Home Is Where The Heart Is

Written By: Jon "Big Show" Mengering

On a crisp December morning, I get the following email from my Board Chair: ‘Jon, as of June 30, Fike has said we can no longer practice or host meets at their facility. I’m really sorry to give you this news before the holiday season…’

That was the winter of 2018. Just like that, our home pool, our base of operations, the one we had been in for over four decades, and the last eleven consecutive years…was gone.

My name is Jon Mengering, the vast majority of people know me as Big Show, yes like the wrestler, of whom I am a huge fan. I am the Head Coach of Clemson Aquatic Team here in the beautiful town of Clemson, SC; a post I have held for going on thirteen years. I was 23 when I took over this team in rural South Carolina, we had 11 active members on the team at that time; there had been more than a dozen coaching changes in the three years before I took over. I am also a proud alumnus of the Clemson University Swimming and Diving program, former team captain, All-American and Assistant Coach on staff until 2012 after my eligibility was up.

Our situation, this scenario, is not unique to CAT. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there are some if not many that have been in, heard about, or been darn close to something very similar that what we here at CAT have experienced in the past two years. It is my sincere hope, that the paragraphs that follow will offer advice, information and dare I say inspiration to those that are or may one day be in this situation. Before we go any further, I need you all reading this to understand two things. You are way stronger than you think you are; and you are capable of incredible things in the face of adversity.

Anger is a heavy burden. Perhaps not at first, in fact I’d argue it is a fuel source for which to drive us forward…for a time. I was angry; very, very angry. You see we were paying customers, over the years at the helm I’d seen our relationship with the administration change. From valued partner, to preferred customer, to renter and finally to nuisance, perhaps not in word but definitely in treatment. Things change, administrations change, people in positions of power change; I can accept that, I get it. What I don’t understand is what we did to deserve such an unceremonious exit. If I may, the quality of young person that comes through CAT, like many of your programs no doubt is of the highest quality. No problems with behavior, no discipline issues, nothing like that. The terms were simple as of this date, your team is no longer welcome here. Anger my friends is a heavy burden, it fuels you, then it weighs you down, if you hold on to it enough….it will consume you. Recognizing this, I chose another way. A path I’ve been on for over two years now, and I sure am glad I’m on this path now.

So, what did we do? Assess. That’s what we did. Ok, here is our reality now. What can we do? There was no conversation that started with ‘Well we can’t…’ or ‘This won’t’ or anything of that nature. Through this process it has become inescapably clear, and a lesson my friends that I am still learning, you must control what you can control. Everything else will land as it is intended; often times without your personal feelings in mind. Alright Big Show, you may be thinking…what now?

I started making phone calls that day in December. To pools in neighboring counties, towns and cities. Who has water? Who is willing to rent you water? Is it economically feasible to rent water there? Will families drive to that facility? Compile data, don’t make any decisions or commit to anything, gather data. Use this data to drive your decisions.

We coaches are a creative sort, we are able to pivot and start and stop like Steph Curry in the NBA finals. We can do things that many other professions simply wouldn’t be able to do. Either they’re taught that way, not stressed that way or just don’t want to be uncomfortable. In order to be a coach, especially in the sport of swimming, you must be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Losing your pool time, I’m not really sure it gets much more uncomfortable than that.

Find Water. At all costs. This is your number one concern. There is no swim team without water, it doesn’t have to be in a pool mind you, preferably yes, it would be; but NO this is not a necessity. Swimmers will swim almost anywhere they can…give them water, this is what they crave. Fortunately, at CAT we found water at the local Rec Center, smaller pool shallower water…but it had walls, lane lines and backstroke flags. Oh, by the way, we had been here before. In 2009 as I mentioned earlier, while I was on staff at the University and starting my second full season at CAT, Fike, the natatorium on Clemson’s campus had a catastrophic mechanical and structural failure. The pool had been drained for resurfacing/touch ups and new filters. It also happened to be one of the coldest weeks on record in South Carolina…cold weather does many strange things to many things…for the soil it constricts, and everything in that soil must follow suit. So when they refilled the pool, the shell cracked, the entire pool emptied into the pump room and subsequent mechanical rooms. That was a training trip I’ll never forget.

So for almost an entire year, we bussed the college athletes to Greenville, Central and Athens, GA for training, my club team was split between the Anderson YMCA and the aforementioned Rec Center in Central (where we are currently practicing). As I said earlier, we coaches are a creative sort, we are able to pivot and start and stop like Steph Curry in the NBA finals. Yes, that repetition is on purpose, it’s to make sure you believe it for yourselves. Find water, work out the details as you go. But find water.

