Duke Swimmers Excel at NCAA Championships While Honoring Their Late Coach, Dan Colella

Duke’s Sarah Foley after winning the 200 breaststroke B-final at the NCAA Women's Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Duke Swimmers Excel at NCAA Championships While Honoring Their Late Coach, Dan Colella

The results suggest this has been perhaps the most successful season in Duke swimming history. The women’s team placed fifth at the ACC Championships, best in program history, for the second consecutive season and the third time in the last five seasons, while the men placed 10th. At the NCAA Women’s Championships, two  Duke swimmers qualified for championship finals, with Sarah Foley in the 200 IM and Kaelyn Gridley in the 200 breaststroke, believed to be the first time ever two different Duke swimmers achieved individual A-finals at a single NCAAs.

But at the same time, it has been as challenging and emotional of a season as any college program in any sport could experience. In December, longtime head coach Dan Colella told the team he was stepping away because of his ongoing battle with prostate cancer, and he passed away one week later at age 60. Days later, associate head coach Doak Finch was announced as the Blue Devils’ interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

“Officially, he held his last team meeting the Saturday before,” Finch said. “He had been continuing to write practices until the week before because that’s what he loved to do. He wanted to be involved, to help the student-athletes as much as possible. That was his focus, and that was my focus and the focus of the other coaches, to give him that and let him go as far as he could with that.”

The university announced plans to honor Colella with an on-campus memorial service the day after the team’s last home dual meet of the season, but in the meantime, the responsibility of guiding the team as they processed their emotions and attempted to move forward fell to Finch and the rest of the coaching staff.

“All of them are processing it in different ways. It affects people differently. It affects people on different timetables. I’m sure everybody’s still processing it. I’m still processing it,” Finch said. “Swimming has provided kind of a baseline to keep people going, to maybe take their mind off things a little bit, as hard as that is. The team has done a tremendous job. They’ve supported each other through it, and I can’t be more proud of them and what they’ve done.”

The process of teammates supporting each other during a time of grief was delicate, and the swimmers quickly showed empathy, to care for their teammates while giving them space as necessary. But at the same time, the team was still in pursuit of championship-level swimming, and Colella became the inspiration pushing the Blue Devils through the last months of the season.

The team was obviously so important to Dan. He knew this team was capable of such incredible things,” Foley said. “In December, the focus for me shifted to just swimming only to make him proud and to do this because he had given me the opportunity to swim collegiately and to swim at Duke, so I really wanted to finish this season out just to do the best I could for him.”


Duke interim head coach Doak Finch — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Heading into the ACC Championships, Finch encouraged the group to be their own best selves, to go about their routines and avoid comparing their results to themselves or to others. Of course, these college-aged women and men are far from robotic, so he implored them to bring emotion and enthusiasm to the pool deck, to celebrate “the little victories,” which he noted can “build into big victories.”

That’s exactly what happened in mid-February at the conference meet. Finch fondly remembered second-place individual finishes from Foley in the 200 IM and Gridley in the 200 breaststroke, the second of which involved a huge closing burst to pull into second place behind Alex Walsh. He remembered the Duke women making a conference podium appearance in the 400 medley relay.

Duke’s men’s program has not reached the same level of national success, but Finch recalled senior Brad Sanford breaking a school record in the 100 butterfly that dated back to 2012.

When Duke brought 10 women to the NCAA Championships in Knoxville, each wore caps labeled with “Colella” instead of their own last name. Duke ended up 21st with 42 points, more than half of which came in one race on the final day. In the 200 breast, Foley swam in the B-final, and after trailing Olympic champion Lydia Jacoby by more than a second with 50 yards to go, she accelerated and got the win in that heat.

After exiting the pool, Foley waited a few moments to wish Gridley good luck as the freshman, assigned to lane eight, walked out first for the A-final. Gridley, too, showed impressive closing speed on the way to a sixth-place finish.

“I’m honored to do it with Kaelyn,” Foley said. “She’s a great training partner, great friend. I think it’s really a testament to what Dan built in his 16 years at Duke, especially in recent years. He knew we were all capable of reaching that next level, so to do that and honor him is amazing.”

Gridley added, “I remember seeing Foley and seeing her compete at these meets before I came here, and everyone was just in awe of how fast she is and how much of a role model and a leader she is for this team. It’s awesome to be able to compete with her and swim with her at these events. I think it just really shows what Dan created and how we’re thriving now. It’s awesome. I wish he had been able to see it.”

Successful results on the conference level and now the national level are validating, but a program’s achievements are almost always a reflection of the culture and structure built behind the scenes for years. In seven seasons with the Blue Devils, Finch has seen the program’s culture built to produce a program with buy-in, energy and momentum, and for that, he credits Colella’s ongoing vision for the program, which he first learned when he arrived in Durham in 2016.

“He said, ‘I want to build Duke into a great ACC program,’” Finch recalled. “Setting a foundation is very, very important because if you don’t have a great foundation, you can’t build upon it. Dan was big on culture. He was big on Wooden’s leadership pyramid. It’s grit, respect, enthusiasm, accountability and teamwork, and each of those are broken down into little things. I think Dan was very good at setting the culture up, figuring out what individuals need but within the team aspect and building on that.”

Now, with a draining season concluded, Finch and his staff are ready for an “exhale” after an emotional four-month stretch. He admitted that he’s still processing Colella’s death, and he became emotional while reflecting on what the Blue Devils’ longtime leader meant to him.

“He was a boss, but he was a mentor. He was a friend and someone you could chat about with anything and someone who loved life, someone who knew when to be serious and knew when to crack things up, and boy, he could do that. Brought a lot of levity to serious moments,” Finch said. “And just the opportunity to work with him and to see how he viewed life and how he viewed things, to have him be able to bring me in and share that with me, it means the world.

“It leaves marks on your lives, and he will continue to be with me. He’s one of the voices in my head when I make decisions. I’m sure as time goes on, it will get a little bit better, but it’s still emotional right now. It’s emotional for the staff, and it’s emotional for the kids. It’s somebody who we really, really loved and who was loved by all, and you end up really missing somebody like that.”

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Chris Contreras
Chris Contreras
1 year ago

Love this article.

John Gridley
John Gridley
1 year ago

This is a lovely tribute to Coach Colella and to the coaching staff who found a way to encourage the athletes despite this tragic loss. Earlier this season Coach Colella reached out to us parents to let us know how he enjoyed working with our daughter. That is the kind of person he was. It is apparent that the Dan imparted his genuine care and concern for his athletes onto all of coaches/staff. So glad our daughter is with a staff like this.

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