What is it like to dedicate your entire life to one institution?
Perhaps no question is more pertinent to Penn swimming coach Mike Schnur.
Schnur was just a junior in high school in 1982 when Kathy Lawlor-Gilbert convinced him to don the Red and Blue. Miserable and down on its luck, the swimming program needed a savior. Enter Schnur.
“When I came here,” Schnur said, “Penn had just gone through a period where we had lost 10 years in a row. And I don’t mean lost a meet or two, I mean lost every single meet for about 10 years.”
Schnur and his class faced quite the challenge.
“My class was the first real class that Coach Gilbert brought into Penn,” he said. “We came into a culture of extreme losing, and my class changed that very quickly.”
It was a tough feat to accomplish, but then-co-captain Schnur ultimately led his class to their first winning season in 12 years — and Penn’s second most-successful dual meet record ever — during his senior season in 1987-88, even setting school records in the 1000-yard and 1650 freestyles along the way.
“I think I’m probably typical of Penn students and athletes in that this was the best four years I ever had,” Schnur said. “It was an atmosphere where you could succeed both in the pool and in the classroom. It was a lot of fun. It was a place where I came and was able to grow up a lot, and I experienced a lot of things that I would not have had I not come to Penn.”
Schnur felt that a lot of those experiences drove him to achieve more in the pool.
“We had some growing pains,” Schnur recounted. “It took us a few years to recruit enough guys on the team that were like my class, but we got it rolling by the time we graduated and really set the tone for a lot more men’s success in the future.”
Schnur enjoyed his time so much at school, in fact, that after graduation, he became the swimming team’s assistant coach under Lawlor-Gilbert in 1993. In the years after his appointment as an assistant, the men’s program only had two losing seasons out of the following ten — a far cry from the 11 straight losing seasons that came before.
At the end of that ten-year period, Lawlor-Gilbert left the program in the hands of Schnur, who became its head coach in 2000 after serving as the interim in that position during the 1999 season. It seemed like the perfect marriage — the new coach had competed for the Red and the Blue as a student, broke records and then stayed on the assist the team post-graduation until taking over the reins. Every sign pointed to him as the perfect coach.
Schnur, however, sees his role a bit differently.
“My role as coach is not just to train them,” he said. “It’s not just to make sure they’re in the best shape they can be, and it’s not to refine their technique. When you’re getting an 18-year-old swimmer, they’ve already been swimming for 12 years. Some of the things that frustrate us in their technique are things that have been ingrained in them for years.
“Where we make our impact on them is between the ears. We’re trying to get them to believe in what they’re doing and believe in themselves and believe that they can be successful and have the desire to balance such a difficult school with such a difficult sport.”
As more of a sports-psychologist type than a normal whip-bearer of sorts, many swimmers and divers find their time under Schnur’s reign unique and highly memorable. One such swimmer is Shelby Fortin, who graduated from Penn in 2014 after a trophy-laden career that included six Ivy titles and nine school records.
“Mike and I were pretty close,” Fortin said. “We had a really good relationship. I came to Penn because he had promised me a lot of success in swimming and saw a lot of potential in me. He was always pushing me to be better, pushing me to train with the boys, pushing me to do things in practice that I didn’t even believe that I could.”
Fortin explained that Schnur put an emphasis on keeping his athletes as mentally strong as possible.
“He would always joke around saying, ‘You better do well in school or else you’re not going to be able to go to the meet,’ or ‘You better do well or you’ll get kicked off the team,’ so he got the point across in his joking manner that school is just as important as swimming. It wasn’t like we were ever supposed to put swimming first.”
Schnur was able to elaborate on the importance of knowing the minds of his athletes when asked whether he used his experience as a swimmer a lot when coaching his kids.
“No,” he answered. “I would use my experience as a Penn student much more with my kids. That is one advantage being an alum coaching here — I know the pressure they feel.
“I think sometimes coaches who have not gone to a school as rigorous as Penn may not have that perspective that I do. When I have one of my athletes come in who has three finals in two days, I know what they’re going through because I did. I know that when midterms hit in mid-October that I’ve got to back off for a few days because their brains are fried at that point. I went through it — that is the one advantage I have.”
Fortin agreed with her former coach’s approach to the sport, citing her own story as an example.
“I was an architecture major, which was a very time-consuming major,” she said. “He was always very accommodating in terms of me making up a practice if I missed one for class, or stuff like that. So it was never like I had to choose — there was always a good balance.”
Always accommodating and always caring, Schnur at times seems to bleed Red and Blue. It is worth noting, after all, that as a swimmer, he won the prestigious Class of ‘88 Team Spirit Award, later named for his graduating class after a collective donation to the program.
“I went to school here,” Schnur said. “My wife went to Penn. My wife’s whole family went to Penn. My father-in-law was the associate athletic director here in the ‘70s. So I have a lot of Penn stuff in my house. You could say I’m a Penn guy.”
He is so much of a Penn guy, Fortin explained, that he even has his own go-to restaurant nearby that is home to one of the best swim team traditions.
“When we have recruits come in, after Saturday morning practice, Mike will take everyone to Abner’s,” Fortin said. “I think he’s been doing it since the first year he was coaching, so like way back when. We take the recruits there with the freshmen class and their hosts, and that’s a good way to bond with the recruits, and get them a chance to talk to everyone at once. The guys at Abner’s know him super well. He brings probably 40 people when he goes, so it’s kind of a big event that happens every fall.”
Hanging on the back wall of the restaurant there is even a framed Daily Pennsylvanian article from 1999 announcing Schnur’s hire as head coach, and traditions like Abner’s reflect his dedication to the team and to campus.
“It gives me a reason to care more, in a sense that coaching is difficult, and there are times when things aren’t going well,” Schnur said. “And when you’re doing it at a place that you love like Penn, it makes things a lot easier.
“Anybody can love what they’re doing when they’re coaching Chris Swanson at NCAAs — that’s easy,” he said. “You have to have a passion for what you do on a daily basis. When we’re on our ninth workout in a row on our training trip and everybody is tired and mean and angry, and they want to kill me, that’s when you remember why we do this.
“Coaching at Penn means a lot more to me than it would at any other school.”
After 27 years of service, it is easy to see the impacts Schnur has made on the program. And for the many student-athletes who spend four years under his tenure, the impacts he makes are personal.
“I think that as well as Penn does as a team, and as encouraged as people are to come to Penn for swimming, I think that Mike is a huge draw to that,” Fortin said. “He’s very relatable. He’s easy to talk to. I can’t even begin to sum up his impact on me.
“Maybe that’s the best thing to say—that I can’t even sum it up because it was such a great experience.”
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