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Embracing Motherhood In The College Ranks

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

Written By: Colleen Murphy

I have coached with combined programs and have loved that dynamic, but my swimmers and alumni here at the Air Force Academy are doing amazing things in the military that most women have never dreamed of accomplishing. The women I have had the opportunity to work with inspire me daily. Most importantly, my coaching journey has been about connection with others and helping each swimmer develop into amazing adults.

I had great coaching mentors throughout high school and was lucky enough to swim at Oakland University. I now have amazing connections with Tracy Huth, Pete Hovland, and Jeff Cooper who have all accomplished so much in the swimming world. I was always a student of the sport and knew I wanted to coach someday. My high school and college coaches did a great job of explaining the whys and hows of swimming and I soaked it all in; but Oakland also seemed to breed swim coaches and I was lucky enough to be around a bunch of Alumni and future coaches on my own team. Upon graduation, I started coaching club swimming while I obtained my master's degree and yearned to get into the college coaching world.

Coaching and attending grad school taught me to research, collaborate, and to reach out for many different perspectives. There is never just one way to reach a goal, I learned to be creative and ask questions constantly. I was lucky enough to have a couple of options after grad school to move into an assistant role, I had an immediate connection with Seth Huston at Truman State and was fortunate to coach with him as he built a D2 Powerhouse. With approximately 56 swimmers between men and women in a 6 lane 25 yard pool, creativity was paramount in our success and we worked extremely hard with multiple afternoon practices and limited time in the water. But we made it all work and we had an amazing team of very smart, determined, and dedicated swimmers who improved rapidly and enjoyed the process. Seth was a great mentor and remains a close friend and confidant today. I will still call him and ask questions, he is always eager to talk swimming. Seth was always learning too and encouraged me to reach out to other swim coaches. As a 10 month employee at Truman, I was able to work at swim camps to learn from our most accomplished coaches in the country. I spent a summer at Texas Swim Camp learning from the best. Instead of an afternoon off, I would just sit and take in an afternoon workout with the Texas men or women. I was so fortunate that the Texas coaches were more than happy to share their knowledge and showed me that swimming is a collaborative sport. To this day, my friends and mentors in the swimming world are all so open with sharing ideas and best practices and while we are all competitive people, we understand sharing our knowledge and ideas helps to make our swimmers and our sport better.

While I have had a bunch of amazing male mentors who are near and dear to my heart. I had to actively search out my female mentors; I didn’t see very many females on the pool deck and it was important for me to find other women who had families and success at the highest levels. I highly encourage all young female coaches to reach out to other women who have been coaching for some time to learn about their journey and how they managed their time. The first woman that truly showed me that you could have a family and coach at a high level was Anne Goodman James. She had built a powerhouse at Northern Michigan while I was a swimmer and I vividly remember her pregnant on the pool deck with her daughter Sarah (now a coach too) at our conference championships and with baby in arms at NCAAs. Twenty-six years later, Anne and I both live in Colorado Springs and have lunch and phone calls regularly to talk about life and swimming. While living in Phoenix, Jennifer Gibson helped me immensely with being a young mom and coaching. Her daily words of encouragement and allowing me to have my toddler son on deck while coaching made all the difference for a young mom trying to “do it all.” Finally, Kristin Hill was always a couple steps ahead of me in her mom and coaching journey; she constantly showed me balance, excellence, and determination while raising her family and building a brand-new program at Boise State. I have had other female mentors along the way, but these three women truly showed me the journey is worth it and how to have balance and stability as a mom in sport. But they also showed me how important it is to have mentors, connection, and to constantly learn. No one ever knows it all; constantly read, ask questions, and collaborate.

