Sept. 4, 2009
By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In little more than a month, his teams will open the season against the University of Florida, a perennial power in NCAA swimming.
If Mark Bernardino had grown a little tired of the routine, it would be understandable. This, after all, is his 32nd season as head coach of the UVa men’s and women’s teams, and he’s overseen untold practices and workouts during his tenure, often at hours when many people in this town are still asleep.
Yet his passion for coaching is palpable when he talks about what he’s built and what he hopes to achieve at Virginia.
“I love it,” Bernardino said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
For that, his alma mater can be thankful. A Pennsylvania native, Bernardino came to UVa as a first-year student in 1970 and, save the two years he spent as a sales rep for Procter & Gamble, has been here ever since.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1974, a master’s from the Curry School of Education in ’78. He starred on the swimming team and qualified for the 1972 Olympic Trials. While pursuing his master’s degree, he was an assistant swimming coach at UVa. And then, in August 1978, he was promoted to head coach.
The program has flourished under Bernardino, especially over the past dozen years. In men’s swimming, the Cavaliers have won 12 ACC titles, including 10 of the past 11, and in March they placed ninth at the NCAA championships, their best-ever finish.
The UVa women have won two straight ACC championships — seven in all — and they finished 12th at the NCAA meet in March. Bernardino has collected 26 coach-of-the-year awards from the ACC. Given all that, it’s easy to take the program’s success for granted.
“If you were doing that in football, if you were doing that in basketball, if you were doing that in just about any sport, I think people would say, ‘Wow, that’s a damn good program,'” Bernardino said in his office at the Aquatic and Fitness Center.
“I think we take the most pride in the fact that we are consistently good. We are consistently going to be a challenger for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, every single year, and we’re consistently going to be a top-16 program at the NCAA championship meet. I guess that’s been our hallmark.
“We’ve consistently produced all-ACC athletes, we’ve consistently produced all-Americans, we’ve consistently produced athletes who compete on the international level and medal at that level. We consistently produce first-team academic all-American swimmers. We consistently produce a large number of all-ACC academic athletes.”
The constant during the Cavaliers’ run, of course, has been Bernardino, who strives to ensure his approach doesn’t grow stale.
“I always take the perspective that every year is truly a new year, because 25 percent of our team wasn’t there the year before,” he said. “I don’t recycle any training workouts. I write fresh workouts every single day … I view every year as a very, very distinct opportunity to make something special happen with a new group of kids.”
Spending time away from Charlottesville has helped him grow as a coach. Bernardino was head men’s coach of the U.S. team at the World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia, this summer, and he held the same post at Beijing in the summer of 2001.
Bernardino said he relishes the “opportunity to work with some of the best collegiate swimmers from so many different universities around the country, and to talk to them about how they train and the things they do, and what they do to mentally prepare.
“Most impressive is how they come to not just myself, but any of the coaches, for suggestions on how to improve themselves. It’s enriching and it’s rewarding, because we learn from those athletes. Hopefully they learn from us as well. And being able to take a group of athletes and in a very, very short period of time, blend those athletes and create a team feeling and a team atmosphere, that’s a lot of fun. And it’s marvelous to see how young people, in the name of their country, even though they’re at opposing universities and compete hard against one another all year long, how quickly they become friends, and how important it is to each of them to represent their country.”
That Bernardino’s UVa teams will be strong again this season seems a given. Returning standouts include Mei Christensen, the reigning ACC women’s swimmer of the year, and Matt McLean, John Snawerdt, Scott Robison and Taylor Smith for the men.
“I guess I can say our goal is we want to repeat with both teams as ACC champions,” Bernardino said. “The men have found themselves as a top-10 program, and we are presenting to this team that it’s one thing to make it into the top 10 once, but we’re not consider ourselves a success unless we can stay in the top 10, and it’s very, very important for us to try to remain in the top 10 this season.
“The women have been in the top 10 in the past. They were 12th at NCAAs this past year, so we want to try to get them into the top 10 and have both programs in the top 10 at the same time.”
The most significant offseason development in the program? Probably the hiring early last month of Rich MacDonald as diving coach. He’d been in that position at East Carolina University for nine seasons.
“He’s out of the chute very quickly, and he’s very aggressive in recruiting,” Bernardino said. “Historically speaking, we have not scored very many diving points at the conference level, and we’ve never scored a single point in diving at the national level. And Rich has been charged with the responsibility of bringing our diving program from the lower level of the ACC up at least to the middle level of this conference in diving in the next couple of years.”
Facilities — or the lack thereof — have held back UVa’s divers, but visitors to the Aquatic and Fitness Center will notice a change. New this year is a 5-meter platform, and that “will attract better divers,” Bernardino said. “Heretofore we had no ability to practice on a tower whatsoever.”
So how successful can the Cavaliers be in swimming and diving? Bernardino’s teams have yet to seriously contend for NCAA titles, but he’s not ruling that out.
“I don’t think you should ever put a ceiling on where you can be and what you can accomplish,” he said. “I think if we can continue to move forward, if we can continue to compete against teams that are at the very top level of NCAA swimming, and we can continue to attract — which we do — a lot of good strong recruits, then I think the sky’s the limit.”