Lest We Forget: Pioneer Coaches of Women’s Water Polo
Lynn Comer – Kachmarik November 1, 2007
Lynn was a Gold Medalist at 2007 Aquatics World Championships, 30+ Women’s Water Polo, Stanford University. She was among first group of women to be inducted into the United States Water Polo Hall of Fame, (February, 2004). First woman inducted into the Collegiate Water Polo Hall of Fame (April, 2003). She was the Assistant Women’s National Team Coach from1991-93 (She was an assistant coach for the World Aquatic Championships at Perth in 1993). She was inducted into Slippery Rock Athletic Hall of Fame (1991). Lynn was the first women to Coach any NCAA Division I Men’s Team Sport (She coached water polo at Bucknell University from 1986 to 1990). She was the only Woman named as the Eastern Men’s Water Polo Coach of the Year (1986). Also she was the Women’s Swimming and Diving Coach at Bucknell from 1982 to 1998. From 1995 to 1998 she coached the Men’s Swimming and Diving Team and was the Women’s Water Polo coach at Bucknell from 1998 to 1999. She was a twelve-year member of the U.S. Women’s National Water Polo Team (Team Captain, 6 years). Lynn competed in the 1980, 1984, and 1988 World Aquatic Championships and she played in many FINA World Cup Championships as well. She was the first woman to play on the Women’s National Team from outside of California. Lynn was named to the All-World Team during her playing tenure on the US National Team. She was inducted into the Neshaminy High School Hall of Fame (1985). She was the recipient of the Sullivan Award for Outstanding Achievements in United States Aquatics (1981). This is a shared aquatic award that is rotated among United States Swimming, Diving, Synchronized Swimming and Water Polo that recognizes that individual who has done the most for their sport over a four-year period of time. She was a four-time A.I.A.W. All-American Swimmer at Slippery Rock University. Lynn was an eight-time U.S. Water Polo All-American. Currently she is Director of Athletics and Recreation at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and she is a member of the USAWP Board of Directors where she is the Ethic’s Committee Chairperson. (As you can see Lynn was both a pioneer player and a pioneer coach and she chose to tell her stories from a player’s perspective.)
Remembrance of Things Past
WILL THE “REAL PIONEER’S” PLEASE STAND UP!!
I had a huge birthday party for myself as I just turned the big “50”. Without my knowledge, my husband had put together a display of my life for all of our friends and family to see. A huge highlight was the photo display labeled, “Hairstyles of Lynn’s Life”. My son has not stopped laughing at the one he calls the “birds nest”. At first I was embarrassed that my husband did this, but after I took the time to look at some of the photo’s and articles, I will never be able to thank him for the memories that have flooded my mind since my party. As I looked at this table I realized that most of my adult journey through life, high school, college and work has been documented with one water polo picture after another. My mother secretly kept every article, picture she could find and memories that I had shared with her along the way and she had put together many scrap books that started me down memory lane. There I am my senior year in high school with the first water polo award I ever won, followed by picture after picture of my years at Slippery Rock with my many friends and that special person named “Doc”. I continued through the photos to see my many years on the women’s national team documented with letters like the one I sent home describing what it was like to walk into the stadium in Berlin for our first World Championships in 1982. That letter was sent home over thirty years ago and I just found out that my mother had not only saved that letter but everything else I ever brought home from those international trips. This was all quite emotional for me. It was at that moment that I realized how all of those pictures, letters and memories have defined who I have become as I enter the “best years of my life”.
How ironic for me that just earlier in the day, I drew on my life as a water polo player to help in the trials of being a mom. My eleven year old son and thirteen year old daughter were actually beginning their own memories as they were both selected for their age group state soccer teams. That very morning they were each beginning another day of their camps in another state. This was the first time that either of them had traveled out of town to a camp like this. My daughter was the one who was really struggling. It started on the bus ride to the camp when she realized she knew no one, she was on her own and just maybe this was not such a great idea after all.
After many phone calls assuring her that she was going to have a blast, meet and make lots of new friends and what a great opportunity this was for her……I thought she would be okay. I knew I was in trouble when she called the first night begging her dad and I to come get her through the tears. I comforted her with the knowledge that we would not be coming for her, told her to hang up the phone and go find a friend to talk with. I am not sure who had the longer night. Her crying herself to sleep or me worried about how she would be.
