ROLE: Mike Kroll started Manchester University’s swimming and diving program a year ago after a decade of finding success as a coach and swimmer. HIS STORY: With spastic cerebral palsy, Kroll’s goal as a swimmer wasn’t to win a race but to make himself better and meet his personal goals every day. LESSONS LEARNED: Anything is possible with hard work – if people are willing to be accountable for their actions.
I played all kinds of sports growing up. I have cerebral palsy – mine is called spastic cerebral palsy, so my muscles are tight. My brother grew up with the same type of cerebral palsy. It was good to have someone going through the same thing. We pushed one another, even forming a rivalry to see who could do what better.
My parents’ philosophy was “try anything once.” If it’s interesting, I go do it. Yes, there are certain things that I can’t do, but at the same time this is something I’ve known my entire life. I’ve loved airplanes since I was little, so my 13th birthday present was my first flight lesson. At 17, I went skydiving. I think it’s a bigger adjustment for someone who’s been injured or has lost a limb, where they used to have more mobility. I don’t have that adjustment.
Mr. Grimm, my physical education teacher in eighth grade, wanted to make sure I could swim. After school, he and I would go into the pool one-on-one, and he taught me. My muscles would loosen up in the water. I felt comfortable. My freshman year, I was in the nurse’s office, and they had all the sign-up sheets for the sports teams. I decided to sign up for the swim team.
I’ve always had a drive to prove to myself more than others that I can do something. I just wanted to keep getting better, but competing in the meets wasn’t a goal. It was just a nice surprise when my coach got a couple officials to let me swim in a meet my senior year. I didn’t think of it as anything special. But when I finished the race everybody on both teams, even the opposing team, was cheering and yelling. That was a surprise. It felt really good.
My transition to coaching didn’t evolve naturally. I initially was going into college to become a commercial pilot. However, there were some difficulties with the FAA for my physical. So I went to Genesee Community College, and the coach there was welcoming. I swam my freshman year – I was always entered as exhibition in meets, so I wasn’t able to score points. We were going on a trip to Florida my sophomore year, and our assistant coach couldn’t make the trip. My coach asked if I wanted to take the assistant coach’s duties for the trip. After that, I stayed on as a student assistant.
My ultimate goal was to get into military intelligence. After I found out I couldn’t be a pilot, I went to work for the American Security Council Foundation in Washington, D.C. I was coaching a club team on the side, and that’s when I realized how much coaching and swimming meant to me. I had conversations with individuals in military intelligence and decided I would have more of an impact on more people through coaching than I would have through military intelligence.
One moment that showed I made the right decision to return to coaching came a few years later when I was the head coach at Genesee Community College. One of the swimmers wrote me a really heartfelt note about the impact it made on her in just one season of working with her. One of the walls in my office is decorated with the notes I’ve received from all the swimmers I’ve had in the past. If I ever need a motivation, that’s where I go. Their thoughts are what motivate me.
The example I try to set every day is that through hard work, pretty much anything is possible. If anyone were to hear what disability I have, if they were to hear all I’ve done, none of it came easy. It’s more just, if you really want something, then you have to go and get it.
I think that is one area of swimming that really attracts me. It’s all up to you. Whether it’s practice time or it’s race time, it’s you and your lane, and there’s nobody there that can affect your race. There’s no one who can block you, or a teammate that has to pass you the ball. It’s all up to you on the stage, and there’s no hiding behind someone else. Having that accountability for your actions is a big part of the sport in a nutshell.