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Ahrens has Bulldogs in hunt for another state trophy

Ahrens has Bulldogs in hunt for another state trophy

Mike Ahrens admits he can be very difficult to live with for about seven months each year. 

Unlike most high school coaches who experience the daily grind for three or maybe four months, Ahrens is on the go from the start of the girls swim season in August until the boys conclude in February. 

It can lead to many nights of restless sleep.

"I still put a lot of pressure on myself," Ahrens said. "I lie in bed dozen of nights over the two seasons wondering if I did the right practice set that day or if I have the right lineup for the next meet.

"My wife would probably love for me to hang it up because I'm not a very good husband or father for 28 weeks of the year."

The results speak for themselves.

Recently named the national coach of the year for girls swimming and diving by the NFHS Coaches Association, Ahrens takes his boys squad to Iowa City on Saturday in the hunt for another state team trophy (top-three finish).

In 25 years of leading both programs, the Williamsburg native has coached the girls program to four state titles and two with the boys. 

He's had numerous other top-three state finishes with both teams, compiled more than 200 dual wins coaching the girls and 15 regional championships. 

"He's very focused on having a strong work ethic and doing the right thing — showing up on time and doing your job," Bettendorf sprinter Andrew Ottavianelli said. "He's not super intense all the time, and we like to joke around, but when it's time to get to work, we work."

In particular, Ahrens has a knack for getting his swimmers to peak at the optimal time. 

"His tapers are unbelievable," sophomore Charlie Bunn said. 

Ahrens said much of that has been trial and error.

He spent the first 10 years of his coaching career soaking up information through books, attending clinics and picking the brains of successful coaches.

"I'd try something, and if it didn't work, I'd flush it and try something new," Ahrens said. "Early on, I put way too much over-analysis on how to taper.

"Eventually, I went with my gut. In reality, the taper is the first eight to nine weeks of the season, not the last three weeks. Really, it is old-fashioned work and believe in what you're doing."

His track record of success brings credibility. The swimmers buy in.

"We all listen to him," Ottavianelli said. "He's gotten a lot of state titles himself, so we have trust in what he's saying."

Ahrens deflects taking the credit. 

"I get the best families," he said. "The families of these kids are so dedicated and willing to put up money to take lessons early on, club and travel. 

"They're committed to their kids, and that's a great investment."

It isn't unusual for Iowa high school swim coaches to lead both the girls and boys programs. However, the number doing so is dropping because of the time commitment.

"Swimming requires long hours, and a lot of families can't handle that," Ahrens said. "With my wife being a teacher as well, we can make it work. Plus, it helps that both of my kids are in swimming, too."

The Bettendorf boys finished third at last year's state meet. They are positioned to do the same this weekend with participants in 10 of 11 events.

Bettendorf has all three relays seeded among the top seven, along with individual stalwarts Caleb Aman, Bunn and Ottavianelli. 

"If everything comes together, we can go as high as possible," Ottavianelli said.

The biggest change is the venue. 

After 13 years in Marshalltown, the meet moves to the University of Iowa's Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. The facility opened in 2010 and already has hosted an NCAA Championship.

"I'm just hoping it is as loud (as Marshalltown)," Bunn said. "Noise is a lot of the experience of making it to state."

One thing is certain. The pool will produce fast times.

"People are going to drop time just on the pool alone," Ottavianelli said. 

Ahrens credited Marshalltown for being a great host but said this was an important and needed change for high school boys swimming.

"Why not use the fastest pool in the state?" Ahrens said. "You could argue in past years, you were going to an inferior pool (from districts to state).

"With the state atmosphere and newness of it, I think it will be rocking. I'm super-pumped to get there."

Even a quarter-century later, Ahrens still has the same fervor for the sport.

"I might not think that during the season, but I do enjoy it just as much now as when I started," he said. "After the season is over, I'll sit back and realize we had an awesome year."


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Sports Editor

Sports editor, with my emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 19 years, the last seven at the Q-C Times.

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