Retired YMCA Aquatics Director and Swim Coach
By Abigail Thorpe
Photo by Kiersten Patterson Photography
Most people around Sandpoint will recognize Mike Brosnahan from his magnetic smile and easy comfortability and warmth. Odds are, he’s taught you or your children—or perhaps both—to swim. Over his 32 years as the aquatics director for Sandpoint West Athletics Club and the YMCA, he’s touched hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
Mike retired last month from the YMCA, but his legend lives on. He hasn’t forgotten all of the lives he’s been a part of, and if you had Mike as a coach or instructor, you remember him. After all, he’s not an easy man to forget.
Q. What brought you to Sandpoint, and how did you first get involved with the YMCA and swim?
A. I was a recreation major down at the University of Idaho. My friend Kim Woodruff wanted to offer me an internship with the Sandpoint Parks and Rec department. At first, I was a little reluctant. I was only going to be here for nine weeks and then I was going to take off. I knew once I got to the long bridge I was going to stay for a while. No matter where I take off and travel, Sandpoint is my home port.
My first thing was my internship for the city, and that was working on the Sandpoint lifeguard program. By the end of the summer I realized I wasn’t gonna leave, I was going to be a ski bum and work out some way to perpetuate that. I was the athletics director for a boys’ school, I went from the boys’ school to Pend Oreille Shores Resort. I was only there for probably a year, and the job opened up at Sandpoint West Athletics Club. All I really wanted to do was work with people in the water. I really like swimming and I really like sharing what I know with people who want to lose their fear and learn to enjoy to swim.
Q. Have you been a swimmer all of your life? How did you first develop a passion for the sport?
A. At about 11 years old I was left unattended in my uncle’s pool. And I think because I was 11 years old everyone just assumed I learned how to swim. My cousins tipped me over on an intertube, and I started to drown. Ironically, a year later, my cousin's girlfriend caught me swimming in the pool again, and she asked me if I wanted some help, and she taught me to be at least water safe in one day. When I came back home, I got involved with 4-H lessons, and when I made it through all of their classes, they asked me if I wanted to help. At 14 years old I started teaching 4-H swim classes.
It helps me understand people’s fears. I find it incredibly satisfying to help someone get over their fear of water and open them up—especially in this area—to a world surrounded by water. And people seem to trust me. If people trust you in the water with them, then they’ll get it themselves. With a minimal amount of comfort in the water, you can save a lot of lives.
Q. What was your favorite part of being a swim coach and aquatic and youth director?
A. I would say just the energy of the people that really love the sport of swimming. It’s not easy. If you’re a competitive swimmer you can only rely on talent for so long, you have to work hard. The most rewarding is just the energy of being at a swim meet and the humbleness of athletes. It seems like the sportsmanship that we’ve developed in the inland empire as a swimming league—there aren’t any unhealthy rivalries, we really work as coaches (and) teams to expand our sport.
I never didn’t want to do it. It was always exciting for me to travel to a swim meet. My kids always seem to linger around me and hang out where I’m at. Storytelling and enjoying the company of people who love to swim has always been a big attraction to me. As far as working at the Y, they gave me a unique opportunity. They were really open to everything I had to offer, and that made all of the difference in the world.
Q. What has been most rewarding about your career? What will you miss most?
A. With swim team it would be (that) my swimmers still keep in contact with me. I don’t care much about talent, I wanted to coach people who loved the water. It’s the relationship I’ve built with kids, sometimes from birth, all the way to (those with) grey hair, and I get a chance to see how they’re doing.
On the swim lessons side, it would be teaching someone that’s afraid of the water to be comfortable in the water. I can’t think of anything more successful or a greater sense of completion or joy to me.
Q. How have you actively sought to inspire and make a difference in your students, no matter their age or aspirations with swimming?
A. Just telling the new kids the stories of the old kids. Telling the old kids that started a long time ago what I did when I was in school. I think the three things I draw from are sailing, skiing and Aikido, because I think all three of them take effort to master. I honestly have felt for years that if you can be comfortable in the water and you can reduce drag, and you can use your entire body to move through the water, then you’ll be the best swimmer you can be. I try to share all those experiences with my swimmers, and that’s, I think, the driving force. I just have a passion for people to be more efficient in the water.
Q. How are you involved with the Sandpoint community outside of the YMCA and coaching?
A. I would like every kid to graduate high school with basic swim skills. Long Bridge Swim at a pretty early time came up to me and said, “Hey, if you have anyone who can’t afford swim lessons, we’ll pay for them,” and “We are going to completely fund the third and fifth grade (swim) program.” It got to the point where the program was pretty much paid for by the Long Bridge program. And then it drifted into a homeschool group, and we got homeschoolers in, and then we expanded the life skills group.
If you look at what programs we ran, we didn’t just have swim team and we didn’t just have organized lessons. We really just opened it up to get more kids at least introduced to swim, introduced to safety. I took on pretty much by myself the middle school kids, the seventh and eighth graders, and I would spend one full day lecturing them about water safety, and one full day water testing them. That was upward of 500 kids all in two days. It was a crazy week for me, and Long Bridge Swim paid for all of that. I really enjoyed it and felt that Sandpoint at least had a good head start. By the time they got into high school, they had a good opportunity to learn to swim.
Q. What advice would you pass on to your current students and those to follow?
A. I really feel that swimming is a lifetime sport. I’ve watched an older woman who comes into the Y three days a week. She doesn’t walk well, but she still swims. It’s such a good lifetime sport and lifetime activity, and you don’t have to be good at it, and you can always learn more. For my athletes, I hope they never lose their passion for the water. For those learning to swim, I hope they never give up. I’ve always told the kids, when you walk in the door, leave your baggage out front. No matter what’s bothering you, the pool is your sanctuary.
I know there’s a lot of my swimmers that feel I just left, but I hope they know they’re always in my thoughts no matter what. Every time I see someone swim or every time I’m on the water, I’ll be thinking of all the good times I had.