I just knew that “day two” was going to be much better for her. She is a strong person, very independent with a mind of her own with lots of friends in her life so of course this was going to be okay for her. I did not even have my first cup of coffee, (something I learned to drink on my many water polo trips) when she called crying that she was sick and would we come for her? It was at that moment when I was searching my mind for those words to comfort and inspire her all at once that my thoughts rushed back to my playing days.
Before I could stop the words, out they came like it was yesterday and Doc Hunkler was on the phone comforting and inspiring me. I told my daughter that she was a “pioneer” and how important that role was. Most of the girls selected were from the big city of Indianapolis and that she was the only one from South Bend, Indiana. By playing her best and showing them her passion for soccer, she was paving the way for the many girls to come from our area. The words just flowed out of me like I was hearing them for the first time myself. I dug deeper and deeper into my past and I almost started talking to her with a “Big Texan Accent”. I could hear Doc on the other end of the phone like it was only yesterday.
It was my first of many trips to play water polo out in California. You know that state where all the girls were rich, skinny, tall, blond and lived on the beach. (At least that is how People Magazine portrayed everyone) How was a short, squatty, blond that was the product of a Steel Worker in Pennsylvania going to survive in that state where there were no rules?
I still remember how scared and nervous I was getting on a plane and flying all the way to California. Not only was it my first plane trip, but I did not want to leave the comforts of my wonderful safe home. It would have been my first summer home after my freshman year at college. I was already to lifeguard for the third year in a row at my favorite summer pool with all of my friends. Then the phone call came…… It was Doc Hunkler wanting to know if I wanted to go out to California and play water polo on a club team. Sue Bow one of my Slippery Rock teammates and I were invited to train in Calif. on a very strong club team. Wow, what a great honor and opportunity this was for me. I knew the finances to support this kind of trip would be a huge struggle for my family. However, Doc was told that both of us would have jobs once we arrived and be taken care of, so how could we pass this up? So, with the support of my family, my first journey to the beautiful beaches of the west coast were about to begin.
My first awakening was when we arrived to our home for the summer in Merced, California. How was I to know that not every city had a beach? How was I to know that we would experience days of temperatures around 105 with the nights only cooling to 98 degrees? I remember going to the pool that first day to meet my new teammates. This would be my first time playing water polo in an outdoor pool. What an experience!!! This pool deck was where many of my lifelong friendships would begin. Over thirty years have gone by and some of those teammates are still my dearest and closest friends.
I eagerly awaited my summer job as the few dollars that I arrived with were slowly disappearing in front of me. My teammate was already working and earning some money but I did not have a job. (I found out years later that I was not the player that this coach really wanted, it was my teammate. Doc was the one who talked them into inviting me as he knew what kind of player I really was) The job I was promised was never in place. I knew if I called home and told them I needed money, that my parents would some how dig up some money and send it to me. I grew up in a house where my dad’s shoes always had holes in the bottom as money was thin and shoes for his kids was more important then his own. I knew what it took for them to buy my airfare and I was not going to ask them for more.
As the days went by without a job the phone calls home were harder and harder. My mom and dad always asked “how was the job and did I have enough money”? Little did they know that I had lost ten pounds as the few yogurts I ate everyday were not enough food in relation to the training I was doing. I would always say that things were great without giving them details about what was really going on. The truth was, I was crying myself to sleep at night and all I wanted to really do was go home. It was at this point that I found a rickety old bike and I told my Slippery Rock teammate that I was going to ride that bike back home across the country to Pennsylvania as my money was almost gone.
Lucky for me, I had a secret weapon and his name is Doc Hunkler, my Slippery Rock coach. Doc is still today my dearest mentor, coach, friend and father figure. He called one day to check on Sue and I and Sue must have told him what was going on. When it was my turn to get on the phone, Doc went deep into his pockets of experience and laid the foundation for my many years to come, playing out west about how I was a pioneer. By me going out to California and playing on this club team, I was showing the “west coast” that there were good water polo players outside of their state. He knew I could stick it out and that I had to do it. He had faith in me and he knew that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I was a pioneer and I was paving the way for all of the women outside of California for years to come. He made me promise to give it a little more time and not to get on that rickety old bike just yet. (Doc called my coach that night and made him promise to get me a job ASAP)
Shortly after that, I had a job. I was going to lifeguard at the Memorial Plunge Pool. I was so happy!!! After morning practice, I got directions to my new job and set off on my old bike to earn some money. I was in survival mode at that point and very very hungry. As I biked down the road, reading the directions, I came up to a park. What no one told me was this park was on the “other side of town” and it might not be the safest place for someone to work. I still remember how it got harder and harder to swallow as I approached the pool. I got off my bike, walked it onto the pool deck, only to have the pool manager come over to me and say, “You did not ride through this park by yourself, did you?” He went on to tell me that someone would always meet me outside of the park and escort me in from that day forward. Diversity was not something I even thought about back then as I went to a high school with over a thousand students in my class with three who were not white. As I met the other guards, it struck me as odd, that they were all black males who were built like football players. In a short time, I came to realize why the lifeguards, other than me were picked to work at this particular pool.
