The O’Donnells: Power of Perseverance and Remembrance

Feature by Jesse Stipek

MADISON, Wisconsin, April 18. AT the recent Wisconsin Division 2 state high school swimming championships, McFarland High School claimed its sixth consecutive state championship by almost 100 points.

This year's team captain, Ryan O'Donnell, led the McFarland team to two individual and two relay titles. O'Donnell won the men's 200 IM in a time of 1:48.14, breaking his own prior year's record by nearly a second. He also won the men's 100 backstroke in a time of 48.35, which bettered former Texas Longhorn and Olympian Neil Walker's record 49.61 from 1994. Something else to keep in mind is that O'Donnell also led off the 200 free relay and only had 10 minutes recovery between events.

Most recently, O'Donnell picked up his first Olympic trials cut in the 100 meter backstroke at the sectional meet in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Any current high school swimming athlete would be thrilled with that kind of success at the high school level. O'Donnell is the kind of person that is humble and positive regardless of the success or situation he faces.

As impressive as all of this is, it is not the real story. None of this comes close to the inspirational story behind all of this success. The inspiration behind O'Donnell starts in 2005.

It is never good news when you find out someone close to you, or someone you know, is diagnosed with a life-changing disease. This day in October was not typical at all. It never is when a family hears the life-changing words that someone they love has cancer. In this case, O'Donnell's mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. O'Donnell's brother, Derrick, remembers at the time that he, Ryan, and their other brother, Brandon thought of themselves as invincible. He explained, no matter how bad things looked they would come out on top in school, life, or athletics.

However, when he discovered his mom had cancer he remembers thinking “this isn't supposed to happen to us…” He was shattered. Ryan remembers “everything being different, there wasn't anything normal that felt the same anymore.” In addition to Ryan dealing with his mother's diagnosis he also had to wrestle with the fact that his swimming career may also be in jeopardy. Ryan's mom was not only his mom, she was also his coach.

Ryan's mom, Angie O'Donnell passed away Oct. 23, 2011 at the age of 49 after a seven-year fight. This was just a few months prior to Ryan's stellar performance for McFarland at the state meet. It is a testament to anyone to carry on strongly with the loss of their mother, but the fact that Ryan thrived and swam on for her is even more inspiring.

We all understand how hard it is to change a coach that has helped us to perform at our fullest potential, but to lose a coach and also your mom is something most of us cannot fathom. Ryan was fortunate enough to be surrounded by his two brothers and follow in their footsteps. Brandon swims for the University of Wisconsin and Derrick, who is now Ryan's coach, and formerly swam for the University of Wisconsin from 2006-10, provided him with all the support he needed.

When Angie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005 the doctors said she had about a 20 percent chance of survival. Although the cancer eventually overcame her, she never gave up. Her spirit of competition and love is present everyday with her family.

Derrick considered Ryan's performances this year as “outstanding.” Ryan was presented with a tough situation that most people would crumple under. But, Ryan, being the competitor he is, rose above the sadness and loss and used it as motivation. He dedicated his career to her memory and her long lasting impact. Derrick also mentioned the example Ryan set to the other teammates who lost their coach. He said, “you couldn't ask for a better example.”

Derrick and Ryan remember Angie's presence on the pool deck like nothing else. Even in the peak of her sickness they explained how on a beautiful day, being inside was the place to be. She made it that way because of her “pranks” on the other coaches and discovering new ways to make working hard fun.

One thing in particular Ryan remembers is when his mom's hair started falling out. He said she would pull it out and yell “you kids are driving me crazy!” At first there would be shocked silence followed by an outburst of laughter from the whole pool. Derrick also remembers trying for his Olympic Trials cut in 2008. He time trialed the 100 meter backstroke three times before his mom showed up to the meet to inspire him to success. He explained how “she always brought out the best in him.” Ryan remembers his mom's coaching because like any parent she was never able to make every meet, but he said she would always have someone tape his races and review them with him after he got home.

Derrick has eased into coaching the McFarland Spartan Sharks after his mother's passing. He noticed a change in Ryan after their mom was gone. Derrick explains nothing really changed as far as Ryan's training; however, his dedication and motivation were amplified. The McFarland Spartan Sharks home pool name was recently changed to The Angie O'Donnell Pool and the current team has made a pledge to dedicate their efforts this year to her memory.

A few of Angie's favorite quotes that Ryan and Derrick remember are, “Make it a great day,” “Every day counts,” and “Light the fire within.” Something Ryan remembers most about his mom was she always coached everyone with a smile. Ryan's swims were impressive this year, but not nearly as impressive as the legacy his mom, and coach have left. She had an aura of happiness surrounding her on the pool deck, something Ryan will always remember and never take for granted.

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