March 20, 2014
By Pete LaFleur
Perhaps it’s only fitting that Brian Barnes has an affinity for carpentry and home improvement.
As the architect of the University of Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving program, the sixth-year head coach is a stickler for details and is a huge proponent of adhering to the process that goes into becoming a successful swimmer or fashioning the perfect race. Like a carpenter building a house, this son of an electrician first set about laying a foundation for his varsity program and since then has gone on to tackle other ambitious coaching projects with the Irish, each of them achieved through a step-by-step process.
And through it all, Barnes has retained the vision of the completed goals firmly in the back of his mind. He holds and appreciates the blueprint that leads to that completed house. Yet it’s a challenging journey that will never be fully satisfied. He is always seeking to improve while reaching for seemingly unattainable heights. The bar of excellence, for Barnes and the Irish, is always moving upward.
A South Bend-area product who grew up in Osceola, Ind., and was a star swimmer at Penn High School, Barnes came to Notre Dame in the fall of 2008 after successful three-year assistant coaching stints at national powerhouse Auburn and, earlier, his alma mater Indiana. In the three years at Auburn, he enjoyed the priceless privilege of working alongside legendary coaches David Marsh and Richard Quick.
Barnes and his Notre Dame program have garnered national attention in recent weeks, after junior Emma Reaney set the American record with her scintillating 200-yard breaststroke (2:04.34) at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships. The Irish now have their sights set on the NCAA Championships (March 20-22 in Minneapolis), looking to improve on the program-best 16th-place team finish from a year ago.
Over the past few years, Barnes has needed to scale back his carpentry work. His favorite hobby has been put on the shelf, understandably set aside as he focuses more on his duties as a single dad to son Jack (7) and daughter Caroline (5).
Barnes has spent the past two years coping with life absent his wife Alyssa, who succumbed to an 18-month battle with cancer in April 2012. Those 18 months, and those that have followed, were filled with pain and sorrow, but they also provided stories of inspiration and hope. The University of Notre Dame commendably stepped forward to lend its support during that difficult time for the Barnes family.
It’s understandable if Barnes is filled with an assortment of conflicting emotions when late March rolls around. Excitement for the upcoming NCAA meet can be tempered by memories of the recent past, emotional wounds that remain raw.
Through the peaks and valleys, Barnes’ life journey is an interesting tale, one that began not far from the campus he now calls home.
Warming Up to Swimming
The fourth of five children born into the family of Richard and Nola Barnes, young Brian spent his childhood growing up in Osceola, 10 miles east of South Bend. His first love athletically was not swimming but baseball, and he loved playing catcher “because you could see the whole field in front of you, and you were involved in everything.”
Brian’s older sisters Cheryl and Karen had gravitated to swimming. Out of sheer convenience, Brian also signed up for the Penn Swim Club classes, starting at age eight. It didn’t begin like a fish taking to water.
“When I first started swimming, I hated it,” says Barnes, matter of factly. “I did not enjoy the water at all.”
Despite his early aversion to the sport, Barnes stuck with swimming–in large part due to continual encouragement from his parents. Brian and his sisters began swimming on a year-round basis at the Mishawaka (Ind.) YMCA. A couple years later, Richard and Nola Barnes made an important decision, one that ultimately would make a profound impact on the life arc of their middle son Brian.
The Barnes children began competing with the Michiana Marlins, which boasted a tremendous reputation within the northern Indiana youth swimming subculture. Brian was only 10, but his stance on the sport began to soften.
“Things began to change once I won a meet or two. Even at a young age, I loved to win,” says Barnes with a laugh. “To be a committed swimmer, you have to have parents who establish that commitment. I was lucky my parents saw I had the ability to develop into a pretty good swimmer.”
The Marlins practiced at various area pools, including Notre Dame’s Rolfs Aquatics Center. Years later, Barnes would be back in the water at Rolfs, again with the Marlins–but as the coach of the swim club’s 10-year-old program and then in the fall of 2008 as the new head coach of the Irish women’s swimming and diving program.
Raised in a family that Barnes describes as “very middle class,” the siblings used sports to stay on the straight and narrow–whether they knew it or not. Mark, the eldest, preceded the family’s migration towards swimming and instead competed in wrestling, baseball and football. Brian, on the other hand, quickly emerged as a dedicated and promising swimmer.
“If I ever was in any sort of trouble, my parents never removed swimming from the equation–that would have been counterproductive,” says Barnes. “Swimming was a healthy thing for me–the more tired I was, the better behaved I was.”
Barnes showed promise in all four strokes, later emerging as a promising talent in the individual medley and distance freestyle. With that early talent, came a more important self-realization.
“I was one of the lucky ones, because as a 12-year-old I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” says Barnes. “I had a passion and taste for swimming, not just as a recreational activity but as competitive excellence. I was able to find a confidence that I knew others my age didn’t have, and I knew that my success related to the hard work I was putting in. Our parents taught us that success is earned and not rewarded. I enjoyed the process far more than the results. Going to swimming practice never was a drag for me.”
By age 14, Barnes had become a national-level competitor in freestyle events. As a 15-year-old, his typical work rate would entail swimming the equivalent of 50 miles, covering 25-30 hours per week–“basically a pretty good part-time job,” says Barnes with a smile.
Midway through his career at Penn High School, Barnes claimed the Indiana Male Swimmer of the Year designation for 1989 (an honor he would repeat in 1995). He earned a spot on the USA Swimming National Team in that same breakthrough 1989 season and again in ’92, also twice qualifying for the United States Olympic Trials (in 1992 and ’96).
Those mid-1990s honors overlapped with Barnes’ collegiate career, a time of important maturation–both in the pool and out.
A Coaching Spark is Lit
The Indiana University men’s swimming tradition features a stretch of 25 straight Big Ten Conference titles (1961-85), highlighted by six straight national-title seasons from 1968-73. Although Barnes qualified as a toddler when the Hoosiers won that final NCAA title, the Indiana program still maintained a high level of national respect in the early 1990s, when it came time for him to announce his college choice.
For Barnes, the choice proved an easy one. Wearing that distinctive red-and-white striped team gear became his future. Barnes headed to Bloomington, most likely to continue his tremendous distance freestyle career. As things turned out, that ended up half right.
Barnes had been predominantly a freestyle specialist, but his college career would take another turn–even before he had jumped in the pool for the Hoosiers. On his recruiting visit to the Barnes home, Indiana head coach Kris Kirchner opened Brian’s eyes to the depth of his own swimming potential.
“Kris sat in our living room, looked me in the eye and told me that my best event was the 400 individual medley,” says Barnes. “I believed him, or at least I wanted to–but I did not understand what he was seeing in me. I was not even a member of the team yet.”
Shortly after arriving in Bloomington for the start of his freshman year, Barnes did turn his focus to the 400 IM. A few months later, he became the Big Ten champion in the event. That end result sparked an important reaction from Barnes, while also planting a seed that he had not anticipated.
