“Mullets” and Other Admirers
“You have no idea how much this man is going to mean to you,’’ dinner emcee Sean Fri ’88 (top right) told current Oberlin swimmers. Among the 160-plus alumni returning for the celebration were Lee Matovcik ’76 (top left), Rahula Strohl ’02 (top center), and Albert Fisher ’38 (bottom).
Henry choked up as he thanked Michaels for encouraging him to swim, even though he “never scored a point for the team. It didn’t make any difference to him.’’
On the other end of the spectrum, 11-time All American Dave Stevenson ’91 arrived at Oberlin burdened with tremendous expectations and in need of a coach who would help defuse the pressure.
He suspected he’d found the right man when he got his first recruiting letter from Michaels, a self-deprecating document Stevenson unearthed for the dinner and read aloud. “I may have mentioned we’re not very good this year,’’ the letter began.
“Coach maintained a great balance between pushing people and giving them the freedom to figure things out,’’ said Stevenson, an assistant professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School. “The reason I keep in touch with him and have such an affection for him is that he has such a joy for life. It’s infectious.’’
Former cross-country runner Lisa Matovcik ’76 delivered a moving tribute, saying Michaels “helped change the world” when he insisted that women be allowed to compete at a men’s meet in 1973.
Matovcik and her female teammates were racing alongside the men, even though their results were not counted. Despite the previous year’s passage of Title IX gender equity legislation, they had no other competitive outlet at the time.
When a rival coach threatened to yank his team from a meet if the Oberlin women ran, Michaels refused to give in. Matovcik, an attorney in Washington, DC, told a hushed room how that act of defiance shaped her perspective.
“How different the world would have looked watching from the sidelines rather than racing with my team,’’ she said. “Coach Michaels didn’t need to read any clinical studies proving that girls and women who participate in sports have higher levels of confidence, stronger self-images, and a better understanding of teamwork than those who do not. They hadn’t been written yet. He just knew the fundamental principles of fairness and had the courage to do the right thing when life gave him a defining moment. These are the qualities of a man who made a difference in so many young lives.”
After Oberlin successfully challenged the eligibility rule the following summer, Michaels coached a co-ed team until 1988. He also helped coach track, soccer, and baseball; taught academic and activity classes; served as chair of the Department of Physical Education for three years, and took over the women’s swim team in 1995.
The normally jocular Michaels struggled for composure when it was his turn to speak. His eyes welled up as he acknowledged his wife, Jan, who had just retired from her long-time job as a special needs teacher in the Elyria Public Schools, and their three sons, Matt, Tony, and Joe.
He quickly recovered his equilibrium and summed up his career with typical bluntness.
“This whole thing wasn’t about meit was always about us, about you getting a little better,” he said.
Bonnie DeSimone, is a longtime sportswriter and journalist.
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