Coach Dick Michaels has always thought of himself as a teacher first.
The first thing swimmer Bill Warner saw after touching the wall at the finish of the 500-yard freestyle race was a Cronus stopwatch held up to his face at point-blank range.
“Coach was at the edge of the pool, knowing full well I couldn’t read the scoreboard without my glasses,” said Warner ’78. It was his senior year at Oberlinan Ohio Athletic Conference meetand Warner had just carved eight seconds off his personal best. It might as well have been a world record to Coach Dick Michaels, whose eyes were ablaze with pride and excitement.
“Coach didn’t say a word,’’ said Warner, who lives outside Minneapolis and works in industrial construction sales. “He was just reveling supremely in that moment, probably musing on how far he’d taken this skinny walk-on.”
Warner’s experience embodied the way Michaels approached his job during a remarkable 36-year tenure at Oberlin: with empathy, irreverence, and, most of all, a lively interest in every student who competed for him.
His style inspired enduring loyalty. This spring, more than 100 of Michaels’ former swimmers, divers, and cross-country runners gathered on campus for a weekend-long retirement celebration for the professor and mentor they call “D.C.”short for “Da Coach.”
Michaels’ athletes over the years won six national championships, 41 conference titles, and 70 All-American plaques, but he was equally devoted to the progress of his “mullets’’his angler’s term of endearment for the slower fish in the pool.
“It didn’t make any difference what level kid I was working with,’’ said Michaels in a reflective moment during his final season. “Not that I wasn’t trying to get top-notch kidsI was. But I really enjoyed working with a guy like Bill Warner who came in as a big mullet and got way, way better. I always thought of myself as a teacher first.’’
The retirement festivities were years in the making and almost entirely alumni-driven. Young Kim ’85 took the initiative in 2001 by starting an online chat group to exchange ideas about how to honor Michaels. Assistant swimming and diving coach Mark Fino, who was appointed to succeed Michaels last spring, coordinated the campus events.
More than 120 alumni filled out a questionnaire that asked for reflections on their time with Michaels. Their responses and accompanying photographs were compiled in a commemorative book presented to the coach.
Alums also assembled an impressive memorabilia display for the tribute weekend, including yellowed Oberlin Review articles, well-preserved T-shirts, and mimeographed copies of Michaels’ weekly swim team newsletter, The Swamp Rat, whose contents ranged from the whimsical to the ribald.
Dozens of former varsity swimmers in various states of fitness joined current students in an alumni swim meet at Carr Pool.
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