2024 News-Gazette All-Area boys' swimming and diving Coach of the Year: Mahomet-Seymour's Erich O'Donnell

Apr. 11—2024 News-Gazette boys' swimming and diving Coach of the Year: Mahomet-Seymour's Erich O'Donnell

Why He's the Coach of the Year

The Bulldogs peaked at the right time as they set eight team records in an IHSA sectional meet at Unit 4 Pool, which led to Aron Varga, Matthew Kirby, Owen Kearns and Emmett Kearns qualifying for the state meet at FMC Natatorium in Westmont. The Bulldogs' roster of 10 swimmers still placed third in that sectional meet, trailing only the larger rosters of Champaign Central and Springfield. O'Donnell stopped by The News-Gazette's newsroom to chat about a successful season with Joey Wright.

How do you size up a great season for the Bulldogs?

This season, I wasn't sure how it was going to unfold, to be honest. I knew we had some good talent. We didn't have a huge group of guys, but the ones that I did get worked really hard. They put in the time and the effort and really focused on the things that they needed to and it kind of all coalesced at the end to be a really good season. So I can't complain.

How did you first get involved with swimming?

I started swimming at the age of six at the Urbana Country Club, and I did summer league swimming there until about the age of 12. Then I started to swim year-round with the Champaign Aqua Chiefs, which was the club team here at the time. Now it's Champaign Heat, but then it was Champaign Aqua Chiefs.

So I started swimming with them and had a lot of success pretty early on and just really enjoyed it. I took it through high school and I went on to swim in college at Eastern Michigan University for four years. I got an opportunity to swim growing up at all different levels, so starting off in summer league and in high school and then at the national level, I had a lot of success.

I was fortunate enough to be invited out to the Olympic Training Center for a time and train out there. I had a lot of fun and met a lot of people along the way. I'm friends with a lot of people all over the country and world from swimming.

The local swimming scene looked a bit different when you graduated from Urbana in 1994.

That pool (the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center) didn't exist. It was just a field, and we trained at Huff Hall, where Illinois volleyball plays. There used to be a pool there and that was Illinois' original pool that they built way back in the 1920s or 1930s. It was a dungeon, but we made it work.

How did you get involved with coaching, and what brought you back home?

Coming back home was mainly because my mom was still here and she got ill, so I came home to basically be with her after I was done with my college swimming career. I hadn't graduated yet, but I decided to come back and just start working just to be around my mom. One of the people that I met right away and I already knew was Will Barker, so Will and I got in touch. We'd always known each other and he had been coaching already.

So when I got back into town, I started coaching with Champaign Storm, which was his club team that he started back in the early 1990s. So in about 1998, I started coaching with him and then I quickly picked up coaching. I did a season with Matt Hopkins at Urbana, and we coached the Urbana boys' team for a season.

Then a position at Centennial became available, so I coached at Centennial from 1999-2001, all three of those years, both boys' and girls' with Don Waybright. We had a tremendous amount of success there. Those were probably some of the deepest and best teams in the area at the time. We were able to place at state and it was a lot of fun.

Who are some of your role models in coaching?

My biggest role model is my old college coach, Peter Linn. He was instrumental in kind of keeping my passion for the sport alive, even in college. I knew that was something that I wanted to do when I got out of school, to continue to keep my hands dipped in the sport in some way. I figured coaching would be the best option.

So when I did start to coach, especially when I started to coach high school and kind of had to run the whole program, I reached out to him for advice. He's honestly one of the smartest people I've ever met. It was a good fit to just kind of talk to him about it.

I would say another person that has always been influential in my coaching career was Will Barker. He's been coaching in this community since the early 1990s, and he and I have always had a very similar philosophy when it comes to coaching. Bouncing ideas off each other and talking to each other about different aspects of coaching has always been really good.

How do you manage coaching with other responsibilities, including family and work?

It can eat up a lot of time, because my job outside of swimming has a lot going on, but being able to work from home, which is what I do, I have a lot more flexibility in my schedule. I might start work really early in the morning so I can be done in time to be able to go coach, or pick up my kids, or do whatever I need to do.

That's something that I've been able to kind of bend around my coaching schedule. But it does make for very long days. The six months for the season, my family definitely sacrifices during that time.

My wife, especially, gets put through the wringer having to take my youngest to practice and my oldest, she swims with me during girls' season and then she's also swimming, and so having to truck them around and also take them to meets while I'm doing high school. There was a time during boys' season, she was in Milwaukee with the girls and I was at a different meet. It's a six-month marathon, I would say.

Mahomet-Seymour uses the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center for practice, which became a challenge this season when it was forced to close late in the season. How did you manage that adversity?

Our first challenge is that we don't have a pool. And there are other high schools in the area that fall under that same umbrella but ultimately, we've established a pretty good relationship with Lincolnshire Country Club in the summer, so for the girls' season we work through and swim at Lincolnshire Country Club and then we move over to Urbana.

Leslie (Radice), the aquatics director there, has been really good about establishing good relationships with us. Throughout the season we swim at night, which is hard. We wait for pretty much all the other programs that go on throughout the day. Urbana High School swims there, they have water aerobics and some things that go on, so we kind of come in at the tail end of all of that and swim until 9 p.m. The kids don't get home until 9:30 p.m. We're about three weeks out of sectionals this year and the Aquatic Center went down, so that became a fast-moving challenge.

Every day was different. I was on the phone for anywhere from one to two hours a day, sometimes calling different facilities, talking to different people, different coaches. Luckily, I have a good relationship with a lot of the other coaches in the area, so I was able to navigate and talk to different people. Will was able to grab some time for me at the YMCA, so I pulled kids out of school early to go to train at the YMCA. We also trained at Centennial. Sometimes, we were getting home as late as 10:30 at night a couple of nights just because we had to wait until all the other teams were done.

It was a big challenge in the sense that we didn't have the same pool space and pool time was all over the place. There was no consistency in training or scheduling. Every day was different for a while, and my hat is off to my families and the parents because they had to navigate all of that with me. But the kids were resilient and they made it through.