The accomplishment that most people will quote about Mike Ward will probably be his five state championships in 27 years of coaching. If you do the math, you will see there a lot more years where his kids did not get to stand on the podium.
Those are the years that a coach or a mentor are truly judged.
Sure, Mike coached Rincon/University to four boys titles and one girls title along with a load full of top three finishes but that was the “big picture” and Mike, like all good coaches, educators and fathers, knew you couldn’t have a team without the individual swimmers.
Win or lose, his swimmers and divers came first.
When I asked him about his team this past fall, he turned the conversation into one about his swimmers. No, he turned it into a story about all swimmers, swimmers from his team and swimmers from other teams. Swimmers struggling to make their mark in the increasingly illogical and often punitive competitive standards put forth by the AIA.
“Swimming was really on an upswing before the AIA changed things,” he told me.
“More kids were getting in the pool. Kids who never had a chance in other sports were learning how to swim and represent their school. The disparity in the standards…makes little sense and it penalizes our swimmers.”
He also felt the removal of regional competitions hurt those who made that milestone a worthy personal goal.
“They have turned it into an elitist sport for the very few,” he added.
Katherine McCoy was one of his swimmers and a Tucson Citizen All-Star before moving on to Tulane before her sport was cut in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
McCoy keeps a very prolific journal online and she included a few words about her former coach – a coach she still calls, “Mr. Ward.”
Rincon/University was denied another championship her senior year due to a couple of questionable disqualifications and rulings at regionals and state that gave them a runner-up finish by only four points.
Ward had something special waiting for McCoy and he waited for a special moment to give it to her. This is what she wrote in her journal:
“After the (team) banquet was over, Mr. Ward handed me a piece of paper, three sheets of carbon paper still bound together that would have entered the 200 medley relay into the state championship, had we not been disqualified. It was the piece of paper that would have secured enough points to win that championship, and Mr. Ward must have known how much that meant to me….
I’ve come across the relay entry from November 2001 while cleaning things out at home and have thought about how much that championship would have meant to every girl on that team. In many ways, it would have meant more than my college conference championship title.
This afternoon, I received news that Mr. Ward had passed away. Immediately I thought of this story and how I’ve wanted to share it for some time. I think when we lose someone, whether it’s permanently or through a more temporary disconnect in life, the memories that first come to mind are the best things we remember about that person.
I’ll remember Mr. Ward as an incredibly kind man, the father of my longtime friend Stacey, a longtime friend of my own father, and the coach who was so supportive of me, especially through that final season. How he gave me that piece of paper, however, is something I’ll never forget.”
The “Stacey” in McCoy’s journal is Stacey Ward (Beran). Stacey is the youngest of three daughters including Jaclyn Ward de Leyva (married to Nestor), and Julie Thompson (married to Adam). He and his wife Pat also had four grandchildren with another one on the way.
Stacey and her husband Jeff Beran are expecting another daughter in about 10 days. It’s another sad turn in an increasingly difficult situation for his family and friends – a situation we can all understand.
His grandchildren are Ella (5 years old), Cole (3), Charlie (2 on January 15), Claire (1), and Mae (to be born any day).
Mike was 63 years old, born on December 27, 1948. He died of an apparent heart attack on the morning of January 5 at home, peacefully.
Jeff is the boys volleyball coach at Rincon/University and was also one of my daughter’s club volleyball coaches several years ago. Such is the small world of high school athletics in Tucson.
“His sphere of influence in Tucson and San Carlos is immeasurable so I can’t even begin to list all of the people he knows or the things he has done in his life,” Jeff wrote me.
“Mike was one of those rare people that just seemed to know everyone and everyone who knew him always seemed to have “a story” about their experience with him. I’ve talked to dozens of his closest friends, colleagues, and former student-athletes on the phone in the past few days and virtually every single one of them uttered the line, ‘Mike was like a (brother/father) to me’ followed closely with ‘I have so many great stories and memories with him.’
For that reason, we’ve set up an email account (email@example.com) for people to send in their memories/stories/tributes about him and any photos they might have of him. I’m going to use the photos for a photo slideshow to be displayed at his memorial service and I’m going to piece the stories together as a remembrance for his wife, daughters, and grandchildren.”
Mike was supposed to be in San Carlos, Mexico but he did not want to risk missing the birth of his fifth grandchild.
“I know it seems like hyperbole to use the term “legend” but Mike Ward leaves behind a legacy that any man would be truly honored by,” added Jeff.
“As a coach, I lost count of the number of Coach of the Year honors he won. He also recently told me that he has coached more 100 freestyle (or maybe it was 50 freestyle, I can’t remember) state champions than any other swim coach in state history. As a SCUBA instructor, I’d make a large wager that almost every single certified diver in Tucson was either certified by Mike or has at least gone on one of his famous El Duque dive trips in San Carlos at some point.
And those are just the two hats he’s most well-known for wearing. He was Wilbur Wildcat for a semester at the U of A, a member of the U of A rugby team, a cattle roper for John Wayne (aka The Duke, the namesake for Mike’s boat), a state-champion high school gymnastics coach, a rodeo clown, a U of A cheerleader, the list goes on for a mile.”
Writing these remembrances for family, friends and colleagues is one of the most emotionally draining things I ever have to do and I seem to have to do it a lot. I never truly know if it does the family any justice. Probably not, but it’s the best I can do, and I know from personal experience nothing may be enough one day but the littlest of things may make the biggest difference the next.
Make an effort to reach out to the family if you have a chance. His assistant coach (and a long time friend to my own family) Patty Olstad was unable to put in words how she felt about Mike. She knew he remembered every one of his swimmers and all of their times and accomplishments. Patty, like may of us, will need time to grasp such a loss.
Little Mae will be born any day now and Charlie will be celebrating his second birthday soon. The five grandchildren will be the ones to carry the family (especially their grandmother Pat) through their difficult time. They may not know it but I’m sure they will be getting some help.
“I loved seeing the way his face would light up and his voice would become softened so effortlessly every time a grandchild was near; it’s the thing I’m going to miss about him the most.,” Jeff added.
A public viewing is set up for 4-8 pm on Tuesday, January 10 at Bring’s Broadway Chapel. His memorial service begins at 2:30 pm on Wednesday, January 11 at El Camino Baptist Church.
Here is the family obituary:
Mike Ward left us unexpectedly early in the morning on January 5, 2012. He will be missed as a beloved husband, father, grandfather, coach, teacher, mentor, son, brother and friend. As the longtime swim/dive coach at Rincon/University High School and as a SCUBA diver extraordinaire, he touched many, many lives. He is survived by his mother, Gloria, brothers, sisters, his wife, Pat, his three daughters, Jaclyn, Julie and Stacey, and grandchildren who were the apple of his eye. In lieu of flowers, please make a tax credit donation to Rincon Swimming, contact Rincon High school for more information.
My personal apologies if anything I wrote was incorrect.
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