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by Elaine K Howley

April 9, 2021

Being a great coach means connecting with swimmers on their terms

Monique Westreich has nothing but praise to share about her new Masters swim coach, Mike Kristufek. She began swimming with the Mount Lebanon Aqua Club in Pittsburgh this past September and in just a few short months she’s determined: “He’s awesome. He’s amazing. He’s incredible.”

What makes Kristufek such a great coach in Westreich’s eyes is his ability to forge an individual connection with each swimmer, starting with a greeting upon first arriving at the pool. He also follows up with swimmers who’ve been away a while to make sure they’re OK.

But perhaps his best quality, Westreich says, is the way he gently suggests that his swimmers try new skills. “For instance,” she says, “on Wednesday, he said, ‘OK, this exercise is good if you have a snorkel.’ I have one, but I feel like I’m drowning with it. And it’s been a long time since I’ve used it. So he says, ‘Don’t you think it’s a good time to try it? Practice it.’ He said it in such a nice way, that you’re kind of like, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll do it.’”

Westreich’s teammate Judy Caves agrees that it’s Kristufek’s kind encouragement that really makes the difference for her. “What’s unique about Mike is the way that he talks to you. It’s always in a kind, yet direct way. He makes you feel that you have value, that you have purpose, and that you can improve. He seems to know when to approach you, and when to leave you be.”

And, she notes, that “he holds me accountable without judging. He makes me want to be at practice.”

Westreich, who began swimming competitively about seven years ago, was used to coaches who demanded a lot. Although she liked the coach she worked with then, she says the pressure could be intense. Health issues have forced her to take a step back from being so competitive, and landing with Kristufek’s group has been just the ticket for staying in the sport in a sustainable way.

What’s more, Kristufek has recently given Westreich a piece of advice that’s helpful not just in the pool but well beyond too: “Control your breathing or your breathing will control you.”

Leonard’s Lifelong Swimmers

Another Masters coach named Mike—Coach Mike Leonard of the Powel Crosley Jr. YMCA in Cincinnati, Ohio—has similarly forged a great connection with swimmers, says swimmer Caitlin Gagnon. Coach Leonard, who was profiled by Swimming World magazine in April 2020, is “a profound figure in the YMCA swimming community,” the magazine reported. And as a longtime coach at the youth and Masters level, Leonard has forged lifelong connections with many of his swimmers, Gagnon among them.

She first began working with Leonard when she was 13 years old, back in 2007. “It’s been a while,” she laughs. But the connection is real because “Mike is so good at seeing where swimmers can be and where their potential is. As a kid, I came in as an average swimmer. I’d come from a team where the fast swimmers got a lot of attention,” she recalls. Even though Leonard had several “superstars” in the pool he could focus on, Gagnon says he spent a lot of time working with her too.

“He can look at an average swimmer and say, ‘I think this swimmer is hardworking enough to qualify for the next level and keep going,’” she says. “He’s so good at building an expectation that this is a lifelong activity.”

In fact, she says that expectation that she would continue swimming in college led Gagnon to swim for Asbury University in Kentucky. “He really helps you find that next level.”

He continued doing that even after she’d left college. “When he started the Masters division of our team, there were lots of people who wanted to try Masters to get in better shape or improve their triathlon or do a Masters meet,” Gagnon says. “But there were a lot of us who, like me, were convinced that we were retired from swimming. I’d been swimming for 16 years, and when I graduated from college, I thought that was it and I was never going to swim again.”

But Leonard kept after Gagnon to check out the Masters group. “He had built such a community that when I graduated and was kind of lost, he called me up and said, ‘Come swim Masters with us. This is your family. We want you to keep being part of the group and part of the family.’”

So Gagnon took him up on his invitation and hasn’t looked back since. “I absolutely love it,” she says. “The way he’s been able to bring people back has been so cool. Almost my whole training group is people that have swum for Mike their whole lives and came back because it just felt so natural.”

Gagnon even works for the Y today, in part because Coach Leonard instilled in her the values of the Y and the importance of providing recreational opportunities for everyone.

The sense of belonging and connection that Coach Leonard has created at the Y extends beyond the pool, Gagnon adds. Prior to the pandemic, the Masters group would have monthly social outings to one of the “approximately 8 million breweries” in Cincinnati. The organized outings are a fun way to connect with teammates beyond the pressures of intervals and rushing off to work.


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