By David Rieder.
Mark Bernardino dedicated 35 years to building a national powerhouse at the University of Virginia. When Bernardino swam for the Cavaliers from 1970 to 1974 and when he took over in 1978, the program had little in the way of swimming history. But during his tenure, the Cavalier women and men combined to win 27 ACC championships.
When you thought of Virginia swimming, you thought of breaststroker Ed Moses, an Olympian in 2000, or perhaps more recently of Matt McLean and Lauren Perdue, both Olympic gold medalists on relays in 2012. But then, you thought of Mark Bernardino.
That’s what made it so stunning when news came out on July 1, 2013, that Bernardino was retiring—or at least, that’s what the school announced. Few heard from the coach himself for the next ten months.
Away from the sport for the first time in decades, Bernardino immediately knew that he still wanted to coach again.
“I didn’t end things on my terms,” he said. “I always knew I would come back. I just didn’t know where I would come back and in what capacity. It was never a question in my mind that I would be coaching again.”
The following May, Bernardino landed at the University of South Carolina as associate head coach. McGee Moody, who at that point had led the Gamecocks’ program for seven years, had no hesitations about bringing on a coach who won his first conference title before Moody was a teenager. Moody saw an opportunity to hire someone who could help improve his team, so he jumped on it.
Moody remembered the first interaction between the two, early in his tenure at South Carolina when the Gamecocks were scheduled to race Virginia in a dual meet. The day before, Moody’s youngest daughter, then eight days old, had stopped breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital.
When the infant was stable, Moody called Bernardino to apologize that he would miss the meet.
“Coach, I’d lose all respect for you if you were there,” Moody remembers Bernardino telling him.
“That’s the same man he’s been every day at South Carolina,” Moody said.
Last month, Bernardino sat on a bench under the scoreboard at Texas A&M Rec Center. It was his fourth SEC championships since coming to South Carolina, about an hour before the third morning of prelims.
The question was a simple ice-breaker: How does it feel different coming to championship meets now compared to his early days as a coach. Bernardino smiled wide.
“It doesn’t,” he said. “It’s my passion. I thoroughly enjoy and live for the moments when I get to see athletes culminate their season, have the opportunity to see what their years’ efforts have yielded.”
Without prompt, a spirited Bernardino broke off into a reflection about why coaching is still so exciting for him.
“It has to be one of the most fascinating and interesting jobs in the world,” he said. “No two days are the same. The dynamics of the people you work with are constantly shifting. The demands are different on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. It’s a profession where, if you want, you don’t ever have to stop learning.”
Bernardino called coaching his calling, comparing it to math because of the “infinite” possibilities for trying different ideas for improvement, and then he compared himself to a tinkering scientist.
Working with athletes and helping them work through swimming and everything else in their lives energizes Bernardino, and he takes pride in seeing his swimmers embrace new and sometimes extremely difficult challenges in training, even if they come up short.
“I get amped up every time I walk onto a pool deck,” Bernardino said. “Whether it’s 6 a.m. or 3 p.m., it’s the best four hours of my day. I can’t wait to be on the pool deck interacting with my athletes, trying to find a way to motivate them, trying to find a way to inspire them to be all they can in life, in athletics, in school.”
He believes that, as a coach, he must show loyalty to his athletes even after their swimming careers end, figuring that if they made a commitment to swim for him, he must return the favor whenever they need him.
The desire to feed off the energy of college swimmers and have the opportunity to help them is why Bernardino knew that even after his time at Virginia came to an end “not on my terms,” that he would return.
When he was recruiting Bernardino to join his staff in 2014, Moody believed he could draw the best out of Bernardino’s years at Virginia.
“He had success like not a lot of coaches ever experience, so obviously he did a lot of things right,” Moody said. “I’ve got someone on my staff that has the experience of an elite-level head coach, and very few head coaches get to have that. He’s always got advice on what to do, and that was immensely helpful in terms of helping to change our direction.”
And indeed, the program’s direction has changed for the better. Bernardino recalled what he told Moody his goals for the program were when he was hired.
“When Coach Moody hired me, I spoke about, ‘Within four to five years, can (the men) break into the top 15?’ This is what I felt the process would look like,” Bernardino said. “But in year three we were 15th at NCAAs. I feel like our men have progressed even faster than I thought it would happen.”
At South Carolina, Bernardino has been directly responsible for guiding the likes of Akram Mahmoud, the Egyptian distance swimmer who finished second in the 1650 at the NCAA championships as a sophomore and then third a year later, as well as German Fynn Minuth, who has won two straight SEC titles in the 500 free.
But beyond the swimmers he has produced, his presence has raised the day-to-day intensity level on pool deck in Columbia. Moody describes how Bernardino’s competitiveness as a coach has raised the bar for his entire coaching staff, which includes assistants Kevin Swander and Erin Mullins, and for the swimmers, too. And more than ever, the swimmers deeply believe in what they’re working towards.
“I’m really proud of the culture, the work ethic that has maybe become more a part of the culture, the mindset that the athletes have come every day,” Bernardino said. “I’ve seen a real uptick in their belief system, their enthusiasm and their energy for the sport, their dedication to team and one another.”
Moody admitted that he sometimes likes to stand and watch as Bernardino coaches practice entirely off instinct: what he sees based on how his athletes are swimming or even their tone and mannerisms outside the pool.
“New coaches don’t have that. Young coaches don’t have that. He can watch, and he can see by how they’re swimming how they feel that day and make adjustments as necessary,” Moody said. “It’s really cool. A lot of coaches have to have spreadsheets and data and all that stuff. Mark Bernardino needs to see his swimmers—that’s all he needs to do.”