflation.
She also returned to Tucson one summer to be a data analyst at the UA, examining Arizona’s response to the Great Depression and relate it to the 21st century recession. More? For the last four months, Orbach-Mandel has worked in the business office at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, sometimes sharing the elevator and lunching on pizza with Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA.
In the final competition of her college swimming career, Orbach-Mandel swam the anchor leg of Kenyon’s NCAA championship-winning 800 freestyle relay.
“I was just sobbing,” she says now. “It was the last race of my career and it was pure happiness.”
In 1991 the NCAA created an award to honor student-athletes like Hannah Orbach-Mandel: It’s called the NCAA Woman of the Year award and it’s more difficult to win than the Heisman Trophy or to be the MVP of any Final Four.
That’s because the NCAA Woman of the Year award includes Divisions I, II and III — roughly 1,050 schools — and it is so competitive that it has been won by women from MIT and Tufts, Carnegie Mellon, Vassar, Notre Dame and, yes, Arizona.
A few years ago, before she became a state championship swimmer at Catalina Foothills High School, winning the 2013 200 freestyle title, Orbach-Mandel met Tucson Olympic silver medalist swimmer Lacey Nymeyer John, the 2009 NCAA Woman of the Year.
“I got her autograph; it was just a brief introduction,” says Orbach-Mandel. “I was very impressed. I knew all about her.”
On Oct. 20, Orbach-Mandel will be at the Westin Hotel ballroom in downtown Indianapolis when the 2019 NCAA Woman of the Year is honored. She is one of 30 finalists.
Just getting invited to the banquet, one of the 585 to get to the final stage of the nomination process, is an achievement like few others in college athletics.
“Hannah is a special lady,” says her Kenyon coach, Jess Book. “She’s a passionate, driven woman, super curious about life and learning. She wasn’t a top-rated recruit when she came to us from Tucson, but all of her intangible qualities are through the roof.
“If she becomes the NCAA Woman of the Year, it certainly won’t be a reach.”
Book is something akin to the Frank Busch of Division III swimming, always in the hunt for national championships at a school that has won 57 NCAA titles in men’s and women’s swimming, the most of any school, any level, ever.
But he’s just as proud of the 72 NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship winners from the Kenyon swimming program. Orbach-Mandel became No. 72.
How did all of this come together?
Hannah’s father, Marc Orbach, was a distance runner in his younger days, a Michigan grad with a PhD from Stanford before becoming a professor in the UA’s microbiology department. Hannah’s mother, Alejandra “Maria” Mandel, also a swimmer in her younger days, is a principal research specialist in the UA’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
“My family has a sports background and also one of being dedicated to academics,” Hannah says. “I’m not sure what I want to do yet — I’ve still got to complete my masters degree after my NCAA internship is complete — but I’m exploring career possibilities while here.”
Hannah recently discovered that there are just four female athletic directors among the 65 NCAA Power 5 conference schools. The challenge of someday being No. 5 appealed to her.
“That’s a goal of mine,” she says.
Book, her Kenyon coach, would not be surprised if it someday comes to fruition.
“She sees the value in college athletics and she’s getting the best training possible right now,” he says. “She really connects to people. She’ll be a leader.”
Tucson has played a large role in the 28-year history of the NCAA Woman of the Year award. Arizona high jumper Tanya Hughes was the winner in 1994, followed by Wildcat swimmer Whitney Myers in 2007, Nymeyer in 2009 and swimmer Justine Schluntz in 2010.
Now comes Orbach-Mandel, whose school, Kenyon College, produced the 2003 NCAA Woman of the Year.
“It’s funny, I didn’t even know Kenyon College or Division III swimming existed until late in my junior year of high school,” Orbach-Mandel remembers. “But once I looked into it, once I got a better understanding of what it would be to swim in college, I said ‘I can do this.’ ‘’
And so much more.