Plush “Despicable Me” Minion Leads Swim and Dive Team to an Undefeated Season


Kevin Plewniak

The UNCA swim and dive team cheering for the mile at the CCSA Conference Championships

Freshman Caitlin Hefner slices through the nine-lane pool, lapping second place and finishing with a slam of her hand on the wall, becoming the first ever conference event champion on her swim and dive team. Her team, UNC Asheville, erupts in cheering, jumping, crying, hugging, pom-pom waving and… minion waving? A giant plush minion from the movie “Despicable Me,” about 2 feet in height and dressed in a tutu wrapped around a team swimsuit, is launched into the air and caught by the screaming swim team.

Since bringing this minion named Kevin on deck to swim meets, the team has gone undefeated, winning eight meets in a row and ending Liberty University’s 26-meet winning streak that began in 2017. 

Team members broke 18 of their 21 school records, 11 of their 21 freshman records and had 90 total lifetime bests in the pool. 

Last February, Gaby Shenot, class of 2024, lugged Kevin up a hill, her duffel bags pulling at her elbows and her pillow tucked under her arm. She tossed him with the rest of her belongings under the team travel bus.

Only a few freshmen on the team knew of his presence then. 

Why a yellow minion named Kevin?

“The rest of my class and I had countless inside jokes – and the first one I can remember was about minions. I don’t know why, but we just developed a genuine love for the little yellow creatures. It grew into a team-wide phenomenon and we were gifted Kevin by a mutual friend.  The rest of the freshman and I at that time decided bringing Kevin to conference was possibly one of the best ideas we had ever come up with,” Shenot said.

Kevin went to every session of last-year’s conference meet for his debut, and along with him came the best times and team records for the team.

“After a successful meet for the UNCA swim and dive team, and an even more successful trip for Kevin, it became essential to not only the Freshmen and I, but to the whole team and its staff to bring him with us for every competition,” Shenot said. 

Since then, this Kevin-success journey has had several bumps in the road. The global COVID-19 pandemic still harms health, restricts training schedules and limits meets. Despite strong prevention procedures, many team-members fell ill this season.

“The team got very ill with the mask transition,” junior Nora Segurola said. “This year taught me that sometimes it’s best to take a step back, in order to take three steps forward.” 

Where did the Kevin-record-breaking season come from amidst this? 

While it may seem logical to pin this success to a stuffed plush, team members cite their success to a few other factors. 

“I think we did so well because we have each other’s backs and encourage each other in and out of the pool,” junior Mikaela Fullerton said. “During weights on that last chin-up my teammate just has to put two fingers on me, just let me know she is there, and suddenly the presence of her behind me lets me know that if I were to fail she’s there. Two fingers does not help me but having her there is all the motivation I need.”

Seconds after finishing her mile, Hefner, still in the water pink-faced and inhaling gulps of air, started cheering for her teammate, finishing her final lap a few lanes away from her. 

“After I got over the surprise of winning, I realized my teammate Kylie was still going,” Hefner said. “She’s pushed me through so many hard practices this year, and it was my turn to push her through the last 50 of her race.” 

This support allowed the team to push each other through a significant increase in training – averaging 16-18 hours of training and 33,000 – 44,000 yards each week during their season, the most in team history. 

Throughout this tough season, this bright yellow 2-foot minion has transitioned from a freshman joke to a beloved staple of the team. What made him stick around?

At their championship meet, the team dressed up Kevin each night for finals in different outfits and held him up, cheering as fellow teammates mounted the blocks, who often in return saluted Kevin or did a few dance moves back. 

This comradery brought out by Kevin is shown to be vital in sports, especially throughout the pandemic as stated by a recent study by the Journal of Adolescent Health titled “Social (Un)distancing: Teammate Interactions, Athletic Identity, and Mental Health of Student-Athletes During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

“Student-athletes who received more social support and reported more connectedness with teammates reported less dissolution of their athletic identity [during the pandemic] and—in most models—reported better mental health and well-being,” reported the authors. 

At the championship meet, the team placed third, the highest ever. Hefner became the team’s first ever gold medalist among 11 other top three finishes from the team. Three NCAA B-cuts were made, the most diving points were scored in program history and the number of swimmers who qualified for A-final almost tripled from the previous year.

“Kevin was a good focal point to put all the hype on,” Fullerton said. “This team has a lot of support for one another, and Kevin brings us all together to express that.”

Before winning her event by a whopping 23 seconds, with second and third place being one second apart, and going a season-best by 10 seconds, a nervous Hefner was reminded of the team’s support by coach Marty Moran.

“I was really nervous right before the race, and so I went to one of our coaches, Marty. He said- ‘Caitlin, you put in the work, everyone believes in you, and now you have to believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter how you do, just do your best,’” Hefner said.

As her team screamed for her while lifting Kevin in the air, Hefner was able to find her best – and continued cheering for her teammate doing her best next to her immediately afterward. 

This minion-lucky-charm is not the reason for an undefeated season, but an embodiment of the team’s positive, cheerful comradery and unfailing support for each other. 

As the team members go home and train separately during the off-season, Kevin sits in Shenot’s apartment, resting up for another spectacular season. Shenot hopes to pass him off when she graduates and keep the minion love going long after the current team’s time at UNCA.