Kristin Hill is truly the reason I am at the Air Force Academy today. When the assistant position opened at Air Force, Kristin introduced me to the great Casey Converse. Kristin instinctively knew that Casey and I would make a great coaching team and that he was the mentor I needed at that point of my life. Casey spent 29 years at Air Force and had won multiple national championships, but most importantly, he had been a mentor to a multitude of Air Force officers both as a coach and as a PE instructor, he was a revered coach at the Air Force Academy. When Casey and I started our collaboration in 2012, I was a mom of a 5-year-old and an infant; Casey helped me balance my time between being a mom and a coach. Casey taught me the all about the Air Force Academy and his alumni adopted me as one of their own. The Academy is all about family and the greater Air Force cares so much about its people. When Casey retired, he had over 250 alumni come back for his retirement ceremony. He had mentored so many people and was the coach I aspired to be. It was never just about swimming, of course he wanted everyone to swim fast, but most importantly Casey cared about every individual and who they would become. To this day, his mentorship and legacy in this program is paramount to how I coach at the Air Force Academy. Connection with alumni and how much they care about helping our swimmers is so important to our team; we celebrate our alumni’s accomplishments in the Air Force as much as we celebrate the success of our swimming team. Casey constantly stoked my creativity and challenged me to think outside the box when swimmers were tired from all the “other” stuff involved with attending a military institution. He was so collaborative and I cherish the days we just talked swimming in his office before each practice. Luckily, Casey and I still have the opportunity to chat and he is always open to listening to my ideas and questions. He is still my mentor and confidant; he celebrates our successes and we talk and discuss both life and swimming regularly.

When Casey retired, there was no other place I wanted to coach then at the Air Force Academy. I was excited to continue my journey as the head coach at Air Force. The courage to apply for the job came from the alumni and swimmers I had been involved with already and the drive to continue a legacy that Casey had established. I think it is very important for our Air Force women to see other women in leadership roles; they are all going to be officers and they need strong female mentors. My team is inspired by our amazing alumni who give back to our team daily. I think connection to a legacy is something that brings generations together in the swimming world. While women haven’t had as many opportunities in the coaching world or the Air Force, those who have pioneered the way before us have been able to reach out and be leaders as we “break glass ceilings.” At this point, we have women who can do any and all jobs in the Air Force and women who are leading Power 5 coed swimming teams. I hope to inspire other women that they can do it all; they can have a family and coach, they can go after those big jobs, they can mentor both men and women to be leaders in their lives and careers.

I have been surrounded by people who have always been willing to share and collaborate; but I have also been willing to take risks and seek out the expertise of others. Any young coach making a start in the coaching world needs to reach out and realize that asking questions is truly an opportunity to learn. Never assume you have “made it” or know it all; always strive to learn from each and every person you meet. Find mentors, seek out those who will share, never stop learning. But most importantly always remember that your role is to help swimmers become great people, celebrate your alumni and their accomplishments after swimming. At the Air Force Academy, swimming is just one aspect of their very busy day, but I want it to be the best part of their day. My goal and mission is to use swimming as a formative experience to graduate amazing officers and people.

