• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Chuck Zbur.
If it takes a village to raise successful swimmers, Mark Hess is the mayor of one of those villages right here in Indiana.
Hess long ago realized the power of the swimming community to reach its peak by working together, ceding certain responsibilities to others and letting them all work at their best, creating a swimming culture in Indiana in which a child can learn and develop through the years into a successful high school, and even college, swimmer.
This most recently has paid off in the form of three straight WPIAL Class AA boys’ team championships.
In his 29-year tenure, Hess’ teams have won 24 section championships and four district championships, and he has also had one individual state champion.
Hess defers much of the credit to his assistants, the program at the YMCA of Indiana County, a lot of people other than himself. But the coach gets the credit for bringing everyone together and allowing them to be successful.
“If I could have it my way, I’d like to have a coach in every lane,” Hess said. “Some people, it’s their way or the highway,” said Kim Hartle, Hess’ assistant with the Indiana High School team, “and Mark never operates like that.”
The Indiana swimming pipeline starts at the YMCA. Children learn to swim and do so competitively, up through their high school years in events sanctioned by the YMCA and USA Swimming.
“We have some of the best swimmers in the state of Pennsylvania that come right out of Indiana County,” said Dave King, coach of the Piranhas, the local YMCA swim team. “We start swimmers as young as 4 and have them go all the way through until they’re 18 and leave for college, and we have a lot of swimmers that go on to swim in college.”
Hess’ Indiana High School program works hand-in-hand with the Y, so much so that it’s almost taken for granted. In reality, it’s somewhat of a unique relationship that lots of other high school coaches are too stubborn or uncomfortable to foster.
“It’s a product of many people working with (the swimmers), not just one,” Hess said. “They’re not just in one program, they’re at the Y, they’re with me. They see some slightly different things over here, and we never clash no matter what happens.
“The coaches over there and I, we talk to each other, we keep everything on the up-and-up. There are a lot of programs throughout western Pennsylvania where that is not the case. The high school coach won’t let them practice at the Y or the Y coach won’t let them practice at the high school. … Once you split those two programs up, you’re not going to be as successful as you could be.”
Hess was hired as a teacher, and swim coach, at Indiana starting in the 1984-85 school year. Growing up in State College, he participated in soccer, wrestling and baseball. There was no school swim team in State College until a few years after he graduated in 1974. While going to Penn State, Hess worked at several area pools during the summers, and he was united with Pete Moyer, who coached the new State College High School swimming program. That gave Hess his start in scholastic swimming. Once he got to Indiana, Hess also worked in the YMCA program, and he knew it was a relationship he wanted to continue.
“I purposely stayed on both, because I knew that would help us in the long run,” he said.
“He sees the bigger picture in all that,” Hartle said. “We’re getting some great kids coming to us, and we’re going to give credit where credit’s due, at the ages of 6 and 7 and even 3 and 4 when they start swimming, and that can only do good for the program.”
Hess is quick to credit his assistant coaches. He has had many throughout the years, using whatever help he can get. They’re on board with his ideas, but also free to bring their own.
“He’s a director in that his assistant coaches, me included, know our role from him,” said Valerie Haney, a longtime assistant who still helps the high school team behind the scenes. “It’s almost like a coworker situation where he’s always seeking out knowledge and opinions of people around him.
“I’ve never known him to take the credit and be in your face like an NFL coach would be — Look at me. He’s very humble in that, and he is always seeking out as many people as he can to motivate and help kids.”
“All these people, there are no negatives,” Hess said. “All these positive people around you, you can’t help but be successful. It’s not one person. It’s not me, and it’s not just one of them either. If I was the only one there, it wouldn’t happen. You’ve got to have a bunch of people that are positive, that want to help.”
It adds up to a fulfilling swimming experience for Indiana kids, giving them the avenues to become successful swimmers at many different levels.
The most prominent of those success stories is Rachel Zilinskas. The Olympic hopeful who competed in the 2012 trials recently committed to the University of Georgia as one of the top recruits in the nation in this year’s high school class. She is more the exception than the rule, as she has spent the last three years at Germantown Academy, a private school near Philadelphia, furthering her career after rewriting the Indiana record book as a freshman. However, she is also a testament to Hess’ flexibility and its benefits to the Indiana swimmers.
Zilinskas was training with her club team, the Fox Chapel Killer Whales, most of the time during the 2009-10 season, but also wanted the experience of swimming for her school. A coach with a bigger ego would have denied her that chance.
“As a coach, I could’ve said, ‘You’re not allowed to be on the team because you don’t practice with us,’ but I knew that would’ve been the stupidest thing to do,” Hess said. “She has such a great, glowing personality and she’s very humble. She’s one of the nicest girls you’d ever want to see, and I knew she’d be that kind of positive help for our team. Not one person on that team said she shouldn’t be swimming for us.”
And Zilinskas, who had worked with Hess at the YMCA as a younger swimmer, won the 200 individual medley state championship, the only state swimming title in school history, that season.
“It meant so much to me to become a state champion under Indiana High School,” she said. “I grew up swimming for Mr. Hess, and it meant a lot to me to win that for Indiana and for him.
“Swimming in Indiana as a young child is what really sparked a dream in me to someday compete for the USA. There have been so many kids before me, kids that I looked up to, such as Jen Beatty and Garet Weston. They were so successful in both the YMCA and the high school programs and went on to swim in college.”
Weston, a 2007 Indiana High School graduate, swam at Clarion University and has since come back to Indiana, recently serving as an assistant coach in the high school program. Next season he will run morning weight training for the team.
“He always makes a sport that’s not usually fun enjoyable,” Weston said. “He really helped out with pushing me as a swimmer. He always made me work harder than I normally would. As an assistant coach with him, again, he’s always fun to be around. The thing with him is he enjoys what he does.”
Growing up in the YMCA and school programs, Weston is a testament to how successful the combination can be.
“The mutual respect between the two programs really works out for the kids,” he said. “It doesn’t make them make a big decision on who to swim for. They’re able to swim for both and just have fun with it.”
While Hess can concede some control, his enthusiasm for the sport is visible, whether his cheering comes at a regular-season dual meet or when one of his sons is swimming on a bigger stage, such as the WPIAL or PIAA championships.
“I think I’m one of the more enthusiastic coaches,” he said. “I’m a very emotional kind of guy, and they know that. I’m probably a lot more active yelling and screaming, but it’s positive.”
He’s still going strong as a coach — he coaches two of his four sons, Logan and Grant, and Gage, the youngest, is still on the way. Adam, also a swimmer, graduated high school last spring.
“Basically I want to keep that program strong,” he said. “I like swimming. I like the kind of personalities swimmers have. And my own boys, a little selfish there, but my own boys, I wanted to see them be successful. That’s basically it. I like it, and I like coaching.”
MARK HESS, at a glance:
Family: Wife, Sherene; sons, Adam, 19, Logan, 16, Grant, 15, and Gage, 13
Education: State College High School, 1974; Penn State University, undergraduate, 1978; Indiana
University of Pennsylvania, master’s, 1985
Occupation: Teacher, Indiana
Junior High School
Career highlights: 546-131-6 career coaching record; four team district championships, including the last three WPIAL Class AA boys’ titles ... 24 section titles, including nine straight for the boys’ team ... has coached numerous state qualifiers and medalists and one state champion.