By Allison Ritter
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
When most children get into a pool for the first time, they splash around excitedly, yet terrified of the new environment. When Deanna Marks got into the pool for the first time, she began doing dolphin kicks. Eighteen years later, she’s still dolphin kicking as one of Kansas’ top performers in the butterfly events. A senior, double-majoring in mechanical engineering and business administration, with an internship at Fortune 100 oil company Exxon Mobil, Marks is one of KU’s most-complete student-athletes—a successful balancing act she’s been performing since she was young.
Looking back, it seemed clear from the first swim lesson that she had talent, but Marks also had other interests. Her parents kept her busy, involving her in basketball, soccer, softball, track, karate and gymnastics as a child. When the local YMCA said she was getting too fast to stay with them, they suggested Marks—by then age four—join City of Plano Swimmers. She wasn’t able to join COPS until she was six, but remained involved with her other activities until she broke her arm playing soccer as a 12-year-old. The injury was the end of her soccer career, but that energy and attention needed somewhere to go, and it went to the swimming pool.
“I told my parents ‘I don’t want to play soccer anymore,’” Marks said. “‘The worst you could do in swimming is hit your head and drown!’ Past the age of 12 I didn’t do any other sports, I was really just swimming-focused.”
Her focus paid off, Marks continued to swim in high school, even breaking a school record in the 100-yard butterfly and achieving All-America consideration in the 200-yard freestyle. Marks was focused in the pool, and in the classroom. She was a member of the National Honor Society and made the honor roll all four years at Plano High School.
“I would have 5:30 a.m. club practice, then I would have high school practice from 8 to 9:30, school from 10 until 5, and club practice 5:30 to 7:30 at night,” Marks explained when asked how she balanced it all. “Then I’d get home at 8 p.m., to eat dinner and do the homework that I had for all seven classes the next day. I’d repeat that each day. I think my parents have done a really good job about teaching me how to balance everything. I’ve always been regimented and know what I need to do to get it done quickly.”
It’s no surprise that Marks chose one of the most challenging fields to earn a degree in: mechanical engineering. She explained that she applied to mechanical or civil engineering programs, depending on the school. Ultimately, it was the school she chose that would determine her degree.
“My dad is an architect, and I always wanted to be an architect, but I’m not that creative,” Marks said. “I had taken AP Physics in high school and really liked that. Civil or mechanical engineering are the most common and I knew I could do either. It worked out really well, because it turns out my brain does work that way and I honestly can say I like all of the material.”
After meeting with Kansas’ swim team’s academic counselor, Marks realized that with the credits she earned in high school, she could graduate a semester early. Not wanting to cut her time at KU short, she added on a second major: business administration. The second major is normally completed in five years.
“I chose the five-year program just because it takes longer and I wanted to challenge myself,” Marks said. “Right now I’m on track to graduate in four and a half years. I like the business stuff because it keeps my mind off of all the engineering, it’s kind of nice. They’re totally different—it’s like, ‘Okay let’s go do some marketing right now and then we’ll go back and do finite element analysis!’”
During the fall of her sophomore year, Marks started looking for her next opportunity in the professional world—an internship. She attended the engineering career fair, but found it hard to get the attention of employers with so many of her classmates having the same idea.
“I started getting a little worried, so I ended up going to the athletic career fair,” Marks said. “Carrah Haley, who used to be a swimmer on the team and now works in the KU Leads (student-athlete development) department, introduced me to a previous swimmer, Linda Sims. Linda is actually the original 200-fly record holder at KU and was a chemical engineer. She works for Exxon Mobil and talked to me.”
It wasn’t long after that Marks was asked to fly out to Fairfax, West Virginia for three, one-hour long interviews.
“By the end of it, I was exhausted,” Marks remembered. “In my interviews, everything that I said was about swimming. I’m a mechanical engineer, so anything that I say, all the other mechanical engineers are saying too. So when they ask me, ‘How do you deal with diversity in the workplace?’ I said, ‘Well I’ve got these three amazing teammates that are on the team from three completely different countries. Sometimes it’s different, but we all work out and work toward our goals together.’”
Marks nailed it and that summer returned to Fairfax—as an intern. She worked on marketing and redesigning the labels of all the products going to North America so they would be compliant in all countries from distribution. In summer 2015, Marks will complete another internship with Exxon Mobil, this time in Houston, Texas. The job is closer to home, but will be different than last year’s even though she will remain in the same fuels and lubricants department.
Looking back on her journey to Kansas, and the opportunities being a student-athlete has provided her, Marks said she wants to enjoy and take in the last few months and not cry at her final Big 12 Championship meet.
“I remember thinking my freshman year I couldn’t do it,” Marks said. “I remember thinking after my sophomore year it was too much. When you get to this point in your senior year and you look back, I’ve had such amazing opportunities. I got to sit behind the President of the United States when he came to KU, because I’m a swimmer. I got my internship at Exxon Mobil—one of the best oil companies in the U.S.—because of swimming and running into a ‘swammer.’ I’ve gotten tons of awards for being a swimmer and a student-athlete.”
This year, Marks was nominated for the Marlene Mawson Exemplary Student-Athlete Award, a prestigious Kansas award recognizing community service, campus involvement and academic achievement. She has made the Dean’s List each year as well as the KU Athletic Director’s Honor Roll. At the end of the 2014 season, Marks was named the Big 12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
“Deanna has an exemplary work ethic and leads others by example,” Kansas head coach Clark Campbell said. “She is one of the hardest workers in and out of the pool that I've had the pleasure of coaching.”
In the pool, Marks has been a finalist in the 200-yard butterfly three times at the Big 12 Championships. In the same event, she holds the second-fastest time on Kansas’ team, and third-fastest time in the 100-yard butterfly for 2014-15. Altogether, Marks is ranked in Kansas’ top-five in six events this season.
“In the end it all pays off, but you don’t always see the pay-off at the beginning,” Marks said. “You have to know if you love it and just stick it out. If I didn’t love the sport I couldn’t still be here. Some people are ready to quit by the time they’re done, but I’m probably going to continue. Not just to stay in shape, but because I don’t really know anything else. I mean, the last time I played any other sport I was 12 years old and in soccer.”