It needs to be understood, that this journey is not a solitary one. As much as we would like to think we can slow time, change the weather and create the perfect taper; we all of us, every one of us need help. I was very fortunate to have people around me from the drop, when I got that email. The support allowed us to find solutions while addressing problems. It was with this support, and only with this support was I able to find a solution to this challenge thrust upon us. Because, even though you are planning for the next season, and whatever that may look like, you still must run the team IN THIS SEASON. There isn’t enough time in the day, nor energy in the human body to do this alone.

Your assistant coaches, if you’re lucky enough to have them which I am eternally grateful for, are an obvious choice, but guess what, they’re already helping you run the team. They can definitely help you with some of this planning and prep but won’t be able to (most likely) do it on their backs alone. I promise you, on your team, there is a parent, group of parents or friend of a friend of a friend of one of those parents that knows someone, that knows someone that knows someone in the rec department or the city council or the county council or some form of policy/decision maker in your area. Through my time on deck I am often reminded of the community that is swimming. Never is this truer in times of crisis or great need. ASK. FOR. HELP. It is ok to do this, it is ok to admit you can’t captain this ship alone…and it might just save your team.

Lastly, in the planning/pivot process/search for a new place to train and conduct daily ops, COMMUNICATE. The written and spoken word I firmly believe is humankind’s greatest, most powerful tool (for good or for bad, that is entirely incumbent on the author). Be honest and open with the communications, celebrate the small victories, be open and forthcoming about the setbacks. You have built a community, whether you realize It or not; you have. There is a group of people that trust you, look to you and TRUST you to do what is best for their child. Their child, the most precious and important thing in their lives, they trust you with this responsibility. Difficult conversations in the present help to prevent impossible conversations in the future. Give updates, often as possible. Silence is off putting and to be frank can be a death sentence to a club before you even have the chance to solve the problem, the majority has gone. Show them you care, tell them you’re working, ask for their help (as often as you need to) and provide uplifting and strong words of encouragement in the meantime. Your words carry more weight and mean so much to so many more than you can possibly imagine.

CAT continues on to this day. We were established in 1978, we have been here in the Clemson area every one of those years, in one pool or another, some closer than others, but always here. Our rosters has grown since I’ve been at the helm, we hit a high water mark two years ago, have lost some since then, but we continue to improve, grow and compete at the highest levels we can. This season has presented challenges that no one could have predicted. The global pandemic we find ourselves in has laid bare the intricacies and nuances of the society in which we live. An unseen virus ground the human life to a halt across the globe. Youth sports, which were vulnerable under the best of circumstances now come under fire even more. It is now, more than ever we must reach out to others, in our profession, regardless of discipline and collaborate, ask for ideas and new inventive ways to continue our teachings; for it is young people we must place our hope and faith. Children are our greatest hope, that hasn’t changed; coaches play a crucial role in that the world over. We must now, reach our hands into the unknown and hope we are met with a friendly hand on the other side, for the only way is through…and the only way through is together.

I am reminded of something the Dalai Lama once said, “It is worth remembering that the time of greatest gain in terms of wisdom and inner strength is often that of greatest difficulty.” Put another way…the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fires. As coaches, and more broadly as humans, we are able and capable of enduring such times, such challenges as have never been seen before, we have proved it time and again through the millennia. If ever you find yourself overwhelmed, pulled under, cast away or just flat out frustrated…there are folks that will listen, will talk, will help in whatever capacity they can. If you’re reading this, know you’re not alone.

The title of this post, Home Is Where The Heart Is, was very intentional. Just as a home is not the house itself but the people and the memories that inhabit within its walls; a team is not the pool (or body of water!!!!) in which it swims; but the unified group that rallies to a banner and a coaching staff no matter what. The pool doesn’t make line ups, create cheers, graduate seniors, build young people into community members…no the TEAMS do that, the people on that TEAM do that. A pool can’t teach someone to swim, it can’t make an Olympic Trials cut nor can it fall just short of a first state championship time…the good, the bad and EVERYTHING in between is the makings of the team that swims…and that team; if you’re willing to work for it and I mean really work for it, that team can swim anywhere. So your home, in all reality, can be anywhere as well; for no team lives without a heart…thus you must bring it with you wherever you go. Home my friends, is where the heart is…and you’ll find your team there too.

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