Recipe for Merner’s success? Just add water

If ever there was a case of high expectations leading to positive results, it’s with the UW-Green Bay women’s swimming and diving team.

Led by nine-time conference Coach of the Year Jim Merner, the Phoenix made a splash again, securing the 2009 Horizon League women’s swimming and diving title in February — the program’s fifth in as many seasons.

“There’s no secret,” says Merner. “We try to bring in the best kids that want to be a part of this university. Sure we try and recruit faster (swimmers). But really, we want to find the people who are comfortable being challenged and know, coming in, that we’re going to expect their best effort.”

Between the men’s and women’s Phoenix squads, a total of 14 individual and relay titles were claimed in the 2009 season. In addition, 26 school standards were broken and 10 Horizon League records fell.

All in a day’s work for the Phoenix and for Merner, whose successful career spans nearly two decades and includes eight conference championships.

Merner and his staff are forced to use resourcefulness, when resources in the program are limited.

“… We don’t have the budget to use computer models to improve technique and that kind of thing,” he says. “We recruit smarter, because the pool of athletes is smaller and we coach by feel.”

That means that Merner and his staff of three — assistants Laurel Yelton and Jeremy Moeller and diving coach Tom Stover — get to know 40-plus male and female swimmers and divers. They learn what their strengths are, and what best motivates each of them. Since each swimmer competes in multiple events, it takes a special leader to oversee both the organization and motivation. But to Merner, who oversees training from sunup to sundown, it’s the challenge he signed up for.

“I got out of coaching for awhile (pre-UW-Green Bay), but I got back in it and stayed in it, because I love these kids and I love to teach.” he said. “I believe in being more than a coach. I’m a mentor. I believe in the teaching process and that being on the swim team is a vehicle toward an education. If all they want to do is swim, this isn’t the place for them.”

With many stellar moments, it may come as a surprise that Merner’s favorites have occurred away from the hoopla of the league championships and medal ceremonies.

“My favorite moments happen about 20 to 25 times a year, when the athletes accomplish something they didn’t think they could,” he said. “As an educator, that is my greatest personal accomplishment.”

Looking back, Merner says he has mellowed a bit. He says with maturity comes a level-headedness that is needed to survive the ups and downs of coaching in Division I ranks.

“I’m still very stubborn, and I’m 100 percent behind my ‘kids,’” he says. “I love them to death. I really do. I really believe swimmers are special. I believe greatly in what this sport does to benefit young people. They go back and forth without a game to compete in, or a teammate to have their back if they screw up. It’s all on them. And it’s a great life lesson to be able to succeed when no one is looking, to work when no one is cheering. They learn about goal-setting and dedication and follow-through.”

Merner insists that he is still as intense as ever on the sidelines, putting his athletes through demanding physiological training, while they focus on technique through hundreds of miles of repetition and hours of mental preparation. It’s a combination of thorough constructive criticism and appropriate praise that seems to be the right combination for motivation.

Merner, a former collegiate swimmer (and Big Ten finalist) allows his frustration to show only when he talks about “his” kids, and the sport of swimming, both of which he feels are underappreciated. Despite the back-to-back-to-back championships, swimming isn’t a sport that dominates local headlines. Merner appreciates the reasons, but he is still fiercely proud of his “under-appreciated” athletes.”

“Sure, coaches have egos, but a win usually takes care of that,” he says. “My frustration comes in the lack of attention for the sport… In swimming, no one sits on the bench, everyone has an equal opportunity to make something of him or herself. I like and appreciate all sports, but I happen to love this sport.”

Merner has been at UW-Green Bay since 1990, when he was hired as the women’s swimming and diving head coach. He also “re-established” the men’s swimming program, which had fielded a few male athletes over the years, but wasn’t a competitive program until Merner took the reigns.

He got his start in coaching at a number of Madison-area swim clubs and then worked as an assistant at his alma mater, UW-Madison, in the mid 1980s.

His long career is worthy of reflection and “what ifs.” A coach with his credentials would have had plenty of opportunity to move out and up. But, Merner says he rarely takes the time to question himself. Instead, he recognizes that his long-tenured career at UW-Green Bay is “a blessing.”

“I made a choice to stay here,” said Merner, now one of the senior staff members in the UW-Green Bay athletics department. “I recognize that God gave me the opportunity to be very successful and He gave me the ability to teach and motivate. My way of giving back is to use the gifts that God gave me, right here, in this program, with these kids.”