INDIANAPOLIS -- Even now, three years after his move from Drury in Springfield, Missouri, to Lindenwood in St. Charles, Missouri, the surroundings must seem a little strange for head coach Jason Owens.
He was a 15-time All-American swimmer and a two-time national individual champion at Drury. He won four national men’s team championships and three national women’s championships as an assistant coach at Drury. He was team captain for another national team championship.Fast forward to this week, and the DII Swimming and Diving Championships. While the swimming goes on at IUPUI Natatorium, Owens looks up at the stands and sees his 6-month-old daughter being adored and passed from Lindenwood parents to Drury parents by his wife, Kathleen, herself a Drury Hall of Fame swimmer.
Glance down at the pool deck, and Owen stands on one side of the pool encouraging his swimmers while on the opposite side of the pool is his mentor, and now rival coach, Brian Reynolds of Drury.
Both are highly competitive coaches chasing after national titles (Reynolds’ men's team has won 10 consecutive NCAA championships and are in the lead halfway through these championships). And both are family.
“It’s a great thing to watch him,” Reynolds said. “He swam under me, he coached with me, he married one of the girls off the team at Drury, they have a baby. Our lives are so integrated. I consider him one of my best friends.”
The connections constantly tug at Owens’ heart.
Wednesday night, he was the awards presenter for the finalists in the women’s 1,000-yard freestyle. Standing at the top of the podium was Alecia McGillivray, who won the event. Right next to her was second-place finisher Allie Reynolds, daughter of the Drury coach, and someone Jason has known since he was a swimmer at Drury and Allie was 5 years old.
“That was a really special experience, to be able to go through that with both of them at the same time,” Owens said. “That was neat.”
Allie was coached by Owens when she was an age-group swimmer at a swim club and he was an age-group coach.And now Owens and his teams are on the national stage. In just Lindenwood's third year at the DII level, the Lions have nearly doubled the number of national men’s and women’s qualifiers they had a year ago (19, from 10). After the first day of the men’s competition, Lindenwood was tied for first place and 10-time defending national champ Drury was in third.
That’ll be something coach and coach will joke about later.
“People asked me last night, ‘Are you excited that you’re making him [Reynolds] sweat?’ ” Owens said Thursday.
“Not really. In a funny way, kind of,” he said. “Obviously that’s my alma mater. I’m really excited for our kids, that they were doing some good things. That’s really rewarding.”
The Lions have climbed quickly in DII. In its inaugural season in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference this year, the men won the team conference championship. They achieved a No. 4 national ranking. In addition to McGillivray’s win on the women’s side Wednesday, Serghei Golban had a second-place finish in the men’s 50 free and the men’s 200-yard medley relay team had a runner-up finish.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a great opportunity,” Owens said. “It’s more complicated sometimes because there are so many things that you really have to break down and kind of expand upon and put more work into than when you’ve already got things going. It’s been a lot of new challenges, but it’s also been that much more rewarding to see it get going.”
And also rewarding for that guy on the opposite side of the pool.
“I’m really proud of the accomplishments he’s made,” Reynolds said, “and the progress that he has had with that program, as well.”
And that is the mentor talking, not necessarily the rival coach.
“He [Reynolds] took a ... greater mentorship role with me when I became a coach,” Owens said. “He taught me how to coach, taught me how to work with swimmers of all ages from age 5 and up. At that point, he really became a good mentor for me and a role model. I can only hope to do things as well as he’s done.”
The Lions have a good start. Of the 11 Lindenwood men’s swimmers at the national championships, only one is a senior. Golban, who is qualified eight events, is a freshman. Jakub Jonczyk, who is qualified in a team-high nine events, is also a freshman.
“The kids are really slowly starting to realize what they’re building, how they’re affecting Div. II swimming and diving,” said diving coach Chris Pape, a former St. Cloud State diver who was hired last year by Owens.
“It’s exciting. It’s exciting for us as coaches and it’s exciting for the athletes themselves. We really have been trying to build a program of consistency -- consistency within the races and through the meet, not necessarily putting out something spectacular once but continuing to do the things we know how to do well.”