“Winning the Big Ten title in the 400 IM was the coolest thing–in large part because it gave me an early itch for wanting to become a coach,” says Barnes. “I loved that Coach Kirchner had been able to see that potential in me, something that was beyond me to envision myself. He knew I could not only shift my focus to the 400 IM, but that I also could excel in it.
“As a coach, that’s what you hope to do: having the insight and vision to help guide your individual swimmers to great heights, well beyond their own initial comprehension.”
Kirchner’s keen insight on how to best utilize Barnes made a long-standing dent on the Hoosier record book. During that breakthrough freshman season in 1992, Barnes set the school record in the 400 IM (3:49.36)–a mark that stood for 15 years and still ranked third until the past few years.
Barnes characterizes his full college career as up and down, a time filled with tremendous personal growth. “At that time, I was not quite ready for the elite,” says Barnes. “I did a lot of maturing, started caring more about school, and basically grew up. It was yet another process in my life.”
Barnes closed his college career by competing in five events at the 1995 NCAA Championships, leading the Hoosiers to a 17th-place finish. The senior team captain earned All-America honors with his sixth-place finish in the 500 freestyle (4:20.38), also placing sixth in the 400 IM while competing in the 1,650 freestyle and two free relays.
Jumping Back in the Pool
With his kinesiology degree now in hand, Barnes returned to northern Indiana unsure what his immediate future might hold. Coaching seemed an option, and an opportunity presented itself with a familiar organization: the same USA Swimming-sanctioned Michiana Marlins youth club where Barnes had developed his own love for the sport.
Barnes signed on to assist with the Marlins, yet his role suddenly became magnified when there was a need to fill a head coaching position, working with novice swimmers aged 10 and under. Seemingly by default, Barnes suddenly found himself in a leadership role with youngsters from his own childhood backyard. The venue? None other than Notre Dame’s Rolfs Aquatics Center.
The year was 1995–and Barnes readily admits that, at that point, he never envisioned himself returning to Notre Dame as head coach of the Irish. But that first, somewhat makeshift, year in coaching proved an important first step for a 23-year-old who admittedly had “no business being a head coach.”
“I was back in the water, but with 10-year-olds,” Barnes says. “It was my first experience with coaching and it was a blast. I quickly learned that fun was the key ingredient to connecting with those kids, and in the process I was able to share my own love of swimming. It was on the grassroots level and was exactly the path I had followed. I understood the importance of it.”
Barnes parlayed his entry-level experience with the Marlins into an assistant coaching position at the University of Kansas from 1997-98. During that time in eastern Kansas, the young coach saw the opportunity to latch onto a promising local club, the Lawrence Aquahawks. Barnes was hired to coach the Aquahawks and settled in for a four-year stint, laying the foundation for his future coaching success.
Barnes started coaching a group of 85 swimmers, a membership that steadily grew each year. During the course of his tenure, the club constructed a state-of-the-art, 10-lane pool. In four short years, the entire Aquahawks organization underwent a transformative awakening.
“By the time I left Lawrence, in 2002, the staff included eight assistants and there were more than 200 families involved with the Aquahawks,” says Barnes. “The whole operation was exploding–it was a very exciting time.”
Indiana We’re All For You!
Barnes had no pre-determined plans to leave Lawrence, but a call from his alma mater proved hard to pass up. First-year Indiana head coach Ray Looze–a few years removed from his own legendary college swimming career at USC–wisely enticed one of the Hoosiers’ recent greats to return to Bloomington.
Spanning three seasons as an assistant with the Hoosier men’s team (2003-05), Barnes immersed himself into the daily grind. “I learned so much about hard work during those three years,” says Barnes. “We were driven to helping Indiana return to the program’s lofty standards.”
The once-proud Indiana swimming program had stumbled to a seventh-place Big Ten finish in 2002, its lowest since 1954. Looze came in to turn things around, and Barnes helped him do it–as the Hoosiers moved up to third at the 2003 conference meet and then finished as runner-up in both ’04 and ’05 (when Minnesota edged Indiana by three points). Barnes helped direct the Indiana men to a 17th-place finish at the 2004 NCAA Championships and then 16th place in 2005 for the program’s highest slot since 1991.
The most important aspect of Barnes’ life at that time came outside of the pool. Shortly after returning to Indiana in the fall of 2002, he took notice of a member of the Hoosiers’ athletic training staff. Alyssa Winter also was entering her first year as part of the Hoosier athletics department after graduating from her home-state school, the University of New Hampshire, in 1997 and receiving a master’s in kinesiology from the University of Wyoming in 2002.
Brian and Alyssa commenced their courtship in 2003, and the couple wed on July 31, 2004. It’s safe to assume that Alyssa’s warm grace, contagious smile and enthusiastic attitude–personality traits highlighted in her obituary eight years later–worked their magic on her future husband. Shortly after the couple had completed a third year together at Indiana in 2005, Alyssa followed Brian to Auburn, fully supportive of his career as a rising star in the collegiate swimming coaching world.
Joining a Dynasty
Barnes’ own swimming career at Indiana had been bookended by seasons in which the Hoosiers placed 17th at the NCAA Championships (1992 and ’95). Then, in 2004, with Barnes serving as an Indiana assistant, the program similarly finished 17th at the NCAA meet, followed by virtually the same placement (16th) in 2005.
Each of those seasons qualified as a commendable finish, earning status as a national top-20 team. Good, but certainly not great. For Barnes, his exposure to collegiate swimming greatness awaited some 600 miles to the south–in Auburn, Ala., a college town as crazy about its football as Bloomington is for its basketball
Head coach David Marsh and the dynasty-destined Auburn program already had lured away one member of the Indiana coaching staff–as Dorsey Tiernan-Walker left her post directing the Hoosier women to fill a similar associate head coaching role at Auburn. Later that summer, and not coincidentally, Barnes also could not resist Marsh’s overtures.
“We needed to hire a strong men’s assistant and Dorsey spoke very highly of Brian Barnes,” says Marsh. “I was looking for a talented individual who could help coach the swimmers but also be a leader who essentially was in charge of my staff.
“I entrusted Brian with taking care of all the details that go into putting together a harmonious staff, which at Auburn encompassed numerous people who contribute in different capacities. One of Brian’s strengths always has been bringing people together to work effectively with one another.”
Beyond Barnes’ experience at Indiana, Marsh actually placed great importance on those four crucial years when Barnes headed up the Lawrence Aquahawks.
“Brian went through the club route and was able to learn quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of coaching,” says Marsh. “Many people rush into coaching on the college level without first developing their own philosophy as to what they can do to help their swimmers be the best.
“When you are head coach of a small club, more accountability falls onto your shoulders. If you enter into coaching as a college assistant, you really are a small part of a bigger process and to some degree have a more limited scope. The college season only covers 24 weeks, while the rest of the swimming calendar goes all year.”
With the Auburn men’s and women’s swimming teams already having combined for eight NCAA team championships, Barnes arrived in the summer of 2005 hoping to contribute to more national titles. Marsh viewed the challenge that awaited Barnes as being a harder stage, trying to repeat success rather than attain it the first time: “In hiring Brian, I was looking for someone who had a clear sense of purpose, one who could exude confidence in a group of athletes that would immediately understand and trust his knowledge.”
