Coaching Abroad and Recruiting International Student-Athletes

Written By: Michael Walker

As a kid growing up in North Central West Virginia I didn't meet many international students or swimmers. In high school, there were only a handful of exchange students and nearly all of my meets were in WV, OH, or PA. It wasn't until my freshman year at West Virginia University that I truly met international student athletes. The team was incredibly diverse, having teammates from seven different countries, as well as a head coach from Spain, Sergio Lopez Miro. My freshman year was also the first time I traveled abroad, when we took our training trip to Spain. These teammates and travel opened my eyes to new cultures and new perspectives on our sport of swimming. I found that swimming brought us together but it was the relationships we built that truly defined my college experience. From WVU I started my coaching career at The Bolles School in Jacksonville FL. Once again I met athletes, parents, and coaches from every corner of the world. Each with a unique background and story, but all sharing a love for swimming. As a coach, I found it incredibly rewarding to learn about what motivated them and their "why".

In 2015 I had an opportunity to move to Guatemala and work for their Olympic Committee and National Federation. While in Guatemala I was able to see firsthand how a country organized swimming from top to bottom. I coached a 2 time Olympian, Gisela Morales, as well as a group of age group swimmers. These were two very different experiences. With Gisela, we traveled to the US about once a month for competitions and then to Pan American Games and World Championships. With my age group swimmers, we had most of our competitions around Guatemala. In just under 2 years in Guatemala I learned an immense amount about coaching and international swimming. I learned how to be adaptable with my coaching plans. Training times, competition locations, and qualification standards could all change at a moment’s notice. These unique circumstances gave me an opportunity to grow as a coach. I learned new ways to plan my season, new ways to connect with my team, and new ways to peak at the end of the season. Time and time again, I learned lessons in patience. Life in Guatemala moves to a different beat and I grew to love it. Living in Guatemala changed me as a coach and as a person. I experienced new ways of thinking and new ways of coaching, which challenged my own way of doing things and pushed me to become better. Guatemala’s culture, its people, and its swimming are all bedrocks in my foundation as a coach.

As I moved on from Guatemala, I find myself at the University of Delaware and I am here all due to the relationship I built with one of my international teammates back in college. Coach Pablo Marmolejo and I discussed coaching together even while he was still swimming for Mexico. We, along with Coach Alexis and Coach Ryan, are now in our third season of building a very special program. As we grow this program, we understand the importance of building a unique and diverse team, with student-athletes from across the world. I believe it is our job as college coaches to give our student-athletes the best experience possible and it would be a disservice to have a team without international athletes. I can honestly say my college experience would not have been the same without all of my international teammates. It is not just about swimming fast or scoring points. It is about learning about another culture, another approach or thought process to swimming and life. It is about building relationships with people you otherwise might never have met. These relationships last a lifetime.

Swimming is truly a global sport and nowhere is that more apparent than at the collegiate level. At Delaware, we are committed to having team filled with student-athletes from across the US and the world. When we started, this team had zero international student-athletes and currently at UD we have student-athletes from six countries and 13 states. We believe this is the way to have the best possible team. Many different backgrounds, with many different paths to UD, all while sharing a common desire to achieve excellence. Excellence in the classroom, excellence in the pool representing UD, and excellence representing their country.

Swimming has shown me the world. I’ve met so many different people, experienced so many different cultures, and found extraordinary ways to swim fast. But for all of the differences and unique backgrounds I've learned from in my coaching, I have found significantly more similarities. For instance, I have an incredible ability to pick out a swimmer in a crowded airport. I hope I get to use this ability again soon. I have found that it doesn't matter if you are coaching swimmers from CA, WV, Europe, Asia, Central America, or the Middle East, you will still have swimmers who get in late, pull on the lane line, fix their goggles 20 times and, of course, the ones who do everything right.

Michael Walker enters his third season as part of the Blue Hens' coaching staff in 2020-21, working closely with the swimmers on both the men's and women's squads. Walker attended West Virginia University where he was a team captain and member of the 2007 Big East Championship team. He was the Big East Champion in the 200 backstroke in 2008 and 400 IM in 2008 and 2009. He was also an NCAA All-American in 2009 and a 2008 Olympic Trial Qualifier in the 200 breaststroke, 200 IM and 400 IM. After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in Sports and Exercise Psychology, Walker joined his former WVU head coach Sergio Lopez Miro at the prestigious Bolles School located in Jacksonville, Florida. Michael remained as an assistant coach under Lopez for five years before becoming the head coach of the Guatemalan National Swim Team at the Guatemala Aquatic Federation. Walker spent two years in Guatemala, where he was personally in charge of Olympian Gisela Morales' training program. He served as the head coach for the Guatemalan team during the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2015 FINA World Championships. While Walker was thankful for his international opportunities and experiences, which have no doubt helped him to grow and develop as a swimming coach, he decided to return home to the Mountain State in 2016 to serve as the head coach of the Fairmont Area Swim Team. Walker spent two years as the head coach of FAST, while also serving as an assistant at Fairmont State University. While at FAST, Walker oversaw the entire operations of the club, developing season plans, work outs, meets and much more. Walker currently resides in Newark with his wife Brooke and their dog Bueller.

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