By David Rieder.
Jay Holmes is an Aggie through and through. The head coach of the Texas A&M men’s swimming team for 14 years and an assistant for the 18 years before that, Holmes has been with the program through plenty of highs and lows, and last month, when his team hosted the SEC championships, he knew that he was witnessing a special effort.
In their first five appearances at the SEC championships, the Aggie men had finished seventh, seventh, eighth, eighth and seventh. But with three sessions to go in the 2018 meet, Holmes’ squad sat in second place, 13 points ahead of perennial powerhouse Georgia.
“Obviously, it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun having the alums that have been with us before, how much fun they’re having watching it. I’m getting a lot of texts from them, and you can almost hear it in their voices, how excited they are that we’re in the fight,” Holmes said.
In the very first men’s event of the meet, A&M diver Tyler Henschel won a conference championship on the 3-meter board, and teammate Sam Thornton later finished third on 1-meter. In the racing pool, Mauro Castillo, Angel Martinez and Brock Bonetti each secured multiple top-three individual finishes.
Finally, in the last individual race, Castillo, Jonathan Tybur, Tanner Olson and Austin Van Overdam finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively in the 200 breast. That essentially locked the Aggies into second place, and they finished ahead of Georgia by a margin of 994 to 975.5. The Aggies believed they were primed for a leap forward, and they pulled it off.
“Jason does a great job at getting kids to believe,” Holmes said. “He’s really good at it.”
“Jason” refers to Holmes’ third-year assistant coach, Jason Calanog. Calanog arrived during the summer of 2015 from the Bolles School, where his duties included mentoring a young sprinter named Caeleb Dressel.
When Holmes was looking for a new understudy, he was seeking someone different than him—different coaching methods, different techniques, different personality. In Calanog, that’s what he got.
“Hopefully I’m bringing something to the table, but there’s things that I’m going to miss, things that I’m not going to be as aware of as someone who’s different. Jason, he’s different than me. He’s probably more 95 miles per hour than I am. I’m much more 55,” Holmes said. “All you know is that Jason wants to win.”
On the surface, Holmes and Calanog might not seem like a match destined to be. Holmes arrived in College Station in 1980 as a swimmer, left for one year and then came back as an assistant coach. He grew up in Corsicana, Texas, about two hours north of College Station, and he has never coached anywhere else.
Calanog, meanwhile, is more than 20 years younger than Holmes, and before he arrived at A&M in 2015, he had no connection to the Aggies and just one year of collegiate coaching experience as an assistant.
Calanog is the high-energy rah-rah type, compared to the calm and collected Holmes. But the way Calanog sees it, he’s the perfect complement to his boss.
“The school here is about tradition, so it’s easy to see why people want to swim for him because of the traditions,” Calanog said. “For me, I can bring the other side—bring the excitement to a conservative school. That’s what makes it a great partnership because you get two sides of the spectrum.”
Sure, the two might bring different aspects of coaching, but, as both men emphasized, when it comes to the team and its goals, they are 100 percent on the same page.
“We definitely have one goal, and obviously that’s to achieve the highest pinnacle, whatever we can. Whether it’s a national championship in a couple years or the SEC title,” Calanog said. “As a coach, if you don’t believe that you can win a national title, then why coach?”
When Calanog mentioned the eventual possibility of a national championship, Holmes grinned. He knows all too well that the Aggies have not even finished in the top ten at the national level since 1999, more than five years before Holmes took over from the retiring Mel Nash as head coach.
But Calanog’s energy and belief have invigorated the veteran coach and the entire team. In a sport as difficult as swimming, Holmes believes, having that presence on deck daily makes the grind required to achieve big goals not only more tolerable but even fun.
“Every team out there is working hard. Every team wants to do well. There’s just a little switch of a difference, and that’s building a culture on your team,” Holmes said.
“It’s just fun whenever you get a group together that buys into the hook, line and sinker—they’re all in. I think any time you get a group together like that and they’re all in, good things are going to happen.”