More Titles for the Tigers
Prior to Barnes’ arrival, the Tigers already had won five NCAA men’s team titles (1997, ’99, 2003, ’04 and ’05) to go along with three consecutive women’s championships (2002-04). The 2003 championship sweep made Auburn the first school ever to win NCAA men’s and women’s titles in the same year–a status that the Tigers impressively would replicate in 2004, ’06 and ’07.
The 2006 Auburn men outdistanced runner-up Arizona by a comfortable 40-point margin atop the NCAA standings, while the thrilling women’s competition came down to the final relay. Auburn nipped Georgia by three points to win a third straight title in dramatic fashion.
Barnes is quick to deflect any sort of credit for the Auburn dynasty that Marsh created. “When I walked in, there were 13 Olympians already there. That team was loaded,” says Barnes. “There was a certain attitude and belief within the program, a vibe that the student-athletes thrived on.”
Regardless of how much credit he deserves, there’s no denying the impact the three years at Auburn had on Barnes. By simple osmosis, he saw firsthand what championship collegiate swimming was all about.
Take, for example, the seniors on the 2006 Auburn’s men’s team–a group that never lost a dual meet or postseason event over the course of four years. That stellar class included freestyler George Bovell, whose 25 All-America honors included five NCAA event titles, to go with four Olympic Games (2000-12) appearances for Trinidad and Tobago.
“George was one of those elite swimmers that it was such a privilege to be around,” says Barnes, in reference to the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 IM. “George’s skillset was simply amazing, and what a great champion he was.”
For as narrow as the Auburn women’s winning margin had been in 2006, the men’s point differential in 2007 was massive en route to winning that program’s fifth straight title. The Tigers outdistanced runner-up Stanford by 169 points and set five NCAA records. The Auburn men became the third swimming program ever to win five straight NCAA titles and again were joined by a victorious women’s team (which won by 58 points over Arizona).
Over the course of those 2006 and 2007 title seasons, Barnes became associated with a wide variety of elite champions, in addition to Bovell. Cesar Cielo became the first swimmer in NCAA Championships history to win the 50 and 100 free in the same year. On the women’s side, Rachel Goh (100 backstroke) and Hayley Piersol (1,650 freestyle) each won NCAA titles in both 2006 and ’07, while teammates Adrienne Binder (500 free) and Ava Ohlgren (400 IM) chipped in with their own 2007 NCAA titles.
Barnes even saw Auburn’s Steven Siegerlin claim the 2006 and 2007 NCAA platform diving titles (he also won off the 3-meter board and placed third in the 1-meter in 2007).
Less than two weeks after the 2006 NCAA Championships, Barnes joined the rest of the Auburn swimming and diving contingent in being recognized by President George W. Bush at a formal White House ceremony. One year later, the Tigers returned–with the President even remarking, “You’re back again.” They say winning never gets old, yet the Auburn swimming and diving program grew accustomed to those White House visits.
During one of those NCAA championships with Barnes on staff, the Auburn coaches faced a quandary regarding final composition for one relay team. Ultimately, the decision was made to take a senior leader off the relay and replace him with a furiously fast rookie. It was Barnes who made the key arguments that led to that decision.
“I was constantly gaining input from Brian,” says Marsh. “When we made that relay change, Brian strongly felt that the freshman would end up out-splitting the senior by a good amount.
“Brian would always remind me that our first responsibility was to the total team and not one individual. I was getting a little melancholy over a senior who had been a great leader. But Brian always provided wise counsel and kept me on track. It was the right choice. That freshman ended up having the fastest split on that entire relay team.”
Barnes’ third and final season at Auburn, with Quick now directing the overall operation, saw the women narrowly miss winning another NCAA title, while the men finished fifth. Cielo–who had won 2008 Olympic gold in the 50 free while swimming for Brazil–repeated his NCAA double win in the 50 and 100 freestyle, while Ohlgren became a repeat winner in an event near and dear to Barnes’ heart, the 200 IM. In only three years with the program, Barnes had witnessed Auburn swimmers combine to win 11 individual NCAA event titles, plus Siegerlin’s three NCAA diving crowns and six different NCAA relay titles from 2006-08.
“I always took time to learn from my fellow coaches and of course from the athletes themselves,” says Barnes. “I was surrounded by tremendously organized people, and it was clear that all of their success had been very deservedly earned.
“Being part of a championship organization such as Auburn, I viewed it as a career investment.”
Eight months after Barnes left to accept the head coaching position at Notre Dame, the Auburn men won their eighth NCAA title–with that 2009 team featuring mainly swimmers who Barnes had helped recruit and develop during the previous three seasons.
Three years later, 14 swimmers with ties to Auburn went on to compete at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Barnes had been personally involved with five of them–including Bovell and Cielo, who won another medal with a bronze in the 50 free. Three others with connections to Barnes won Olympic relay medals in London: Tyler McGill and Eric Shateau as members of Team USA’s bronze-medal 4×100 medley unit, plus Matt Targett, whose Australian team out-touched the Americans en route to winning that 400-medley relay gold.
Building an Olympian
After spending two coinciding years as members of the Auburn swimming and diving program, Barnes and McGill have remained close. In fact, McGill–who is completing his first year as an assistant coach at his alma mater–even served as the guest speaker and clinician for the second Coaches vs. Cancer Fighting Irish Swim Clinic in the fall of 2012. Founded by Barnes in 2011, the three clinics have raised nearly $50,00 in donations that have been directed to RiverBend Cancer Services, a not-for-profit entity that offers counseling, nutrition and financial assistance to families in the Michiana area.
Raised in Champaign, Ill., McGill had been a promising talent, but by no means a sure-fire future Olympian when he headed off to Auburn. Barnes had just completed his first full year on the Tigers’ staff, and he quickly developed a strong connection with his fellow Midwesterner.
That bond was not lost on the ever-observant Marsh. “Brian not only brought Tyler along as an athlete, but he also helped Tyler grow as a young man–and he ended up becoming one of the best butterfly swimmers in USA history,” says the 12-time NCAA champion head coach.
“Brian has the innate ability to not only bring out the talent part of the puzzle, but he also is constantly working on building up the person behind that athletic persona,” says Marsh. “I think that’s why Brian and I get along so well.”
McGill collected 15 All-America honors at Auburn, including a pair of NCAA relay titles. In addition to earning his gold medal in the 4×100 medley relay, he turned in a commendable sixth-place finish in the 100-meter butterfly at the London Olympics.
The two years working with Barnes made a noteworthy impact on McGill’s ensuing career, particularly in light of some personal family issues that easily could have derailed that progress.
“Brian has the unbelievable ability to recognize what is going on in an athlete’s life, without actually knowing the details,” says McGill. “He could observe how I performed in the water, read my body language and understand what it was going to take to get the most out of me for that specific day.”
McGill had struggled with consistency, but Barnes found ways to keep the future elite butterfly standout on track. “Brian always could get a little bit more out of me than I anticipated from the start of a workout. That’s a pretty special thing to have from your coach,” says McGill.