Colleen Murphy enters her fourth season as the head coach of the Air Force women’s swimming team in 2020-21. Murphy just completed her eighth season at the Academy. After serving as an assistant coach her first four years, Murphy was the team’s associate head coach in 2016-17. Murphy replaced Keith “Casey” Converse, who retired after 29 years at the Academy. In 2019-20, Murphy led the Falcons to 13 dual wins, the program's most since 2016, as well as a .722 winning percentage, the best winning percentage since 2014. The Falcons also went a perfect 9-0 against schools in the Western Athletic Conference, including a 146-96 win over WAC Champion Northern Arizona. In total, AF set 19 new top-10 all-time Academy bests, while Senior Heidi Schellin captured the Mountain West Conference Senior Recognition Award. She was the fourth Falcon to win the award in the last six years. Year two at the helm for Murphy saw the Falcons have two All-Conference finishers in Kylie Stronko and Emma Strom at the 2019 MW Championships. Stronko also re-broke both of her backstroke records at the championships. At the conclusion of the season, AF was named a CSCAA NCAA Division I Scholar All-American Team. In her first season as head of the program, Murphy continued to take the team to new heights. Four individual school records were broken, while the team set a new school record for team points at the Mountain West Championships with 572. Six Falcons earned All-MW honors, while five qualified with NCAA 'B' times for the CSCAA National Invitational. Murphy's team also got it done in the classroom, as the team was honored as a Scholar All-American Team, and two of her swimmers, Jinan Andrews and Kylie Stronko, were honorable mention Scholar All-American's. In addition, Andrews was also named the Mountain West Scholar Athlete of the Year. Since Murphy’s arrival in 2012, the Falcons have broken every school record, had their highest ever finish in the Mountain West and their first ever Division I All-American. Murphy is the first female swimming coach to ever win a national championship (Truman State) as a coach and is just a handful of swimming coaches in the country, male or female, to win a national championship as a swimmer (Oakland, Mich.) and as a coach (Truman State). “It is an absolute privilege to serve as the women’s swimming coach at the Air Force Academy,” Murphy said. “It has been an honor to coach with Casey Converse the last five years. We have had an amazing partnership and our team has seen so much success and growth. I am looking forward to the future of Air Force swimming and our continued rise in the Mountain West Conference and the NCAA. I would like to thank Mr. Knowlton and Mr. Nelson for their belief in my vision for the future of our program and for the opportunity to lead this amazing team.” While at the Academy, Murphy recruited and coached the most decorated female Division I swimmer in school history. Genevieve Miller not only became the first female swimmer at Air Force to earn All-America honors, she graduated as a four-time All-American, earning the honor in the 500 and 1650 in 2016 and 2017. Miller became the first Mountain West swimmer to win two events all four years. In 2017, Miller was named the Mountain West Swimmer of the Year, earned the MW Senior Recognition Award and was named the Swimmer of the Meet at the conference championships. In 2015-16, Murphy helped lead the Falcons to a 7-6 dual meet record, including conference wins over Colorado State and New Mexico. The team also set nine school records at the Mountain West Championships. In 2014-15, the Falcons tied their highest ever finish at the Mountain West Conference championships, placing sixth with 281 points. That team set seven new school records and posted 26 top 10 swims. In 2013-14, the Falcons posted a 17-3 overall record and placed sixth at the MW Championships with 292 points. In her first season at the Academy, 2012-13, Air Force was 10-5 in dual meets, set 14 school records and posted 33 swims that cracked the top-10 list. A finalist for the College Swimming Rising Assistant Coach of the Year in 2015-16, Murphy earned the Judy Sweet Award at the NCAA Women’s Coaching Academy in the summer of 2016. The Judy Sweet Award recognizes two members of each team at the conference whose spirit and dedication to their own and to others’ personal and professional success has made an impact on their peers. In December, 2016, Murphy was selected to speak at the NCAA Women’s Coaching Academy as a championship coach. Prior to arriving at the Academy, Murphy spent five years as the head coach at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, Ariz., where she led the Gators to five 5A state titles. Murphy’s swimmers earned 23 NISCA All-American honors while at Xavier. While coaching at Xavier, she also coached with the Phoenix Swim Club. From 2002-05, Murphy was the head coach at Truman State where she led the women’s swimming team to three national titles. A three-time NCAA Division II Coach of the Year, Murphy was head coach of both the men’s and women’s swimming teams, was the senior woman’s administrator and an instructor in exercise science. Her men’s teams earned two top 16 finishes at the NCAA Championships, including a 10th place finish in 2005. In 2005, she coached Sarah Dance, who earned the Walter Byers award. Her swimmers earned 72 NCAA All-American honors (52 women and 20 men) during her three years as head coach. Her teams set five NCAA Division II records (one individual and four relays) and four swimmers earned NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships. Murphy was inducted into the Truman State Hall of Fame, as a coach, in 2011. Murphy has also served as assistant swimming coach at the University of Iowa from 2001-02 and at Truman State from 1999-2001. At Iowa, she helped lead the team to 10 new school records and coached a Division I All-American. As an assistant at Truman State, she helped lead the women to the 2001 NCAA Championship, coached a Honda Award winner, a Division II Female Athlete of the Year, a Division II Female Swimmer of the Year, 11 national champions, 33 All-Americans and 12 Academic All-Americans. She also has club coaching experience with the Phoenix Swim Club in 2010-11 and Wildcat Aquatics from 1997-99 and has worked numerous swim camps, including at the University of Texas, Penn State and Arizona State University. Murphy was a five-time All-American and three-time Academic All-American at Oakland University (Mich.). She was a scoring member of the 1994 NCAA Division II Championship team and was on three national runner-up teams (to Air Force in 1995 and 1996 and to Drury in 1997). Murphy graduated from Oakland University, cum laude, with a bachelor’s in history and a minor in exercise science. She earned her master’s degree in history from the University of Kentucky and certificate in college counseling from the University of California-San Diego. Murphy is married to Joe Fanthorp. They have two children, son Brady and daughter Makenna. Murphy’s father was a former sergeant and firefighter in the Air Force, serving in Vietnam.

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