Brian Heilbronner is taking his senior year to compete in a different way. The former six-time OAC champion swimmer is the head coach of the Ada High School swim team. His team is led by two senior captains: Mitchell Wilcox, who is vying for his fourth state tournament appearance in four years, and Aaron Spar, a swimmer with Down Syndrome who is in his final season as a Bulldog. This is his team, and this is his story.
It’s 9:30 p.m and Brian Heilbronner is trying to get the attention of his swimmers. Heilbronner has written the night’s workout on a white board inside of ONU’s natatorium, where the Ada Bulldogs practice four nights every week.
As he gives instructions to his 19 swimmers, you can sense Heilbronner’s knowledge of the sport. After all, he has three successful seasons of varsity swimming at one of the most well-respected DIII programs in the nation under his belt.
So, why did he stop swimming?
“I wanted to transition some of my competitive interest in swimming to more of a coaching and mentorship position,” Heilbronner said. “I wanted to build those skills for myself, but at the same time I wanted to help those athletes and be able to directly inspire and improve them in the sport of swimming. Being able to inspire kids in a community is something I really value.”
Heilbronner’s explanation might seem simple, but he was a six-time OAC champion and named ‘All-OAC’ twice. What did his coach, Peggy Ewald, think when he decided to throw in the towel?
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Ewald said. “I’m always disappointed when an athlete doesn’t use all four years, and I feel like I didn’t get to finish my job with them. But I also know that, as a student-athlete, you have to do what’s best for you in the big picture, and sometimes that’s recognizing that your passion for the sport may have shifted gears.”
Heilbronner is also in his P4 year, and Ewald hinted at the possibility that being on the swim team might have stretched him too thin at this point in his college academic career.
“Brian found himself hitting a wall, not necessarily as much physically, but mentally,” Ewald said.
Heilbronner was approached for the Ada position by their former coach, Ryan Siefring, who is also a current pharmacy student at ONU (although not a former swimmer).
“He reached out to me because they needed a new coach and they wanted to reach out to current swimmers. After talking to him and discussing the duties involved, I was really attracted to the idea,” Heilbronner said.
Now, Heilbronner has five different swimmers moving on to the district meet this weekend after an impressive showing at sectionals. And he has his first cardiovascular module exam this Friday.
If you need to find Brian Heilbronner, he’s probably busy.
It’s 9:30 p.m. and Mitchell Wilcox is getting loose. As practice wears on, it seems as if he never stops swimming. Stroke after smooth stroke, Wilcox is focused. He is training with the goal of making it back to Canton for his fourth and final state appearance.
“Coaching Mitchell has been both a challenging and rewarding experience,” Heilbronner said. “As he is one of the more experienced athletes on the team and a top contender in the state, it has been a challenge for me as a coach- especially with it being my first year-to identify the areas in which I feel he can best improve and challenge himself.”
For Wilcox, swimming is in his blood. His brother, Matt, went to Ada High School as well. During his career as a Bulldog, Matt went to state all four years; he now swims and plays football for Ashland University.
Mitchell plans to attend the University of Cincinnati next fall, and believes that he will be able to swim as a walk-on. He plans to study exercise physiology.
While Wilcox is talented, Heilbronner also cites his ability to lead when discussing his value to the team.
“[Mitchell] has also demonstrated a natural ability to serve as a leader and involve each and every one of his teammates throughout the season,” Heilbronner said. Last weekend, Wilcox won the 100-yard breaststroke race at the sectional meet. He will move on to districts this weekend, racing in four different events.
When talking to Wilcox, however, he is reserved. There is a focus in his eyes and a humility in his words that allows you to understand why he is successful. For Wilcox, the season has just started. If you need to find Mitchell Wilcox, he’s probably on his way to Canton.
It’s 9:30 p.m. and Aaron Spar is standing front and center, fully attentive to Heilbronner as he explains the night’s workout. Practice starts, and Spar attacks the water with unrivaled enthusiasm. This is his fourth and final season of high school swimming, and he plans to make the most of it.
“Given his experience on the team, I see him as a natural leader with an unmatched ability to bring a positive attitude to any swim team function,” Heilbronner said of Spar.
What makes Spar different is that he has Down Syndrome, a genetic disability that challenges him mentally and physically. Spar has never let this condition limit his ability to participate in school activities, however. He has been involved with band and choir, as well as swimming, during his high school career.
He also takes his responsibilities as a captain seriously.
“You’re the main guy,” Spar said. “You get the team going.”
Spar swims for a club team in Ada during the offseason, and plans to keep swimming after high school. He also plans to continue band and choir after school ends. But there was a sense of sadness in his eyes when he talked about his final days as a Bulldog.
“I’m going to miss my friends,” Spar said.
This past weekend, Spar finished the 50-yard freestyle in 42.81 seconds at the sectional meet. While he will never swim for Ada High School again, he will also never stop loving the sport.
If you need to find Aaron Spar, he’s probably in the pool.
Last weekend, five Ada swimmers advanced to the district meet, which will be held this weekend at Bowling Green State University. Katey Stuart, a junior, will be participating in three events. Zach Beaschler, a freshman, and Mitchell Wilcox will be participating in two individual events each. And the relay team of Wilcox, Beaschler, Andrew Robey and Evan Smittle will be participating in two different relays.
When asked if he plans to coach after this season, Heilbronner is still a bit indecisive. Ewald has offered him a part-time assistant coaching position next year with ONU, or he could stay with Ada.
While he says that he will wait until the offseason to make a decision, he also added that he will definitely choose one of the two options.
“Swimming is definitely not something that I’m just going to abandon,” Heilbronner said.
Regardless of what decision he makes this offseason, his captains appreciate what he has done.
“He’s made everyone come together. He really focuses on everyone’s needs,” Wilcox said. “Coach is really fun to be with,” Spar said. “We have a good time.”
As Heilbronner talks to his team before their last practice together (some swimmers’ seasons will end at sectionals), he reflects on what this season has meant to him. He thanks his swimmers for a great season, and they look back at him with a sense of respect.
Heilbronner knows that he made the right decision.