Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary signed autographs for young swimmers before Saturday's clinic.

Swimming For A Cause

Sep 9, 2013

Photo Gallery

By Renee Peggs

Our great-aunt. My bus driver. My grandmother. My babysitter. My coach. For participants in Saturday’s (Sept. 7) Coaches vs. Cancer Swim Clinic, it was personal: from head swimming coach Brian Barnes to special guest Tyler Clary and right down to nine- and 10-year-old sisters Ingrid and Elsa Fretz, they’ve all known the pain of losing someone to cancer.

For Barnes, it was his wife, Alyssa, whose battle with melanoma served as inspiration to inaugurate the swim clinic three years ago. “We realized how fortunate we were because we had excellent health care, we had the Notre Dame support and we had family in town,” Barnes says. “Going through this we realized how many people do not have what we had.”

Proceeds from the clinic are donated in full to RiverBend Cancer Services, a not-for-profit offering resources such as counseling, nutrition and financial assistance to families in the Michiana area.

“RiverBend is an awesome place,” says Barnes, “With a whole host of things, services that they provide… to help with coping. You go through something like this, it’s very expensive, hard to get by and we just decided to focus on the care side.”

Whether talking about the clinic, his team of Notre Dame student-athletes or his personal experiences, Barnes exudes passion and authenticity, demonstrating what has made and sustained him as a champion. Bring in Tyler Clary, gold medalist in the men’s 200m backstroke at the 2012 London Olympic Games, who also happens to champion education and service, and you’ve got young swimmers from all over Michiana ready to dive right in. Ingrid and Elsa, along with their friends Jenna (11) and Sydney (eight) Nethercutt of Goshen and Priscilla Brommer (eight), all have a story about someone they know with cancer. Each of these girls were also “super-excited” about swimming in the pool at Notre Dame and meeting an Olympic gold medal winner.

Recalling his own early years in the pool, Clary insists, “there’s absolutely no reason they can’t be standing right here where I am. I used to be a kid at a clinic watching somebody who had just come back from the Olympics; it’s come full circle.”

Clary added honesty to his list of champion attributes, admitting that this past year since his Olympic success has been his toughest.

“I actually was considering quitting swimming after the Olympics… it’s such an emotional high and you crash and it’s tough to motivate yourself to go to practice,” he says. After his media tour, Clary was three months out of the pool and 30 pounds overweight. Events like this one, which he says are few and far between, are a big part of what reignited his commitment to the sport.

Barnes’ own comments echo this claim about the power of a cause. “We’re using the swimming community and we’re doing what we love to do,” he says. “We’ve had awesome honoree here today and all of the swimmers that are around this pool that are a part of this fundraiser, so it’s not just my fundraiser, it’s the swimming community’s, it’s our fundraiser.”

In fact, this very community is what enabled Barnes to continue coaching and sharing his love for the sport. “Notre Dame is a safe place; going through this thing with my wife and everything and that process, Notre Dame was unbelievable: immediately I came back to work. This is a safe place. And then the swimming community was unbelievable all over the country, the people I’ve worked with in the past, my peers coming and supporting me in a major way.”

About 75 swimmers ages 8-18 gathered on the deck at the Rolfs Aquatic Center, both to support the fight against cancer and to receive world-class instruction in backstroke technique. Moments before belly-flopping into the pool, Clary demonstrated the perfect form needed for an excellent backstroke: strong core, rounded shoulders (like the bottom of a canoe!) and disappearing ribs. While his method of entry drew whoops and hollers, his form on the stroke elicited a collective but barely audible “wow,” as those gathered were awed into near silence – pretty incredible considering they numbered about 200.

With the authority and ease of a seasoned coach, Barnes called out instructions over a microphone as the young swimmers, in small groups supervised by Barnes’ Irish swimmers and divers, took to the lanes. Listening, watching and trying out for themselves: the learning process unfolded.

These students were able to swim like a champion today, thanks to a gold medal champion with a heart of gold.