“An important thing Brian taught me when I first came to Auburn was that whatever times or standards I envisioned about being fast, I should just clear those from my head. Empty my cup of those pre-conceptions and allow myself to have limitless possibilities. Developing that mindset allowed Brian and the other coaches to mold me, and there’s no question it helped me to be so successful six years down the road.”
To the casual fan, swimming coaches do little more than supervise workouts, as swimmers go back and forth churning their laps in the water. In truth, much of the coaching is done between the ears.
“Brian taught me how to look at swimming in different ways–how it can affect life outside of the pool, and how to use things I learned at practice in everyday circumstances,” says the appreciative McGill.
“He helped me establish what it meant to be an Auburn man, what it meant to have a passion about what you do, and what it meant to care about the individuals around you. Brian certainly taught me how to expect a little bit more from myself. He stressed the importance of rising above the various distractions and negative issues that can go on in a college athlete’s life.”
McGill firmly believes that family issues during his sophomore year could have derailed his college career–and beyond. “There were days I was convinced there was no way I could swim. My focus was scattered,” says the current Auburn assistant coach.
“Brian showed me a good path mentally. I got back on track in terms of my goals and personal development for later down the road.”
Barnes even taught McGill “how to play Monopoly the correct way–fast and aggressive, and the game shouldn’t last more than 30 minutes,” says McGill. “Brian also would give me other unique pieces of advice, like how an air compressor is the greatest tool any person could ever have.”
As a new father, McGill now looks to mentors such as Barnes to provide guidance when it comes to balancing life as both a coach and a family man. McGill and his wife Julianne, who also swam for Auburn, have a four-month-old baby girl.
“When Julianne and I got married, Brian started joking about how everything would change so much when we had a child,” says McGill. “The thing I so clearly remember Brian sharing with me was how he never found his wife Alyssa more attractive, in every sense of the word, than when she was pregnant with their son Jack.
“I never really understood what Brian meant until my wife was pregnant with our own daughter. I was overcome by the same feelings of love and appreciation for my wife in the same way that Brian had described Alyssa. It obviously makes me appreciate even more how unbelievably difficult it would be to lose someone like that in your life.”
“I’ve been spoiled with who I’ve had the pleasure to coach with over the years, starting of course with two legends of the sport in David Marsh and Richard Quick, both of them amazing coaches and amazing people.” – Brian Barnes
1A and 1B.
When lists are compiled for the greatest and most accomplished coaches in collegiate swimming history, the two men who Barnes worked under at Auburn–Marsh and Quick–certainly land near the top of any such short list. Quick’s first extended head coaching job came at Auburn (1978-82), well before the program’s meteoric rise, but his swimmers in those early years included Rowdy Gaines (he won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games) and a young David Marsh, an eventual five-time backstroke All-American but then just a twinkle in the eye of his eventual coaching mentor.
Quick went on to fashion legendary coaching stints with the women’s swimming and diving teams at both Texas (1982-88) and Stanford (1988-2005), winning a dozen NCAA team titles along the way. He qualified as the NCAA title-winning coach for six consecutive seasons, including his final five years with the Longhorns (1984-88) and his first in Palo Alto (1989).
Lured out of retirement by Auburn in 2007, Quick returned to his coaching roots. Marsh had announced in October of 2006 that the ensuing college season would be his final campaign at Auburn, after accepting an enticing offer to become director of coaching/CEO for the United States Olympic Committee Center of Excellence with Mecklenburg Aquatic Club (Charlotte, N.C.), now known as SwimMAC Carolina.
Both the departing Auburn coach and the returning Auburn coach had amassed 12 NCAA team titles in their respective Hall of Fame careers. Ultimately, Quick returned atop that list when the Auburn men won the 2008 NCAA title (his 13th)–becoming the first college swimming coach ever to win NCAA team titles at three different schools. He passed away one year later, months after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
Quick’s and Marsh’s stellar careers straddle three of the winningest combined swimming programs in NCAA Division I history. Texas has won more combined men’s and women’s swimming NCAA titles (17) than any other school, with seven on the women’s side (five under Quick’s direction). Stanford is next with 16 combined titles (seven of the eight women’s championships were won in the Quick era), while Auburn is next with its 13 titles.
Beyond the collegiate level, Quick and Marsh also made their marks directing various U.S. National Team swimmers. Quick, in particular, developed a stable of swimming prodigies that reads like a who’s who from the history of U.S. swimming: Gaines, eight-time Olympic gold medalist Jenny Thompson, Steve Lundquist, Janet Evans, Matt Biondi, Betsy Mitchell, Summer Sanders, Dana Torres, Lea Loveless, Misty Hyman and many more. Quick was a member of the U.S. coaching staff at every Olympic Games from 1984-2004.
When he prepared to leave for Charlotte, Marsh’s first solicited job offer went to Barnes. “Brian could have been my top assistant in Charlotte, but my own recommendation ultimately was for Brian to stay in Auburn and learn from the legendary Richard Quick,” says Marsh. ” Richard was my own mentor, and I knew he would have a profound impact on Brian.”
Marsh’s elite club at SwimMAC Carolina has been rated the nation’s top under-18 program for the past three years. Many of his swimmers have the opportunity to sign on with the college program of their choosing.
“I tell every one of my recruitable swimmers that signing with Brian Barnes and Notre Dame would be one of the best choices they could make,” says Marsh. “I would entrust any of my swimmers, including my own daughter, to swim under Brian’s leadership.”
Marsh minces no words when he suggests that Barnes is a coach with no weaknesses and is a rising master coach in the profession:
“Brian gained that foundational background as a youth club head coach, then he worked with two great combined men’s and women’s programs at Indiana and Auburn,” says Marsh. “With combined programs, resources can be pooled together, and a young assistant coach can make an impact while still learning himself. At Indiana, Brian gained tremendous knowledge about distance swimming, while Auburn is one of the best sprint programs in history. He truly made the most of those 13 years after college, before starting to run his own program at Notre Dame.”
Marsh also voiced agreement with the supposition that Barnes’ background as an elite individual medley swimmer dovetails perfectly into his emergence as a coach who can effectively tutor his swimmers in any of the four strokes.
For Barnes, his love for the 400 IM stemmed from the fact that it is a truly tactical race. Each competitor will have strengths and weaknesses, but the key is how each leg of the race is intertwined and how they impact each other. It’s not simply a series of four independent strokes.
From Marsh’s point of view, Barnes already is one of collegiate swimming’s great race tacticians.
“Brian is an expert at crafting the ideal race,” says Barnes’ closest coaching colleague. “There are so many subtleties that go into any race. In the 400 IM, it’s not just a matter of driving your hardest throughout every leg. There is pacing, with built-in times for conserving energy.
“When it comes to game-planning for a race, tailoring a strategy for a specific swimmer, Brian is among the very best. Prior to Emma Reaney’s 200-yard breaststroke that broke the American record, they had discussed the plan and rehearsed it. Brian stoked the fire and Emma executed the plan when the pressure was on. It was something she and Brian both knew could happen–they had envisioned it together.”
