All Lanes Lead Back To Happy Valley: Penn State Swimmer Turned Grad Student Dances In THON 2023
Robert Fenstermacher always knew that he would end up at Penn State. That was, in his words, a no-brainer.
Fenstermacher grew up in Dubois, Pennsylvania, just an hour northwest of State College, and was surrounded by his fair share of Nittany Lion relatives.
“My mom, dad, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and now just as of last week, all four of my younger siblings as well are going to go [to Penn State], so the Penn State connection runs pretty deep,” said Fenstermacher.
Fenstermacher was on track to swim competitively beyond high school, and despite going through recruitment processes elsewhere, he ultimately knew that he would call Penn State home and commit to its varsity swim team.
“There was really no other option,” Fenstermacher said. “I love Penn State and have been around it my entire life. The facilities are great. The coaching staff is really top notch, and it was a no-brainer for me.
Throughout undergrad as a Division I athlete, there’s little time to get involved with just about anything other than classes, practices, and meets. So aside from participating in THON’s annual Pep Rally and Athlete Hour with the swim team, Fenstermacher wasn’t heavily involved with THON but knew as a wide-eyed freshman competing in the 2017 Pep Rally that the event was something special.
“I honestly couldn’t believe the scale of what it was because, I know what I thought, but it was so much more than I ever expected,” said Fenstermacher.
Following that first taste of THON, Fenstermacher worked in Pep Rallies and Athlete Hours for the rest of his varsity swim career and really understood the gravity and enjoyment of those moments for families facing their worst nightmares.
As Fenstermacher wrapped up his collegiate swim career and marched closer to earning his degree in health policy administration, he began searching for jobs and took an interview at Hershey Medical Center. At his interview, Fenstermacher received a tour of the facility, including the Four Diamonds wing where children with cancer undergo treatment.
“Being involved with THON, I knew they were the beneficiaries of all of this, and seeing it live and seeing it in person gave a lot of shape to it,” Fenstermacher said. “You could just see how some were having great days and some not-so-great days, but it just made the experience and the reason a whole lot more clear to me.”
Fenstermacher didn’t take the job with Penn State Health, but that eye-opening experience laid the groundwork for a future of dancing for those children and families affected by childhood cancer.
After working in the health policy administration world for a few years and feeling slightly unsatisfied, Fenstermacher decided that it was time to head back to class and work toward a Master of Business Administration.
“I always had the sense that I wanted a little bit more,” said Fenstermacher. “I wanted to change things more than I had the power to at that stage. I needed some sort of advanced degree to be able to make the impact that I wanted.”
So Fenstermacher returned to Happy Valley in 2021 to complete his MBA in the same place he earned his undergraduate degree.
“It was really cool to [swim] throughout my undergrad experience and then to come back now in my grad time and almost have more of a traditional college experience,” said Fenstermacher. “I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.”
Now in his final year, he was approached by the MBA’s THON chair and asked if he was interested in dancing in THON. Fenstermacher and classmate and friend Miles O’Keefe jumped at the opportunity and knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dance.
“Being able to do THON now and be able to be in it for the whole 46 hours is very, very exciting,” said Fenstermacher. “I don’t know that I ever saw this happening, but I’m really glad it worked out.”
Fenstermacher and O’Keefe are both second-years in Penn State’s MBA program and have become great friends throughout the program, with their friendship stretching prior to joining the MBA program.
“He’s a pretty similar story to my own,” said Fenstermacher. “We’re very, very close friends so to be able to do it with Miles is gonna be really cool… He’s a couple years older than me so he functions very much as like a big brother.”
The pair have even been mistaken for each other enough times for it to become a running joke, so Fenstermacher and O’Keefe swapped last names on their THON t-shirts that they wore during the marathon.
Once a “deer in the headlights” at THON, Fenstermacher completed the 46 hours alongside a true friend and got the full Penn State experience as a varisty athlete, graduate student, and THON dancer.
“That’s one of the things that means the most to me, is being a small part of all of this,” Fenstermacher said.
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