Sports Person of the Week
O’Brien Takes the Reins with GNH Warriors
Mike O’Brien has been a fixture in the swimming world throughout his life. Now, Mike is beginning his first season as head coach of the Greater New Haven Warriors boys’ swimming and diving team. (Photo courtesy of Mike O’Brien)
For the past 16 years, Mike O’Brien has been a swim coach in the state of Connecticut. This year, Mike is taking on his next endeavor as he begins his first season as head coach of the Greater New Haven (GNH) Warriors co-op boys’ swimming and diving team.
GNH is in its third year as a co-op featuring athletes from East Haven, Guilford, North Branford, and North Haven high schools. Last season, the team won a share of its division title and then finished in second place at the SCC Championship.
A few weeks ago, Mike was contacted was former GNH coach Martha Phelan, who asked if he was interested in taking the reins with the Warriors. Mike, who was coaching the girls’ swim team at Sacred Heart Academy (SHA) at the time, took some time to think about it as the Sharks finished out their fall season. After giving it some thought, Mike realized that coaching a program as talented the Warriors was simply too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“It’s pretty exciting. I’ve watched these kids for the last six, seven years in Connecticut swimming. Half of them I’ve seen at my swimming pool for meets,” says Mike. “Martha had a great program, and I’m here to hopefully continue the success she had. It’s a great opportunity to do something good for these kids.”
Mike grew up and still resides in West Haven. He started swimming at the Orange Swim Club—now known as the Amity Regional Aquatic Club—at the age of seven. Mike spent his childhood swimming there and went on to compete for the team at Notre Dame-West Haven High School. When he was in the pool, Mike learned about the dedication and determination it takes to succeed as a swimmer.
“It taught me about determination and the attention to detail. It’s key,” Mike says. “Growing up, my coach had me swimming mornings before school, sometimes after school. Sometimes we had three practices in the summertime. The whole dedication to the sport is what drives me.”
In 2005, Mike was teaching a swimming lesson in Orange. Mike DiVerneiro, who had been Mike’s coach with the Orange Swim Club, asked him if was interested in becoming a coach. Mike had never really thought about that, but after contemplating DiVerneiro’s offer and thinking about his path in life, coaching seemed like the perfect option for Mike.
“I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was taking courses part-time at Southern Connecticut State University,” says Mike. “When he asked me, I asked myself, ‘Why am I not coaching?’ He was right.”
After coaching at the Orange Swim Club for two years, Mike became head coach of the boys’ swimming team at Foran High School in 2007. He spent two years there before becoming the head coach at his alma mater Notre Dame. Mike spent four years with the Green Knights and then started coaching the girls’ swim team at St. Joseph in Trumbull. For the past five seasons, Mike has coached the swim team at SHA.
At every destination, Mike learned about the importance of patience and communication as a coach. Mike always wanted to make a connection with his athletes, and some of those connections have stood the test of time.
“I still speak with captains from 10, 12 years ago,” Mike says. “One of my former captains called me up looking for swim lessons for his child.”
Now, Mike is ready to begin his debut campaign as head coach of the GNH Warriors co-op squad. While he knows that there may be challenges that come with coaching a co-op, Mike believes that his experience at schools like Notre Dame and SHA has him ready for the road ahead.
“Working with a co-op can definitely present challenges as the schools are on different schedules, but they’ve been great about coordinating things to make it as easy as possible,” says Mike. “It does feel similar to coaching private schools with kids coming from all over.”
North Haven Athletic Director Steve Blumenthal feels that Mike is a great fit for the Warriors due to his vast amount of experience working with student-athletes. Blumenthal is looking for Mike to keep building GNH into a powerhouse program.
“We are very happy to have the opportunity to bring Mike to the co-op boys’ swimming and diving program. His years of experience and working with student-athletes speaks for itself,” Blumenthal says. “We are looking forward to a great season with Coach O’Brien leading the way.”
Mike believes that persistence and dedication are crucial components of any team’s success. As coach of the Warriors, Mike wants to see his athletes bring strong levels of dedication to both the pool and the classroom on a daily basis.
“If you’re not going to put in the work, you’re not going to succeed,” says Mike. “If you’re failing in academics, you’re not going to succeed in the pool. I want them to be as well-rounded as possible.”
With the 2021-’22 season getting underway, Mike has big expectations for the Warriors this year. Mike thinks that GNH has the potential to finish in the top three at the SCC Championship, the Class LL State Championship, and, potentially, the State Open. Mike also feels confident that numerous athletes on the Warriors’ roster have a chance to put up All-American times.
While he’s been a part of the swimming scene for many years, Mike says that he never expected to be leading a high school team from the pool deck as a coach. As he joins the GNH Warriors, Mike feels lucky to still be involved in a sport that’s a huge part of his life.
“I didn’t expect to be here this long. I didn’t even expect to be a high school coach. I was only in my second year of coaching when I started with high school,” Mike says. “My head coach said, ‘Mike, go for it. You’ll be great at it.’ Here I am almost 20 years later still coaching high school. It’s a great feeling to still be involved in this sport.”