My days were filled for weeks with morning workouts, biking to my job and going back for a nighttime practice and every now and again, just at the point, when I thought I might give up, Doc would call and give me that pioneer speech and I knew I had to keep going. I worked hard at water polo practice day in and day out. I drew on my support from Doc time and time again to keep going. My mom and dad were also great support but they never knew the stories of how little money I had, my rickety old bike and where I was working every day.
We were preparing to go to the California State Water Polo Championships, prior to going to USA Outdoor Nationals at the end of the summer. I was finally going to get to see the California beaches that I had heard about as we traveled to Southern California for this big tournament. Game after game I played every minute. I was so excited as I played some of the best water polo of my life. I was actually the only player to play every minute of every game. I was very proud of that. The tournament was coming to an end and our Merced Club Team was in the championship game. I had the game of my life, drawing at least twelve ejections and the only one on our team to play every second once again. The tournament ended and we had won our first championship of the summer. (This team went on to win the National Championship later that summer in Fort Lauderdale)
I was so excited as they began to name the “All Tournament State Team” because I just knew that I would be on it. Slowly but surely names were announced as those girls went forward to get their award but my name never came. The other five starters on our team were named to the “First Team” except me. Even my teammates thought there had to be a mistake as they knew how crucial I was to our team, but my name was never called. I would not let them see me cry. I held my head up long enough to get out of there and then the tears just poured out. I somehow got myself back together to get in the van for the long ride back to Merced.
Once I got back to Merced, where do you think I went for comfort? I got on that old bike and biked by myself right through the park and ended up at the Memorial Plunge Pool. The job that nobody wanted turned out to be one of the greatest life lessons for me, still to this day. The small children with no adults around for supervision would run up to me for hugs!!! They would sit on my lap and just play with my straight, blond hair as it was so different from their tight black curls. No one would believe this but it was at this pool that I felt welcomed and cared for. What started as a very scary opportunity gave me life experiences that I would never have gotten anywhere else. To this very day, the Plunge Pool opened my eyes to a world that I had no experience with. I am a better person today because of this “last second” job opportunity that no one else wanted.
I was so down and out, wanting to give it all up again. How unfair that I did not make that All-Tournament Team. Doc’s next call came again when I needed it most. It was the fourth time that summer that I got that old pioneer speech. I heard it so much, that I could give the speech to myself. I was again ready to get on that old bike but Doc worked his magic and I somehow dug deep into my pockets and put my disappointment behind me.
Why am I sharing all of this with you? Because my daughter came home from camp, disappointed because she was so upset those first few days at camp that she did not do her best efforts on the field. She felt like a failure in so many ways and she is very angry with herself. What I knew, that she did not know, is that her dad and I sent her to camp, not for the soccer, but for the life lessons that she was sure to learn.
I felt myself drawing on my many years of highs and lows playing water polo to lift her spirit. I told her that she had nothing to be disappointed about because she had learned so much about herself over the past few days. She never ever believed that she would make it through camp let alone laugh or have fun. She had persevered and did not give up even at her lowest low. She found a way to pick herself up and get back on the field and play her heart out. On her final day, she told me she could not talk on the phone any longer as she had to go because I heard other girls in the background and she was going to do something with them. What I know because of my life experiences playing water polo is that the next time she is in a very difficult situation and feels that she cannot do something or that the challenge is just to big or too hard, that she will look back to her experience at this camp and find her way, because she knows she has already persevered on this rough road before and she made it.
The life lessons that sports can give you are why I hoped my children would grow up playing a sport. I have never cared about how good they would be but just that they are playing a sport because of all the life lessons I learned through playing, refereeing, or coaching my sport of water polo. We have raised our kids to give their best effort every day, to be a leader and to have great sportsmanship. The last thing I tell my kids before they run off to a practice, meet or a game is to remember to thank their coaches………
Thanks Doc, for you are my treasure!!!!!!