Possibly most telling of all is the fact that Reaney had not even realized that her time set the American record, until someone informed her of the feat. Her season-long focus in training, under Barnes’ direction, had been on the details in the process–not the time–that are needed to complete that ideal race.
“If you think too much that you want a record or a key time or a particular standard, you will not get that cut,” says former Notre Dame swimmer Ashlee Edgell, who swam for the Irish during the first two years of the Barnes era. “It’s all about perfecting the details in order to be a successful swimmer–that’s what Brian Barnes is all about.”
It should come as no surprise that Barnes gleaned transformative lessons from both Marsh and Quick, almost as if they were his wise, ever-teaching grandfathers, one from one side of the family and one from the other.
“David Marsh truly is a wizard when it comes to the managerial side,” says Barnes. “With both Auburn teams under the same structure, that primary head coach has to display a clear vision. David’s continual grasp of the big picture was astonishing–he had the ability to identify what was important at whatever moment we were in. He exhibited amazing coaching skills, patience and care, always leading a group of people within the perspective of what was important for the team.”
As Barnes tells it, Quick’s decades-long coaching excellence often elicited surrender-seeking cries from opponents who claimed they always were coaching for second place:
“Richard preached the process and value from instilling belief in your own athletes. You want your swimmers to have the courage to seek extraordinary feats and to be comfortable while doing so. That challenge takes on a life of its own and often produces a shift in the belief system and in the overall team culture. But there still is a time to strike and a time to let them breath.”
During his years coaching at both Indiana and Auburn, Barnes worked alongside yet another noteworthy coach in Tiernan-Walker–who essentially served as the associate head women’s coach at both schools. She had recommended Barnes to Marsh, shortly after she had accepted a similar offer to come to Auburn from Indiana. Tiernan-Walker now is the swimming head coach at Arizona State, overseeing both the men’s and women’s programs in Tempe.
With a little nudge from Marsh, it was a no-brainer for Barnes to vigorously pursue the Notre Dame position when it came open in the summer of 2008. The opportunity allowed Barnes to return to the South Bend area where he had grown up and to the Rolfs Aquatics pool where he not only had learned the sport as a youth, but also had first learned to become a swimming coach of young people.
Coming to Notre Dame never had been an avid pursuit for Barnes, yet the timing proved perfect for such a move. He and Alyssa had one young child, Jack, and Caroline would arrive shortly thereafter. Although Richard Barnes had passed away, Nola still lived in the Osceola house where Brian had grown up. Three of his four siblings were settling into their own northern Indiana lives, either in Osceola or South Bend.
That old saying, “hit the ground running,” certainly could be used when describing Barnes’ first few weeks and months on the job at Notre Dame. Those who dealt with Barnes on a regular basis quickly became accustomed to his never-ending drive.
Former Notre Dame assistant athletics director Charmelle Green served as the sport administrator for the women’s swimming and diving program. A former Division I softball player and coach, Green headed the search committee that ultimately narrowed its search to the spirited Auburn assistant who had ties to the Michiana region. Green also understood various aspects of Notre Dame, having served as an assistant softball coach from 2001-04 before heading up the athletic department’s emerging student welfare and department operation.
“The swimming and diving regimen is very rigorous, and to keep that energy and upbeat spirit that Brian brings day in and day out is very impressive,” says Green, currently the senior woman administrator and an associate athletics director at Penn State. “Brian is fast-paced and you have to be in good shape to keep up with him. He will leave you in the dust–he only knows one speed and that is fast.
“With Brian, the glass is always half full. He is all in and doesn’t waver. Brian makes an administrator’s life easy, although he challenges you as well. He is a driver and wants success so badly that he keeps you on your toes–but for all the right reasons.”
Caffeine is Your Friend
Notre Dame swimmers past and present can’t help but be affected by their head coach’s high-octane approach. Not surprisingly, there is a coffee anecdote attached to it all.
During the summer of 2008, several Notre Dame swimmers were on-campus preparing for the U.S. Olympic Trials, to be held in Omaha, Neb., during early July. Individual medley specialist Megan Farrell was part of a returning core of swimmers who felt plenty of uncertainty with the program’s coaching change.
While at the Olympic Trials, one of Farrell’s teammates pointed out Barnes, at the event representing Auburn, as one of the leading candidates for the Notre Dame position. “To me, on the pool deck there in Omaha, he seemed just like a regular swim coach,” says Farrell, who soon would realize that Barnes was far from ordinary.
Farrell served as one of the player representatives on the Notre Dame search committee. She still found herself adjusting to the concept of the coaching change when Barnes began coordinating workouts with the team in the fall of 2008.
“I was hesitant at first, but my attitude quickly changed,” says Farrell. “Brian is easily the most passionate person I have ever met–and that spirit breeds success.
“Brian Barnes ties his shoes with passion. He thinks that Notre Dame is the greatest place on earth–and everyone that swims for Notre Dame agrees.”
Barnes is a habitual coffee consumer, but his answer to, “How do you like your coffee?” fittingly is a bit out of the norm.
“Brian takes his coffee with a ton of milk and sugar–if it’s not white, he won’t drink it, which is ridiculous because it really is more like a sugar drink with a little bit of coffee in it,” says Farrell’s classmate Edgell.
“Brian and the coffee is a weird way of describing him, but it kind of defines him. He is quirky–totally ADD sometimes–but that was perfect for our team. He allowed practice to be fun when it needed to be fun and serious when it needed to be serious. If swimming is serious all the time, it can make you go crazy.”
Fellow coffee aficionado Reaney–who describes the Barnes method as “basically drinking melted coffee ice cream”–has emerged as the poster child for her coach’s approach to directing his program.
“From the day I started considering Notre Dame, I could tell that Brian had a dream and a plan to make this program something special,” says Reaney, who was a youth swimmer in her current hometown of Lawrence, Kan., when Barnes was coaching the Aquahawks, although he did not coach her at that time.
“Brian and I just get each other. He can sense when I’m having an off day, and I am not afraid to tell him when I think something should be changed. We work together and have a lot of respect for each other, which is why I’ve been so successful.”
A unique aspect of that coaching direction involves incorporating impromptu games into certain practice sessions. One popular quiz-challenge game from the Barnes collection is, “Would you rather?” Reaney provides a recent example, poised by the Irish coach: “Would you rather live in an RV and be able to drive any car you want, or would you rather live in a normal house and only be able to drive a 50-passenger bus?”
Such endeavors, on the surface, are silly. But the underlying by-product is much more serious: a relaxed and cohesive team, filled with a group of individuals who love being at the pool, working hard and enjoying each other’s company.
“Many of the games are ones that Brian played with his family growing up, or with his own kids now,” says current Irish freshman IM swimmer Katie Miller.
“These games bring us closer and make the grind of training very enjoyable. It may seem like simple stuff, but Brian’s family games help make our team a family, too.”
