Hall of fame swim coach guided AV teams for 36 years
It’s not so much the state championship teams that Mike McManus will remember, even though he coached four of them.
And it’s not so much the talented swimmers he coached that he will remember, even though he worked with several of Minnesota’s all-time best.
It’s the people who come back years later and talk about how being on a high school swimming team changed them for the better. Those are the ones whose stories will stick with him into retirement.
“I’ve coached some great teams,” said McManus, who retired from teaching and coaching at Apple Valley High School in June, “and I coached some kids who weren’t as talented but still were able to reach their goals. But I think it’s most gratifying when somebody you coached comes back and says, ‘Thanks for getting me to work hard. You made a difference.’”
After arriving at AVHS in 1977 – the second year the school was open – McManus taught physical education and safety education, as well as coaching swimming, for the next 36 years. He coached the Eagles’ girls swimming team through 2000, with his teams winning state titles in 1990 and 1994. His boys teams were state champions in 1989 and 2001. McManus continued to coach the Apple Valley boys through the 2012-13 season.
McManus could have retired from teaching a few years ago with full benefits. One reason he didn’t is his wife Susan, who is finance director for the city of Golden Valley, is several years away from retirement.
“She told me, ‘I don’t think I can work another 12 years without you going to work,’” he said.
McManus thought about continuing to coach but put that idea on hold at least for now largely because he’s undergoing treatment for a recurrence of melanoma. He had been diagnosed with it in 2004 and went through a 3 1/2-year chemotherapy regimen.
After treatment, “they tell you if you get through the next five years without it coming back, the chances are much better that it won’t come back. I made it four years and seven months,” said McManus, who added that he feels fine and the treatment is going well.
“I do a lot of driver’s education lessons and I think I’ll continue with that,” he said. “It’s a great part-time job.”
McManus arrived at Apple Valley because the school had a teaching opening. He did not know as much about the groundwork already being put in place for the school’s success in Minnesota State High School League-sponsored activities. Despite being open fewer than 40 years, Apple Valley has won the third-most MSHSL championships, trailing only Edina and Stillwater.
He came in around the same time as a number of other coaches who built powerhouse programs at AVHS.
“They way I look at it, it was kind of a perfect storm,” McManus said. “We were all pretty much the same age. We all worked together. We all talked. There were no egos. If coaches were having success, we’d ask them what they were doing because we wanted the same success.”
In swimming, McManus faced a crisis almost immediately when a senior captain and former state champion began showing up late to practices. After this went on for a few days, McManus told him to take a week off from practice and decide if he still wanted to be on the team, a move that stunned the rest of the swimmers. After the week off, the swimmer came back and had a strong finish to the season, including breaking a state record he already held.
Swimming is in many aspects an individual sport, meaning coaches such as McManus had to get swimmers to buy into a team concept in high school.
“You need to talk to them about how they’re going to get better,” he said. “We tell them it’ll be much easier to get better if you have the support of a group behind you.”
He also was one of the early adopters of the True Team concept in swimming, a format in which every competitor in an event scores team points. He held an invitational meet in Apple Valley over the Christmas holiday break that used that system.
“(Stillwater coach) Brian Luke for years tried to have a state dual-meet champion, but that was never going to fit the format of high school swimming in Minnesota,” McManus said. “The first year (of True Team scoring), it looked like the first team to 2,000 points would win. But you had kids at the side of the pool, cheering for their teammates.”
Michael Zee, who set two boys state meet records in 2003 and later swam for Princeton University, probably is the most talented swimmer McManus had on his boys teams.
Jennifer Riggs set all-time state meet girls records in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races in 1998. The 100 freestyle record stood for 10 years before a Stillwater swimmer edged it by two one-hundredths of a second.
“Jennifer wasn’t an exceptional swimmer in ninth grade,” McManus recalled. “She was good, but not the best in her age group. After that, she never slowed down. She was a force.”
A number of McManus’ swimmers went on to become coaches, and several of them helped him at Apple Valley. That’s another reason he was named to the state swimming coaches association hall of fame in 2009.
In 2008, longtime Edina High School swimming coach Art Downey called McManus to tell him he was going into the hall of fame. “I’m just stunned,” McManus recalled. “I said, ‘Art, are you sure?’ He said, ‘I’ll read something to you, and you tell me.’”
Downey then read a list of McManus’ coaching accomplishments.
“The awards are nice, and it’s also nice to be remembered,” McManus said. “I think I did as well as I could at the time I was asked to do it.”