Heads of the Class

Dec. 17, 2015

By Jon Cooper

History can be made in the most unexpected places and times.

Friday afternoon at the Norris Aquatic Center in Naples, Fla., swimming history will be made at the meet featuring Georgia Tech, the University of Cincinnati and host Florida Atlantic University.

The history will be made before any swimmer performs a stroke or any diver does a dive. In fact, the swimmers making the history all are former swimmers.

They’ll be the ones making the pregame speeches — Georgia Tech Head Coach Courtney Hart, Cincinnati Head Coach Mandy Commons-DiSalle and FAU Head Coach Lara Preacco.

It’s history in that this is the first NCAA swim meet in which all three participating teams have female head coaches. The moment is overdue to many, eyebrow-raising to some and a source of pride for the coaches involved.

“I think it shows that our sport is changing and evolving in a way that is great for everyone, not just females. It’s great for everyone,” said Hart, who is in her seventh season at Georgia Tech. “I’m excited to be a part of it. I think the other two head coaches are also great role models and leaders. I hope to see more female head coaches in our sport.”

“It’s pretty unreal honestly, in thinking about it,” said Commons-DiSalle, in her second year as head coach with the Bearcats. “It’s wonderful that we could all have the opportunity to come together and compete against one another, but more important, to have that kind of network and support. There’s not many of us, females that are in charge of combined programs, so between Lara, Courtney and I, we’re going to have some similar stories to share.”

“It’s great to see more women head coaches in the sport. It’s very exciting,” said Preacco, who was hired by her alma mater in May 2014. “I’m very excited to be part of that. I wish there were more women’s coaches, assistants or head coaches, in the world of swimming but I think we’re getting there. It’s going to be a fun meet to do.”

All three coaches certainly have the credentials.

Hart was a dynamic world-class swimmer, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, who helped the University of Georgia to back-to-back NCAA Championships (1999, 2000), while winning NCAA individual titles in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and 100 backstroke, relay titles in the 400 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay teams, was a nine-time individual SEC champion, a 10-time SEC relay champ, a five-time SEC record-setter and 2000 SEC Female Swimmer of the Year. She was inducted into the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame in 2013.

Preacco, who swam at FAU from 1994-98, was the Owls’ MVP in 1995-96, team captain in 1996-97 and was a 2010 inductee into the FAU Athletics Hall of Fame. She competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta for her native Switzerland — she and Hart never competed against each other — and was a 37-time gold medalist in Swiss competitions while setting five national records. She also competed in multiple World and European championships and European and World Cups.

Commons-DiSalle was a two-time Honorable Mention All-American at Clemson (2001, ‘02) and qualified for four NCAA Championships and has been an assistant coach with the U.S. National Team.

Each also earned her stripes in the coaching ranks, as Hart served as an assistant for one year at North Florida then two years at Tech before being named the program’s eighth coach on April 30, 2009, Preacco was an assistant at FAU from 1998-2001 and Commons-DiSalle was an assistant at Toledo then at Cincinnati for four.

That they were finally hired to be head honcho was as much a tribute to their experience and pedigree as the willingness of their schools’ athletic directors to think outside the box.

“A lot of it depends on athletic directors,” said Hart. “I think you have to be an athletic director who is willing to give [women] a chance. [Former Athletic Director] Dan Radakovich and [Associate AD/Senior Woman Administrator] Theresa Wenzel did that for me here at Georgia Tech. When I interviewed my question was, ‘Why NOT me?’ So I think there are certainly females out there that want to do it, so it’s just the athletic director giving them that chance.”

Commons-DiSalle admitted that even after having been given the chance and being successful in her role — she helped Jacqueline Keire (pronounced Keer), an Honorable Mention All-American in the 200 Free and saw the team win five individual titles at the American Athletic Conference Swimming and Diving Championships while setting seven school records — the perception of her responsibility has led to the typical misconceptions.

“When I tell people that ask who I am or what I do, they just automatically assume that I coach females only. I usually get some pretty surprised faces when I tell them 59 student-athletes, male and female,” she said, with a laugh. “I think in serving on some of the competitions for the U.S. National Team, I know the swimmers at that level really appreciate the female presence. I see my role not just in coaching and performing, but as a role model for others and certainly younger girls that might be interested in considering a profession in coaching that you can make it.”

While Friday’s meet is an opportunity to show people they have arrived and is an important step, Preacco wishes it was unnecessary.

“It shouldn’t be about men and women as head coach. It should be about doing a great job and bringing the team to the best of its ability,” she said. “If it’s a man that does that, it’s great. If it’s a woman that does that, it’s great. Of course I wish that everybody had the opportunity. The opportunity should be the same for men and women. Women shouldn’t be afraid to get into the business more, do their thing and do a great job.”

She takes pride in being part of the historic day, but also prefers to deflect the spotlight back to the swimmers.

“Ultimately, yes, there are three women head coaches there for the meet, but it’s all about the swimmers, about the swimmers going fast,” she said. “Ultimately, I think we do what we do for the swimmers and the divers. It’s always about the swimmers and the divers. It is about them. It is about their four years, their performance. It’s about helping them become the best they can be.”

The meet will be a test for all three teams as all three are in different situations. Coach Hart and her staff have put the Yellow Jackets, who have been off since mid-November, through three-a-days all week. FAU, the host, but, ironically, the least familiar with the pool, is similarly turning up the heat in training while the team is coming off Finals and is simply gauging itself heading into conference action, and Cincinnati, which participated in the Hoosierland Invitational (Dec. 3-5), is working hard but treating the meet as something of a reward, while also enjoying the warm weather.

This will be the first time Hart, Common-DiSalle and Preacco have competed at the same meet, but they do run in the same circles on the recruiting trails and meets like the recent GT Invite, where Preacco’s FAU team participated. Tech and Cincinnati also spent the week in Naples and shared the facility where the meet will take place.

Getting the opportunity to sit down together in a more informal setting and simply talk and share stories is one way they can help each other.

“It’s great any time that you meet with any coaches, especially when it feels like a similar road that you’re paving,” said Preacco. “See what they’ve been through and how they’ve dealt with things. So we’ll exchange stories and figure out the best way to get things done.”

Hart already has helped Commons-DiSalle.

“When Mandy was going through her process of interviewing for the head coaching job she called me and said, ‘Hey, can you give me any tips, any advice, any thoughts,’” Hart recalled. “So Mandy and I have been talking even before she got the job about what it was like to be a female head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs. We, obviously, continue to talk every time we see each other and certainly will help each other out any way we can.”

The meet also could serve as inspiration for the current generation of swimmers and the next generation of female swimming coaches.

“I really, truly believe that younger swimmers seeing females in these types of roles that traditionally have been held by men, has really opened a lot of eyes,” said Commons-DiSalle.

“There are quite a few women that would like to be head coaches,” said Hart. “I’ve talked to several of them, I’ve been to several women’s leadership conferences over the past couple of years. I know that there certainly are women interested in it.”

Down the road some of those women will be named a head coach, making history.

It’s just a matter of where and when.

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