After long absence, GJ’s Ryan returns to coaching swimmers

Grand Junction’s Janet Ryan loves teaching swimmers the right way to swim because, “it’s just you and the water,” she said.

Grand Junction swimming coach Janet Ryan is back in her element, giving instructions to swimmers from the side of a pool. Ryan returned to coaching after a 15-year break to raise her children.

She left her love for 15 years.

Left it to be, of all things, the stereotypical soccer mom — the large van packed with screaming kids, familiarity with almost every youth soccer athlete west of the Rockies, and drives that cover half of Colorado, just to get to grassy fields with two nets and white-painted lines.

It was a fun phase.

Then this summer, the single mom of 17 years said goodbye to the last of her graduated children and hello to a torn ACL, expressing what she called a feeling of cold water blasting her face.

She suddenly was alone.

Then a phone call. Grand Junction High School needed a girls swimming coach. A former swimming coach needed her love of coaching swimming back.

The 15-year separation is over. Janet Ryan, who in her first season as the Tigers’ swimming coach has one individual state qualifier and a few relays on the cusp of state-qualifying times, has her life back.

She swam at Western State and coached club and high school swimming teams for 19 years. Then came children. Four of them.

“After a while it was like, ‘OK. My kids are done swimming; all they want to do is play soccer, so I’m going to be a soccer mom,’ ” Ryan said. ” ‘I have to give my love up for a while.’ “

In June, Ryan said goodbye to the final of her four children, Kirsten, who was off to Mesa Community College in Arizona.

Then Ryan tore her ACL swimming.

And then — why not? — her pool started leaking and the private swimming lessons in her home were canceled for the first time in 18 years. According to Ryan, a woman who took the lessons said: “This is worse than Starbucks closing down.”

Triple shot, please. Ryan called it an off year. Double espressos and Pikes Perks could have surrounded Ryan, if she had so chosen. But not children. Not anymore. The young energy that makes her determined to soon be fit at 50 was gone.

Then, the phone call. It was late October.

“It was the perfect opportunity when they called and said, ‘Would you be interested in applying for this?’ ” Ryan said.

Does a swimming pool hold water?

Yes, she said she’d love to apply, and in early December tears laced her cheeks when the Tigers’ 400-yard freestyle relay team swam faster than any Tigers’ player or coach had expected. Grand Junction, with three seniors, took second at a four-team meet in Durango. That night, Ryan could not sleep. Pride kept her eyelids from collapsing together.

Kirsten, 18, has seen something in those eyes for the first time since Mom was strapping her in a car seat.

“I’m seeing that little spark in her eye again,” Kirsten said. “It’s definitely been awhile. She coached me back when I was little and now she’s back in the groove.”

The first day of practice was not about proper strokes. It was about different strokes — how to eat and drink.

“I was a little worried about how my teammates would take it,” said Taylor Kidd, who has qualified in the 200 freestyle. “But they’re coming back.”

What is this love affair Ryan has with teaching teenagers correct techniques of flapping their arms and swatting their feet so they become closer and closer to skimming on water?

“Swimming is one of those sports where you have to get up early, look at a black line on the bottom of the pool for hours, and you have to get in the water,” Ryan said. “You don’t have a ball; it’s just you and the water. It’s a challenge to get the kids motivated for that.”

During a recent practice at El Pomar Natatorium, Ryan’s son, Kellen, a film major at CU-Colorado Springs, was filming swimmers.

Her other daughter, Erin, 25, kicked back by the pool, guarding a tray of mini blueberry muffins, watching Mom go, once again.

“She kind of kicks their butts,” Erin said. “It’s hilarious. But from what I’ve heard, they like it.”

Ryan’s not letting go this time. She hopes to return to Grand Junction for another year — at least. She needs to be here, around swimmers. In Ryan’s mind, time doesn’t dissipate the natatorium sounds of echoing voices and shards of water peppering concrete.

When it comes to extinguishing this kind of love, 15 years isn’t nearly enough.


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