RACINE — Frank Michalowski was in his element Wednesday afternoon, supervising a group of swimmers he never thought would be under his watch as they churned through their monotonous practice laps.
The occasional loud springing sound of a diver catapulting into the air was about the only sound that disrupted the casual, yet businesslike mood in the Horlick High School Natatorium, Michalowski’s new classroom.
There are only 12 members on Horlick’s swim team, which doesn’t approach the 30-plus he used to have annually during his glory years at Case. There won’t be a Southeast Conference championship coming the Rebels’ way this year and it would be a major accomplishment if Horlick has a state qualifier.
But that’s OK with Michalowski. He loves working with swimmers so much that he would do this for free.
As a matter of fact, he is doing this for free.
Closing in on his 66th birthday Feb. 3, Michalowski is back in a place that he never wanted to leave — a natatorium — and in a high school from where he graduated nearly 48 years ago. He has assistant coaches he hasn’t had in years. He has his own pool again, something he lost last August when Case’s natatorium was closed, perhaps permanently, after it was determined to be structurally unsafe.
Michalowski is happy again. His world has been restored. Who needs the golden years of retirement when he has this?
“The reason I’m doing this is my love of the sport,” Michalowski said when asked why he is volunteering his time. “I love working with kids and I love seeing the progress they make from the workouts.
“The passion all came from when I swam at Horlick under coach (John) Molitor. I looked up to him as a father figure. I told myself, ‘I want to be like him one day. I want to coach swimming.’ “
Michalowski ended up doing just that — and as well as anyone ever has in Racine County. His extensive resume, which includes a dual meet record of 146-19-2 as the Case boys coach from 1996 through last season and a total of 39 state medalists between his boys and girls programs, says plenty.
But then things started turning sour.
The lack of an assistant coach he desperately wanted to have for years at Case was a sticking point he had reluctantly accepted. And when Case’s pool was closed, forcing the team to practice at different locations throughout the fall girls season, his unhappiness was exacerbated all the more.
Michalowski submitted his resignation as the Case boys coach largely because the later practice times necessitated by having to use other facilities would interfer with his league bowling schedule. And bowling is maybe his second love.
December rolled around. For the first time in a quarter century, Michalowski was a man without a team. And it hurt.
“My wife (MaryAnna) could tell I was in a different state,” Michalowski said. “She always looked at me and said, ‘What are you thinking?’ and I said, ‘You know what I’m thinking.’
“I thought of the Case boys I left. I didn’t want to leave that position. I have a passion to coach and when I came here, I was happy again.”
Meanwhile, Horlick athletic director Joe Wendt had an issue of his own. Kayla Rognsvoog, his former swimming coach, had left the program.
Candace Gedemer, a freshman social assistant at Horlick, ran the program for the first three weeks of the season. But with her after-school commitments, she couldn’t commit to being a full-time coach.
When 2015 Horlick graduate Kobe Gardner, a former swimmer at the school, joined the staff in November, the plan was for him to take over the program and Gedemer to serve his assistant.
What happened next was a fortunate quirk of fate.
Michalowski received a text from the parent of a swimmer Nov. 28 — three weeks into the season. That parent wanted to borrow Michalowski’s printer, which he used for the timing system, for the Rebels’ first meet of the season.
“I said, ‘I’ll do you one better — I’ll come to the meet and help run the timing system,’ “ Michalowski said.
Things quickly fell into place. Scott Palmer, Horlick’s most accomplished swimmer, asked Michalowski for advice to improve his breaststroke that night. Within days, Wendt approached Michalowski about taking over the program.
“He still has a love and passion for coaching,” Wendt said. “Any time you can bring a well-renowned coach like him to help what you’re doing is always a crucial thing.
“We’re not getting the kids out of college who are teacher-coaches anymore, so it’s always slim pickings. Anytime you have a candidate like Frank, you definitely pounce on it.”
Did Gedemer or Gardner feel as if their toes were stepped on? Not at all.
“I think this just talks a lot about his personality, how much he loves swimming and how much he’s willing to do for the sport,” said Gedemer, a 2007 Park graduate. “He’s taught Kobe and I so much. He taught us the tricks of the trade.
“It’s been very enjoyable for us to learn as we’re continuing to grow as possible coaches for the future.”
Added Gedemer, “He’s a very good teacher. He’s taught me things that I could improve on.”
Making this situation all the more pleasing is Gedemer and Gardner will both be getting paid this season because Michalowski is working as a volunteer.
The bottom line is a season that might have been so unsettled at Horlick has been solidified by an old master. And Horlick’s swimmers are benefiting.
“I feel pretty confident in my season with him coming here,” said Palmer, who is trying to qualify for the state meet in the 100-yard breaststroke. “He not only cared about me, he cared about our program.
“He didn’t want to see it fall apart.”