Recruiting Success Stories
Notre Dame’s high academic standards can be viewed as an inherent challenge for any varsity coaching staff, but those standards also comprise a tremendous selling point. As Barnes will tell anyone willing to listen, you can’t have it both ways. The postgraduate benefits from being a Notre Dame student-athlete can hold tremendous value. But they are benefits that must be earned.
“At Notre Dame you are going to get an education, not simply a degree,” says Barnes. “We’re talking about lessons in the classroom, but also lessons outside of it. Notre Dame is very interested in developing the individual from top to bottom–that is the culture throughout the entire university. Notre Dame’s commitment to community service–that level of outreach and societal impact is amazing to me.”
Within the prism of his own team, Barnes cherishes the foundational fact that his student-athletes are here to learn: “Our staff is looking for people who want to receive an outstanding education while also becoming an All-American. You can do both.
“I embrace the rigor that student-athletes at Notre Dame go through. They graduate at Notre Dame in four years–there are no five-year plans. We want talented, hard-working, tired–in a good way–kids. Notre Dame is all about people who have ambition in life. It’s that simple.”
Barnes claims the best swimmers during his tenure have been the hardest workers, both in the pool and in the classroom. Knowing that recruiting is an inexact science, he and his staff do a lot of research and homework while trying to gauge the high school prospects that will be the best fit for the Notre Dame program.
“When we get recruits on campus, that becomes an important time to pick up on their enthusiasm, overall attitude, determination and how they interact with others,” says Barnes.
Fifth-year assistant coach Kate Kovenock notes that the Notre Dame record book–which consists primarily of Barnes-era swimmers and divers (17 of the 22 records have been set from 2009-14)–is chock full of individuals who outsiders might have labeled as recruiting risks.
“In reality, these are people who we were so excited to bring into our program,” says Kovenock. “Excited because of who they are as people, how they feel about swimming and what they value in life.”
Consider this list as a handful of testaments to the program’s well-targeted recruiting success stories:
- Senior Kelly Ryan, a Chicago-area native from Hinsdale, had never broken the two-minute barrier in the 200-yard backstroke before coming to Notre Dame. Now, her name is firmly entrenched on that Irish record, with a time of 1:53-plus.
- Reaney, the sudden media darling with her American record in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:04.34), had shown minimal improvement during the second half of her high school career. But Barnes and Kovenock looked beyond such subpar senior numbers, and now Reaney is the face of a surging Notre Dame women’s swimming program.
- Kim Holden (Mount Kisco, N.Y.) came to Notre Dame with very limited high-level swimming experience, but she impressively ended her career as the program record-holder in both the 100 backstroke (52.99) and the 100 butterfly (52.57), in addition to compiling a 3.81 cumulative grade-point average as a double major in psychology and Spanish (earning her a prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship). All that came while overcoming double shoulder surgery prior to her junior season.
“Brian recognized the energy, enthusiasm, intelligence and passion in all of these young women,” says Kovenock. “He recruits people he wants to work with, day in and day out.
“If you are someone who is about instant gratification, swimming is the wrong sport for you. You need to enjoy the people you surround yourself with on the hard days, not just the fun days. Our current team is overflowing with exactly these right type of individuals.”
A `True Hire’
Following his first season with the Irish, Barnes looked to fill the full-time assistant coach position on his staff. The resulting “true hire” brought Kovenock into the fold. Within the college swimming subculture, it’s rare for a coaching hire of this magnitude to be made without any pre-existing familiarity. Barnes and Kovenock had never met before she came to Notre Dame in the spring of 2009 for the formal interview process.
Kovenock had spent the previous four seasons (2006-09) immersed within the coaching staff of Division III powerhouse Kenyon College, located 60 miles northeast of Columbus near the small town of Gambier, Ohio. That word powerhouse is not tossed around lightly. How do 31 consecutive NCAA DIII titles in men’s swimming sound (1980-2010)? The women’s dominance pales only in comparison to that epic men’s streak, with the Kenyon women winning 23 of 30 Division III titles stretching back to 1984.
Barnes thought he had been part of something special at Auburn, serving on the coaching staffs for two NCAA men’s championship teams along with two from the women’s side. But Kovenock’s four-year coaching stint at Kenyon was nearly a clean sweep, with four NCAA titles for the men’s teams and three from the women.
“In the interview process, it was very clear to me that Kate was the right person for our program,” says Barnes. “I could tell immediately she had used her time at Kenyon well. She had an understanding of the level of effort and pace it takes to compete at a championship level.”
While acknowledging that Barnes took an initial chance in simply bringing her in for the interview, Kovenock looks back at his methods as indicative of his broader personality: “If Brian sees the potential in someone–or something–he’s willing to take an out-of-the-ordinary approach if it will garner a positive result.
“Our parallel experiences from Auburn and Kenyon were indicative of a larger connection. Right from the start, we were very comfortable with each other, in terms of what we value in our sport and why we value our sport.”
Kovenock is one of several Kenyon products who have successfully made the transition to the Division I coaching ranks. Current University of Michigan men’s swimming associate head coach Josh White was an All-America freestyler at Kenyon, where he was part of four NCAA championship teams. White and Barnes actually were housemates in Bloomington, when White was completing a graduate degree at Indiana.
Embracing the Process
Barnes’ greatest influences include his parents, Marsh and Quick, and he remains a byproduct of the stellar swimming traditions at Indiana and Auburn. Sprinkle in those four years coaching on the club level in Lawrence, Kan., as well as the sobering life lessons that accompanied his wife Alyssa’s heroic battle against cancer. All those experiences played a role in shaping the way he directs his team.
“You never really learn how to coach, you just try to improve, from one experience to the next,” says Barnes.
“You have to live within the process. Things will be tough, but you have to have the courage to coach. You have to enjoy the actual process, rather than living in the highs and the lows. If you are up and down, up and down, that’s a miserable way to live and an ineffective way to coach.”
A big component within that process is the concept of never-ending challenges: challenging himself, challenging his staff, and challenging his student-athletes.
“Swimming is not a sport where you just go through the motions–far from it,” says Barnes. “And at a place like Notre Dame, they should be challenged. These are tough kids and they can take it.
“Our staff is perpetually challenging each member of this team to redefine herself, and to redefine what success is, what heart is, what excellence is. There is no end point, just the journey.”
Quality Over Quantity
When Barnes arrived back in the fall of 2008, members of the Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving team were not sure what to expect. But once their new coach had time to introduce and implement his training philosophy, they began to develop an appreciation for his approach. His way of training centered around quality-based workouts rather than quantity. Less, most often, became more. Barnes programmed a how-to approach that, in time, would reap tremendous rewards for the swimmers in his program.
“Brian’s style of training was completely different than anything most swimmers would ever have experienced,” says Edgell. “There was a tremendous focus on details and on the quality of our workouts. Anyone who knows anything about swimming knows that what you most often would hear is `Okay, how many laps can we go, how far can we go, how far can we push you?’
“Traditional methods can be draining, just pumping out the yards. Brian flipped that completely around and focused on the quality. The only way you are going to get faster is by focusing on those details. It was refreshing to have a coach who realized that and who took that risk for the sake of our team.”