Sam Kendricks, the meet announcer for the NCAA championships and other major championship meets in the U.S., had not watched the Aggie men compete in almost a year before the 2017 American Short Course Championships. That was the meet moved at the last minute from Austin, Texas, to San Antonio after a leak was discovered in the University of Texas pool.
That weekend, under less-than-ideal conditions, Texas A&M stood out. Something about that team was different, Kendricks noticed, and the contrast was jarring.
“It was the first time I had seen A&M as a team in about a year, and I was blown away by the change in their attitude, the change in their approach to racing, the change in their approach to each other, the change in the way they interact with their coach,” Kendricks said.
“These are things that as an announcer, I’m constantly watching. I can’t talk about it—I’m not describing that action to the world. I’m looking to see something I may have not seen before that maybe could translate into the pool. I started seeing that with A&M last year.”
A few weeks later, the team finished 16th at the NCAA championships, the highest finish for the Aggies in five years but the event that really made the country notice what was going on in College Station came eight months later.
When Texas A&M departed the Big-12 conference in 2012, that put a damper on the school’s longtime rivalry with the Texas Longhorns. Initially, all competition between the two schools ceased, but matchups have resumed in some sports in recent years—including in swimming.
During A&M’s latter days in the Big-12, the Aggies-Longhorns rivalry in women’s swimming was highly competitive, with A&M winning the conference title over Texas in four of the school’s last six years in the Big-12. But for the men, legendary coach Eddie Reese and the Longhorns steamrolled the Aggies year after year.
The last time Texas A&M beat Texas in a dual meet? 1962. For some context, Holmes arrived in College Station as a freshman in the fall of 1980.
“He was born in 1962, so that’s easy for him to remember,” Calanog joked.
In this year of many firsts for the Aggie men, they beat Texas—the three-time defending NCAA champions in addition to the Aggies’ geographic rival. On Nov. 3, the final margin was Texas A&M 158, Texas 142.
“It was a big deal just because it had been so long,” Holmes said. “We had two people up in the stands who were at that meet in ’62. One of them was on the team, and one of them had graduated the year before and just happened to be at the meet. For them, that was pretty special, that they were at the last one and they were here when it happened now.”
Of course, dual meet wins only mean so much in swimming, but the Aggies backed up that success with their runner-up finish at the SEC meet. This month, they get another chance at the NCAA championships, a meet where they have not finished in the top ten since 1999.
There’s a photo that hangs in the Texas A&M men’s locker room of a pool deck team meeting. The meeting took place at the end of 2016 American Short Course Championships in Austin, and the swimmers organized it themselves. What was said that evening, Holmes later found out, was the spark that set his program on the course it’s on now.
The Aggie men typically use the American Short Course Championships as a last chance meet for those who have not yet qualified for the NCAA championships, but it’s also a “team meet,” as Holmes describes it. Everyone on the team, even those already safely qualified, attends and races in some event. It’s the last time the entire team competes together.
In 2016, Holmes remembers, only two swimmers had qualified for NCAAs already, then-sophomores Castillo and Bonetti. That left the rest of the team scrambling to get cuts—and the men hated being in that situation. So at the end of the meet, they gathered and made a resolution.
“In that team meeting, supposedly what went down is they looked at each other and said, ‘Next year, we are not doing this meet like this,’” Holmes said. “The thing they said they didn’t want to happen again is to be at that meet in such a desperate situation.”
In that moment, the Texas A&M men’s swimming program made a commitment to be better. No more scrambling at a last-chance meet just to qualify for the NCAA championships and maybe scratching out a few points at that meet. That wouldn’t be good enough anymore.
The team finished 25th at NCAAs that year after not scoring either of the previous two seasons, and, in 2017, the Aggies jumped all the way up to 16th. Then came this season, on track to be their best since Holmes took over as head coach.
Calanog helped instill the belief that the Aggies could build towards a national championship, but the team’s expectations for itself were set that day in Austin.