How College Swimming Changed My Life: Unifying Coach Tom Donati

Photo Courtesy: Donati Family

By Alexander Hardwick, Swimming World College Intern

At 5:40 a.m. on a summer morning, he slips into his Mount Lebanon Aquatics sweatshirt, khaki shorts and yellow an blue Nike Free running shoes. Stopping at Dunk’in Donuts to pick up a large black coffee before converging on the Mount Lebanon community long course pool.

The morning air in Pittsburgh is foggy with cold gusts down from the hills. The cold air doesn’t prevent the swimmers from coming, neither does the early hour. The deck fills up by the 6:30 dive-in time. The group is composed of many different township swimmers, as well as many different ages and levels; from 7th grade BB time holders to Olympic Trials qualifiers.

All the swimmers are waiting for what is in store for the next two hours. The orchestrator for this 10-lane, multi-inverval, and stroke/distance specialization practice is Tom Donati. So with his large coffee in one hand and dry ease marker in the other; he scribes a practice which he hopes will make his team into stronger swimmers and people.

A few years ago (well, back in the 1980s), high school swimmer Tom Donati almost never ended up on the pool deck.

Following Friends

In Western Pennsylvania, Bethel Park High School was beginning a dynasty program that as structured around long, grueling practices, and building a team, that was committed to winning as one unit. Donati decided to jump on the boat, when he realized that he was getting injured in different fields of play…and all of his close friends where hanging up there cleats for cap and goggles.

The broad shouldered high school swimmer with a linebacker build focused on sprint butterfly. Donati aided Bethel to four straight district titles and a state championship his senior year.

While on the way home from a swim meet, Tom Donati was handed a college recruiting letter from his high school coach Pat Campbell. The school was one he had never heard of, seen or even was considering. When he handed it to young Donati, Campbell said, “this school is where you’ll go to college.” Coach was right.

Donati went to Westminster College and continued nurturing his love for the sport.

Hard Work and Hard-Earned Values

At Westminster, Donati would contribute to the team, while helping to build a team mentality like the one at Bethel. He would graduate a 16-time All-American and with a school record in the 100 Fly (now 7th All-time in Westminster history).

However, Donati mainly remembers the values he acquired as a student-athlete. As a freshman he remembers lifting and swimming extra to further his development as a swimmer. Donati was the catalyst the team needed to become a unified, competitive team in the Presidents-Athletic Conference.

During his senior season, Donati fought through Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (which is a disorder dealing with the heart’s electrical system between the atria and ventricles), sending him to the hospital for days at a time.

Donati would come back to swim at PAC Championships, and qualify for the National Championships. At Nationals in Canton, Ohio Donati became an All-American in the 100 fly, and remembers looking up to his grandparents in the audience and feeling immense joy. He says this moment (his favorite of college swimming), taught him how important mental strength is in swimming.

Donati sums up his experience with the words: discipline, structure, commitment, and teamwork. He still abides by these four words, years after graduating from Westminster in 1990 as a team captain.

From Pool to Deck

Coach Donati with his daughter and swimmer Sophia

Coach Donati with his daughter and swimmer Sophia.

In the fall today, along with swimming, Tom Donati teaches middle scholars social studies at Seneca Valley Township. He takes his swimming approach into the classroom with him everyday. As a coach and teacher, he teaches the values he learned swimming at Westminster.

He first began his coaching career head coaching at Senca Valley high school, building a girl’s team that was competitive at the Pennsylvania state level. One season, a couple of very talented swimmers were causing problems on the states team. Their negative attitude was affecting the women’s team morale. After day one, Donati sent the swimmers home. Donati has always looked at each swimmer as a part of team, and that each swimmer therefore should give the team a positive boost, regardless of talent.

In 2009, Donati switched to head coaching at Upper Saint Clair High School, which was a program that was on the rise, but couldn’t quite get to the top of the team district podium. In his first year (2010), the men’s team took home second place in the Western Pennsylvania District (WPIAL) and the next year the team would win the title; the first title the high school had won since 1973.

Today, Donati is finishing his third year as the Mount Lebanon high school head coach. The team is young and has many rising stars that should make a presence at the Pennsylvania state level. Despite coaching the high school and township club team, he looks at the “people” he has coached not the “swimmers.”

He continues his journey in creating better people and instilling the values of commitment, discipline, teamwork and structure he learned as a college swimmer. His swimmers have gone off to swim all over the country at a variety of different schools ranging from Division I to III.

He thinks swimmers who can be positive and lead either through word or example are the cornerstone of every successful program. Donati believes every swimmer plays a pivotal role in a winning program.

Building a Lasting Community

Donati’s commitment to showing his swimmers teamwork is even shown in his diversified coaching staff. Donati has always had assistant coaches that were from his past. For example, Donati went to high school and was a senior when swimmer Kevin McLaughlin and David Becky were freshman at Bethel Park high school, and today they all coach on the same pool deck at Mount Lebanon.

He has always kept his former teammates and swimmers in his heart; hiring many to keep the same core values Donati has learned from his years at Westminster. He wants to help create a strong family value on the teams he has coached.

If it wasn’t for the friends he made at Bethel Park and the values garnered at Westminster, many swimmers would have been coached by someone else and the success of the teams he has been a part of, unknown. He has become a large part of bringing swimmers and coaches together in western Pennsylvania and continues to build upon that strength today.

Today, he hopes to keep helping swimmers strive to be better people and swimmers. He also wants to keep creating a strong swimming community in western Pennsylvania banding coaches and swimmers together.

When asked about his best 100 fly time (52.14) that places him 7th on Westminster’s all-time list, and what he thinks he could go today at age 48, Donati laughs and with same enthusiasm he brings to his swimmers every day.

“I hope a 1:15.”

I didn’t challenge the coach, but I’m sure he could!

Coach Tom Donati’s Coaching Bio

  • USC High School Head Coach, USC Swim Club, 2009-2012
  • WPIAL Champions
  • Mount Lebanon Head Coach (MLAC) 2012-present
  • Mount Lebanon High School Head Coach 2012-present
  • USA Swimming Club Excellence Program Level III Club Recognition (Upper St. Clair Swim Club)
  • Seneca Valley High School, Head Swimming & Diving Coach, 1997-2009
  • Seneca Valley Head Swimming Coach, 1997-2009
  • USA Swimming Club Excellence Program Level II Club Recognition (Seneca Valley)
  • AMS Head Coach for Training Trip to U.S. Olympic Training Center
  • AMS Coach of the Year
  • Head Coach of LSC Select Camp
  • Head Coach of Zone Team
  • President of Allegheny Mountain Swimming Coaches
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Coach Graham
Coach Graham
8 years ago

Great article alex, coach donati is a great coach and a great person.

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