One example involves actually mimicking race conditions during practice sessions: routines off the starting blocks, wearing actual competition swimsuits, and other taper-and-shave strategies that center on resting and peaking for end-of-the-year competition. Rather than having such endeavors confined to late in the season, Barnes directed those simulations throughout the course of a given season.
“The more comfortable you are in those preview situations that mimic what will be coming up at the end of the season, the less nervous you’re going to be when the big postseason events actually arrive,” says Edgell.
Barnes also has utilized kick sets regularly during practice, with the swimmers utilizing kickboards to rest their arms while intensifying the workout on their legs. “At first I did not understand–but it made sense because swimming really is all legs,” says Edgell.
Count junior Bridget Casey among the many Notre Dame success stories born out of the Barnes training paradigm. The school record-holder in the 200 butterfly (1:56.52), Casey is preparing to compete in the NCAA Championships for the second straight season. She knows exactly how her success came about.
“Brian really stresses technique, feel for the water and a how approach–which focuses on the way in which you are going to complete the race, rather than obsessing over the final time. Our focus is on kick-outs, stroke counts, staying tall in the water and making sure your technique does not fall apart,” says Casey, whose father Don and sisters Meghan and Katie all are former Notre Dame swimmers.
As a high schooler growing up in Lower Gwynedd, Pa., Casey was a product of long-distance practices, or garbage yardage as the swimmers dubbed it. So you can imagine her pleasant surprise when some of the morning practices at Notre Dame had an entirely different focus.
“On some days, we would come in and do bobs and floats and sinks to the bottom. The whole practice centered on focusing on the core and finding the feel of the water,” says Casey.
“This experience has really helped me reach the next level. I already had put in the yardage, but it was my technique that was lacking. Brian really turned my focus onto my technique, and that definitely has contributed to my success.”
Barnes credits his mentors Marsh and Quick with showing him the importance of a coach displaying consistency while also striving to be a teacher. “David and Richard showed me we should be educating our swimmers all the time and not just driving them through drills,” says Barnes.
Marsh and Quick also ingrained in their protÃƒÆ’Â©gÃƒÆ’Â© an appreciation for the recovery phase, as part of a team training plan. “It takes courage to take days off and allow the body to repair. I implement regular recovery into our meet preparation,” says Barnes.
“Your swimmers have to recover mentally as well. What we are asking them to do requires an able body, but you can’t get them to that point if they are not also mentally strong and refreshed.”
Marsh offered a keen observation about the performance of Notre Dame’s veteran swimmers in recent years. One of those swimmers is current senior Cristen McDonough, a breaststroke specialist who turned in the best meet of her career at the recent ACC Championships. McDonough, as it turns out, is one of those Charlotte-area swimmers who competed for Marsh at SwimMAC Carolina before taking his advice to swim for Barnes at Notre Dame.
“What Cristen did is something you just don’t see very much in collegiate swimming,” says Marsh. “More often than not, a senior’s focus is turning to life after graduation, basically the end of the competitive career.
“But these young women at Notre Dame are getting better all four years. As more continue to buy into what Brian is emphasizing, the more successes you will continue to see from their veteran swimmers.”
Paying it Forward
Remember the story Barnes shared about being recruited by Kirchner back in the early 1990s? On his recruiting visit to the Barnes home, Kirchner had shared his vision of shaping Barnes into an elite individual medley swimmer–and the meeting made a lasting impact on Barnes, planting the seed to enable him to one day become such an introspective coach in his own right.
Fast forward some 17 years later when Barnes had a similar experience with one of his own swimmers at Notre Dame. That trendy phrase, “paying it forward,” truly came to fruition, as Barnes unknowingly channeled his inner Kirchner to help redirect Edgell’s career over her final two seasons with the Irish.
Throughout high school and at Notre Dame, Edgell had been exclusively an IM and backstroke competitor. But her swimming syllabus received a little tweaking for those final two years in the collegiate ranks.
“Brian is so good at bringing out things in you that didn’t even realize you were good at,” says Edgell. “He noticed from my IM that I was really good at the breaststroke leg. I kept doing the IM, but I also started training for breaststroke events–and they ended up being far more successful than I’d ever done in my backstroke.
“That was a leap of faith and it was not necessarily a comfortable leap to make. But Brian gave me the belief and confidence while also making the transition more comfortable through simulation drills.”
Although Barnes earlier had spent six combined years at Indiana and Auburn working with collegiate swimming programs that operate under the combined men’s and women’s structure, he was primarily a men’s assistant at Indiana and probably worked a bit more in-depth with the men’s swimmers while at Auburn. The end result? He came to Notre Dame with no specific experience working exclusively with a collegiate women’s swimming team.
Turns out, that was no big deal.
“Coaching men’s and women’s teams is different in so many ways. Women are more emotional and deal with things differently than men,” says Edgell. “As the leader of our program at Notre Dame, Brian was not just a coach–he was a mentor, a father figure and a support system.”
One key aspect related to coaching a women’s team, says Edgell, is connecting with each individual in a meaningful way: “Regardless of whether you are an All-American or a walk-on, Brian has the great ability to cater to individual needs. He focuses on developing each individual swimmer and puts a lot of emphasis on the swimmer as a well-rounded student-athlete. One of the hardest parts of being a coach is making all those one-on-one connections.”
Edgell vividly remembers an episode near the end of her junior year, a sudden overflowing of intense disappointment that sent her scurrying to her coach’s office looking for something–support, affirmation, maybe even pity. Edgell had dreamed of being a doctor for as long as she could remember and had been eagerly awaiting her MCAT numbers (entrance exams for medical school). When the results arrived, she was extremely unhappy with the score.
A sobbing Edgell came slinking into the swimming office, informing Barnes that she could not possibly swim that day, what with all the grief, emotion, tears and this strangely unfamiliar concept called failure.
“For most athletes at Notre Dame, all we have known is success. I was not prepared to deal with a failure of that magnitude,” says Edgell.
Amidst all the hysteria, the Notre Dame coach brought his veteran swimmer back to stability and calmness.
“Brian looked me in the eye and said, `Ashlee, trust me you need to go swim because it is the only thing that is going to make you feel better.’ And he was completely right,” says Edgell.
“He made me step outside of the first big failure of my life. Brian knew exactly what was going to help me–he knew me that well. Few people would have responded the way, so effectively and distinctly, that he did.”
That short interchange between coach and swimmer provides a glimpse into the level of connection that Barnes seeks to foster with the members of his team.
“As a college student-athlete, it’s such a growing time in your life and you need a coach who is a caregiver, one who provides selfless guidance at the most important times,” says Edgell. “Brian is able to provide the team with mentorship that is not emotional. It is all pure, in the individual swimmer’s best interest, with no drama attached on his end.”
As a footnote, Edgell ultimately scored better on those pesky MCATs and is now in her second year of medical school at Wright State, in Dayton, Ohio. While conceding that med school is a challenge, the spunky Notre Dame swimming alum says it’s nothing compared to being a Division I athlete at a top-tier school like Notre Dame: “Balancing that life is so intense–I feel like I have so much free time now that I’m in med school, nothing like those crazy, busy days back at Notre Dame.
