Joel Shinofield: A Return to Minnesota Roots at NCAAs

Joel Shinofield, second from right. Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

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By Michael J. Stott.

This 2018 Men’s NCAA swimming and diving championship represents somewhat of a homecoming for Joel Shinofield. Long before he became executive director of the College Swim Coaches Association nearly 10 years ago, he was a volunteer assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Gophers. He also had stops in the Land of 10,000 Lakes as a water polo coach at Macalester College and the Richfield Swim Club. And this was before he enjoyed a successful extended run as the head men’s and women’s coach at Washington & Lee in Lexington, Virginia.

It’s been an eventful winter for the executive director who was enticed back on deck at Norfolk Academy to renew his coaching. Why would he do that in amidst the continuing battle to keep college programs afloat (think Eastern Michigan, Wright State, Buffalo. et. al.)? For several reasons … the former NA coach resigned, his replacement was diagnosed with cancer, Shinofield’s wife was school athletic director and he’d coached some of the swimmers six years earlier.

A little history … Time was when Norfolk Academy was an aquatic powerhouse, especially in the early ‘90s. Since then the Bulldogs had always been competitive and well coached but had not won a state championship (girls) since 1997. Fast forward. In February the boys won the championship going away while the girls missed first by one-half point.

The difference? Among other things a culture change, revamped coaching staff, inclusiveness and emphasis on fun. “Jay (Leach, multi-time coach of the year) left us some really good things,” said Shinofield. “He laid a solid foundation and instilled some good traditions such as taking the entire team to the state meet. A lot of kids would say their success was attributed to the swimming base they got from him.”

The new coaching nucleus included, among others, Shinofield, JV and varsity coach Kristen Kirkman, two Navy Seals with swim backgrounds and three dive coaches. “We had a multi-talented, skilled coaching staff on deck. Everybody brought something to the table and was valued for it. There were no egos involved,” says Shinofield. One of the SEALs did exceptional leadership work with the team and captains he noted.

“Kristen was the glue that held the whole thing together. She was going through chemo in the beginning of the season, finished radiation in the second half and has just had surgery. She was an amazing example to the kids. You couldn’t have had a better demonstration of commitment. There were days when she felt like trash, but being on the deck made her feel better. Her communication was excellent; she was so good at knowing exactly what to say to a swimmer. Whatever the issue she had the ability to read and relate.”


One of the challenges the team faced was getting the parents to understand that it was OK to have a team composed of club and high school only swimmers. For years “there had been an undercurrent that club kids shouldn’t be involved,” he said. Already known as the former W & L coach Shinofield began a concerted effort to connect with three area club teams (TIDE, Coast Guard Blue Dolphins and ODAC) to enlist a cooperative effort. He was successful from Day One with the result that the 2017-18 Bulldog squads were a blend of some club, some high school only and a variety of three sport athletes.

Aquatic training took a different path as well. Rather than pursue aerobic one day and anaerobic the next the Bulldogs opted for reverse periodization. “This year we tried to hit as many of the energy systems as we could knowing that in high school you are going to have kids who miss practice for whatever reason. We missed 10 days this season for snow so we had to make every practice count. We also had athletes miss the first week of practice because they were involved in state championships for fall sports. The school doesn’t mandate practice during exams so we had kids who came for an hour a day while others came in on their own.”

Not surprisingly a major point of emphasis was fun. “We never talked about competitive goals for the year,” says Shinofield. “We told the team, ’Everything you want to get out of this is your decision.’ We placed responsibility in their hands. Regarding goals we told them to talk about them among themselves and hold one another accountable to do their best. High school and college swimming has to be educationally-based and needs to be about personal growth, human development and fun. Otherwise, I don’t know why you do it,” said the executive director.

He also shared with parents and athletes a philosophy honed by years of athletic battle. “The entire season is made of moments and we are just trying to have great moments. Smaller moments are fine for learning experiences, but if you base your entire competitive season evaluation on just one moment you are going to miss what happened,” he said.

The Bulldogs didn’t miss much at the state meet. On the first day the boys squad had an exceptional performance over their seed and just pulled away to win by more than 100 points. The girls, led by Georgia commit Callie Dickenson and an assortment of club and high school swimmers, went hammer and tong with the Madeira School.

Going into the 400 free relay NA Norfolk led by 5.5 points. The Snails Kentucky recruit Izzy Gati led off with a 50.55 and gained some clear water with the Bulldogs putting up a tenacious fight. Madeira won the race (by .73) and the state championship by the slimmest of margins (.5). Both teams attained NISCA Automatic All-American status. How good was the NA effort? In going 3:27.95 their quartet broke the school record by 9 seconds.

This week Joel Shinofield was back to wearing his executive director hat on deck and meeting with his college coaching constituents. Being on deck at the high school level once again “was fun,” he said. “I also helped some kids with the college process. They’re swimmers; I like them. Coaching is one of the ways I can give back,” he said.

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