Tom Donker swimming-cropped

Chasing Gold

Tom Donker moved from Zambia to the U.S. to compete in NCAA swimming competitions. Next, he has his sights set on the Olympic stage.

Despite holding a Dutch passport, Tom Donker did not grow up in the Netherlands—or any European country. Three years before he was born, Donker’s parents relocated to Malawi, a landlocked country in Sub-Saharen Africa. With less than 20 million residents, Malawi is the third-poorest country in the world, based on gross domestic product per capita. “Being exposed to that on a regular basis was very eye-opening,” says Donker. “You can’t really compare it [to living anywhere else] because of how different it is.”

But not long after Donker turned 15, his dad changed jobs and the family moved again—now to the neighboring country of Zambia. Unlike his parents who spent their early years in the lush flatlands of the Netherlands, Donker was brought up surrounded by Zambia’s diverse wildlife and Malawi’s nature reserves. It was a new environment for the entire family and “we really enjoyed it,” says Donker.

When Donker wasn’t in school or with friends in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, he spent his time competing and excelling in swimming competitions. Eventually, when it came time to apply to colleges, Donker had no shortage of athletic scholarship offers.

“I remember making big Excel sheets with a bunch of columns with different things that I found important,” says Donker. “For example: Was the campus near a big city? What’s the weather like? Everything you need to take into consideration when picking a college.”

During recruitment, Donker recalls having an instant connection with the University of Minnesota’s swim team coaches. While this sparked his interest in moving to Minnesota, it was the state’s four-season climate and the university’s academic reputation that sold Donker. “The university here—particularly the College of Science and Engineering—is known all over the world,” he says. “But I came into college undecided [on my major]. I couldn’t really put my finger on a specific career path—mechanical engineering, civil engineering, or anything like that.”

Tom Donker swim competition
Tom Donker competing at a swim meet for the University of Minnesota. (Photos provided by Tom Donker)

Donker’s favorite subjects growing up were math and physics, “so I knew I was going to go the engineering route,” he says. It was Donker’s uncle from Holland who introduced him to studying industrial and systems engineering. “As I started looking deeper into the industrial engineering program, I thought ‘wow, okay, this is actually really interesting,’” says Donker. “I get the business side, a little bit of supply chain, some inventory management, but then also math.”

Officially this spring, Donker received his diploma; but a unique opportunity has given him the chance to earn his master’s, too. “In 2019, at the start of the season, I broke my elbow and was out for three months,” says Donker. His coaches suggested he take a “redshirt” year.

“As a college student athlete, you have five years to complete four seasons,” says Donker. “You see it normally in football: People will redshirt their first year which means they can train with the team but not compete. It’s not very common in swimming, but when given the opportunity to compete for another year after the first four, I took it with both hands.”

"I’m very grateful for how I grew up and to have this experience of traveling the world. You don’t really find many European people who grew up in Africa and now go to college in the States."
—Tom Donker

With the extra time to train and compete, Donker believes he may have what it takes to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. In fact, Donker is already planning his path to swim against the best in the world. “I have an opportunity to go to the Netherlands and train with the Dutch team,” says Donker. “That’s something I am really considering after my next year.”

On top of his Olympic aspirations, Donker will also be pursuing his master’s in analytics through a new integrated degree program offered by the ISyE Department. If all goes as planned, Donker will receive his second diploma in the same calendar year he finishes his collegiate athletic career. “I already knew I’d be pretty well set coming out of the University of Minnesota with an industrial and systems engineering degree,” says Donker. “But never did I imagine I would be leaving with a bachelor’s and master’s in five years.”