“I would not be a success and be where I am if I did not swim, and not only because of the wonderful positive moments, but also because of that experience with the MCATs. I did not know how to deal with failure effectively and maturely, but Brian helped me get through it because of his comfortable, stress-free and non-judgmental way of interacting with me.
“A lot of times failure is such a terrible thing and you have to deal with it on your own, whereas I had the luxury to go to my coach, my father figure. Through a moment like that, he just helped me to grow into a better person.”
Team-building lies at the core of the program that Barnes has built in his relatively short six years at Notre Dame. When McGill was on campus in the fall of 2012 for the Coaches vs. Cancer event, he sat down with some of the Notre Dame upperclassmen to discuss leadership principles that he himself had learned from Barnes a few years earlier.
“Visiting with those Notre Dame veterans, it was evident that Brian already had rubbed off on them in terms of leadership and all-around maturity,” says McGill.
“One of the key things we talked about that day is how a student-athlete must trust in her coaches, believe in what she is doing, then find a way to communicate those messages and instill them in the younger, upcoming classes. With a coach like Brian, he is not just developing fast swimmers. He is molding vibrant young leaders, which are vital to any elite program.”
Cancer and Caring
When Barnes accepted Notre Dame’s offer, he brought his own young but growing family to northern Indiana, where a reunion with his mother and three of his four siblings awaited. He was about to begin working at a place he proclaimed to be “the best university in the world.” It was the perfect situation, for a 36-year-old whose hard work had paid off.
The story then took a tragic turn. Shortly after embarking on his third year at Notre Dame, in October 2010, Barnes and his wife of seven years learned that Alyssa had been diagnosed with melanoma. Jack and Caroline’s mother waged a heroic battle over the next 18 months, before passing away in April 2012.
Some coach’s spouses keep their distance from the team, settling into the background. Others are ever-present, a clear identity around the realm of competition. Alyssa existed somewhere in the middle: content to support her husband through thick and thin, but very much a member of the Notre Dame swimming family.
“I know I speak for my fellow alums, and for those who were at Notre Dame during that time, but seeing your coach lose his wife, such a wonderful person such as Alyssa–it was difficult,” says Edgell.
“Alyssa was so involved in our team, in the important and personal things that made our group so special. She was very much a part of our team. There’s a void.”
In the case of Alyssa and Brian, the level of care and support they received from those affiliated with Notre Dame stretched all the way to Houston, and it involved acts of loving kindness from total strangers. Alyssa had to make several trips to Texas for treatments and surgery at the Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center. Members of the Notre Dame family–whether they were high-ranking university administrators or seemingly average Notre Dame alumni–stepped forward during that time, lending a hand in any way possible. The Notre Dame Alumni Club of Houston, led by president John McMannis (who works at MD Anderson), played a particularly significant role with hospitality afforded to Brian and Alyssa.
“The overall support we received from so many people affiliated with Notre Dame, it truly left me at a loss for words,” says Brian.
“It’s moments like this when Notre Dame truly separates itself. They talk a lot about the Notre Dame family–but it’s not just a clichÃƒÆ’Â©, they back it up. John McMannis and his people are a model for alumni clubs. We were treated very well and are eternally grateful.”
Every time Brian and Alyssa arrived at the Houston airport, a car would be waiting for them. Housing was arranged, as were home-cooked meals. Expenses that could have been astronomical were mitigated significantly by the generosity of Notre Dame alums–seemingly total strangers but, in truth, not strangers at all.
Alyssa was a lover of everything outdoors, while also moonlighting as a pastry chef. Four weeks before her death, she baked and decorated a beautiful princess-themed cake for Caroline’s third birthday.
Throughout her battle with cancer, Alyssa inspired her husband with her spirit, sense of determination and unending fight. In the summer of 2011, only three days after undergoing chemotherapy treatments, Alyssa participated in a 5K race, the route going from downtown South Bend all the way to Notre Dame Stadium. Brian, admittedly not in 5K shape, tagged along, figuring that they would walk most of the route.
“It was very impressive, but I guess I was not that surprised–Alyssa ended up running that whole 5K,” says Brian. “She wasn’t trying to impress anybody, she just thought she could do it and went out and did it.”
Two months before her death, Alyssa–a lifelong New England Patriots fan–joined Brian in attending Super Bowl XLVI and cheering on her favorite team. Notre Dame arranged to fly the couple to the game and back.
“That, right there, is beyond what any other athletics department would have done,” says Marsh.
Remaining close friends over the past decade, Marsh actually identified one weakness in Brian.
“Brian was so used to taking care of other people, but he was not real good at letting us take care of him,” says Marsh. “It was something he had to learn through this process, how to let others lift him up and encourage him. He always has had such a giving, serving nature and he was not used to being served.”
Even in the darkest of times during that 18 months–and beyond over the past two years–Barnes has not wavered from that focus and concern for others.
“I called Brian many times when he was at the hospital with Alyssa to find out how she was doing, and for Brian it was never about wanting to talk about himself,” says Marsh. “He always would want to know how I was doing, what my family was up to, and he’d ask for updates on some of my swimmers that he knows.”
Life’s Little Pleasures
The past two years as a single dad have been a challenging time for Barnes, but when he walks into the back door at his home, his two children are there to lift his spirits.
Jack and Caroline Barnes–“He’s all boy, and she’s all girl,” their father proclaims–are Midwestern outdoor kids, and their dad loves being outdoors with them. “We are not an iPad family, yet,” Brian says. Big life moments such as learning to tie their shoes and ride their bikes have been highlights of recent months. Their proud father will tell you that both children are developing into avid readers, with ever-expanding imaginations.
For Brian Barnes, he is thankful every day for being at the University of Notre Dame. He knows his ability to endure family tragedy was aided by the university he now calls home.
“I have learned to be far more patient, grown to be a better listener,” he says. “I am far more objective, and less presumptuous. This experience certainly has changed me, but I’m not going to be one to tell you how bad I have it. At this stage, I have to go all out for my kids. What else would I do?”
And, is there any greater pleasure for a young father than seeing the boundlessly happy grins on his children, when they finally master tying those shoes, reading those books, and wheeling around on a bike no longer encumbered by training wheels?
Other Pete LaFleur Profile Features For 2013-14:
Randy Waldrum Era: A Success By Any Account (women’s soccer)
Bobby Clark: Teaching To Win, And Hurrying Slowly (men’s soccer)
Harry Shipp – Wandering Wizard of Notre Dame Soccer (men’s soccer)
Dougie Barnard – Truly One Of A Kind (men’s tennis)
Debbie Brown – A Volleyball Life: Then and Now (volleyball)
Tim Connelly – In For The Long Haul (women’s cross country)
Grant Van De Casteele – A Domer By Chance (men’s soccer)
Elizabeth Tucker – Accounting For Greatness (women’s soccer)
Bayliss to Sachire – Seemingly Seamless Transition (men’s tennis)