The University of Virginia men have won 10 of the past 11 Atlantic Coast Conference titles. The women have claimed two straight. Both squads finished in the top 12 at last season’s NCAA championships, and Virginia head coach Mark Bernardino was tabbed ACC Coach of the Year.
Twice. For each program.
The double honor gave him a total of 26 such awards, making it a pretty solid three decades for Bernardino in Charlottesville.
And that’s why he decided to broaden himself a bit this season, taking on a challenge that will put him in a greater position to influence the sport nationwide.
The College Swimming Coaches Association of America recently elected Bernardino as its president, a volunteer post that will allow him to grapple directly with big-picture issues facing the college game.
“This is a huge leap for me,” Bernardino said by phone from his office Thursday. “I want to give back, to do something that will allow the sport to be as strong as, if not stronger, when I leave as when I entered. There is no question this sport has grown by leaps and bounds.”
So as Bernardino prepares for his team’s opener Oct. 9 against the University of Florida with ACC Female Swimmer of the Year Mei Christensen of Reston and a handful of other local stars, he hopes also to seek ways boost struggling programs, enhance the quality of the athletes they produce and increase the sport’s growing stature.
He replaces outgoing president George Kennedy and credits him and former executive director Phil Whitten with helping stem the wave of cuts of NCAA swimming programs.
“I believe the worst cuts are behind us,” Bernardino said. “We’re just going to do what we can as a group to ensure the sport remains viable and strong and powerful at a time athletic departments are struggling economically and many sports at many schools are being let go.”
Bernardino admits his tenure begins with a huge boost; the NCAA’s decision to outlaw high-tech bodysuits will do more than return the emphasis to swimming over technology, he said; it also will cut swim programs a major financial break.
Bernardino speculated that most programs last year dished out an additional $15,000-$17,000 to outfit their teams in technical suits “just to remain competitive.” Such increases likely translated into 7-10 percent budget hikes.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt [the new rules] are going to ease a lot of the stress college administrators felt for the last 12 months,” Bernardino said. “The good news is, with the new NCAA standards, in the short term, we’re going to be able to preserve our programs. If that’s the reason for an administration axing the sport of swimming, that’s no longer a viable reason.”
Despite a recent shift to post-collegiate training centers by the nation’s top professional and post-graduate swimmers, who used to train primarily on college campuses, NCAA programs remain critical elements of the Olympic development pipeline, Bernardino contends.
He said he would urge open lines of communication between major college programs and the nation’s top Olympic coaches, such as North Baltimore Aquatic Center’s Bob Bowman; Centennial High graduate Sean Hutchison, who recently opened a post-graduate center in Irvine, Calif.; and Dave Marsh in Charlotte, N.C.
“There’s no replacing collegiate coaches in the Olympic movement,” Bernardino said. “Ultimately, I don’t see the [post-graduate] centers replacing the role the colleges play in the success of the best international athletes; I see them augmenting and supporting, but not replacing.”
One of the ways Bowman and Co. can help, Bernardino said, will be to communicate what they learn about training older athletes to their college counterparts, to ensure a smooth transition from one training hub to another.
“As coaches, we want to be able to use those resources and learn as much as we can from them,” Bernardino said.
Bernardino won’t, of course, neglect his swimmers.
Last season, his men posted their best finish ever at the NCAA championships, ninth place. This year’s men’s squad includes junior star Matt McLean of Sterling and freshman Brady Fox of Olney. Besides Christensen, the women’s team features a handful of swimmers with local ties: freshman Meredith Cavalier of Stafford; senior Colleen Law of Bethesda; senior Katherine McDonnell of Culpeper; freshman Anais Menguy of Rockville; junior Kristen Moores of Gaithersburg; and senior Leslie Swinley of Vienna.