The Buzz: A Moment to Remember
By Mike Gustafson//correspondent
Glenn Mills was 1246 miles from Omaha, Nebraska. He stood in the middle of his 30th floor New York City apartment and screamed at the TV. Lia Neal was swimming on NBC at the Olympic Trials in the finals of the 100-meter freestyle. She was racing next to Madison Kennedy, a veteran swimmer. By the time Lia hit the 25-meter mark, Glenn prepared himself for disappointment. She wasn’t out fast enough. She wasn’t going to make it.
“I was standing at the TV with my head in my hands,” Glenn said later. “It happens so fast, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s not going out fast enough.’”
By 50-meters, it was a different race. The “angle changed,” as Glenn describes it. Lia, a typically back-half swimmer, had positioned herself to do something great. As she flipped for home, Glenn thought Lia was going to win. After all, Glenn’s wife, Rachel Stratton-Mills, coaches Lia. Glenn knew Lia’s strength was in that final 25 meters. He had seen her swim countless practices, countless races. He knew she could win this thing.
“I just remember at the 75 screaming at the TV, ‘She’s gonna win it!’” Glenn recalls.
As Lia churned home, clawing and thrashing as Rowdy and Dan commentated, Glenn saw her stroke technique slightly falter. Maybe Lia was getting too excited. Maybe she wouldn’t win. Maybe she wouldn’t make the Olympic roster. Anything can happen in sprint freestyle. These are, after all, the Olympic Trials, a brutal emotional and physical rollercoaster where anyone not named “Michael Phelps” has slim hopes of Olympic qualification. Everything happens so fast. In the blink of an eye, a hand could slip, a stroke could be shortened, and that’s it – a lifetime of swimming, wrapped-up neatly in under 60 seconds.
“When I saw the ‘4’ in that overlay, I just started screaming,” Glenn says. “The dog jumped up and he started barking. It was just great.”
Lia hit the wall. The number “4” graphically displayed over her lane. She made it. She finished 4th, good enough for a relay spot. She would swim in the 2012 London Olympics. Which also meant Glenn’s wife Rachel had just put a 17-year-old swimmer from downtown Brooklyn onto the Olympic roster. And there, some 1246 miles away, was Glenn, screaming so loudly that, perhaps, if you stood outside the CenturyLink Center and craned your ear toward the eastern horizon, you could have heard him. He shouted at the TV. His dog began to bark. A moment of elation, a whirlwind of excitement, and then, of course, celebratory text messages.
“You can’t put enough emotion in a text,” Glenn says. “They need like extra bold caps. That was the hardest part.”
What did he text Rachel, seconds after that race?
“I think it was a ‘Y’ with 50 capital A’s after it,” Glenn says. “It was gibberish and how proud I was.”
It was an unforgettable moment between husband and wife, between two swimming aficionados -- two people who moved from Maryland to New York City to chase a dream -- shared over a thousand miles away.
A Pre-Planned Trials
Before the Olympic Trials, Glenn and Rachel came up with a plan: He wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t attend the biggest meet in the United States of America. To a lot of people, this decision was confusing: Why not go? Glenn’s wife was the head coach of a swimmer who, with some luck and a hell of a great swim, could make the Olympic team.
But Glenn, a 1980 Olympian, coach, and swimming video producer, realized the best support he could lend Rachel was to stay home. He needed to stay away from the pool, swimmers, and atmosphere. A swim coach needs to experience an Olympic Trials journey alone. A coach needs to learn how to cope with disappointment, or perhaps, triumph. In such an intense, grueling, exhaustive atmosphere, Glenn was afraid he may say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, or react the wrong way. He wanted there to be no interference with what would be the biggest meet of his wife’s coaching career.
“I didn’t want to be there to protect the relationship not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time,” Glenn says. “Everything is at a heightened intensity, even if it’s meant in the best intensions, if it’s accepted in the wrong way, you could be the person who messes everything up. I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where I could say something stupid. At the same time, I wanted [Rachel] to experience the thing completely on her own.”
It was a tough decision. Think about it. Most people wouldn’t have the foresight to say, “You know what, I really shouldn’t be there. I don’t want to get in the way.” But Glenn knew that the best support he could lend his wife was to stay home.
“If there was sadness, it’s a very important role the coach has to accept in dealing with the athletes, and Rachel has to learn to deal with that in her own her way – not my way. On the other side, if there was success, I wanted her to have 100 percent the kudos and credits.”
Of course, this week, looking back at these particular Trials, when I asked him if this will be a strategy going forward in the future for other Olympic Trials, there was a pause, then Glenn said, laughing:
“Next time, I’m going.”
About a week after the Olympic Trials ended and Lia had earned her roster spot, I met Glenn at a restaurant in New York not far from his apartment. I had just attended a press conference featuring the newly minted Olympian. Glenn, naturally, was all smiles.
We talked about the Trials, his reactions, how Lia’s entire life changed within a blink of an eye. As we were talking, an email appeared on Glenn’s phone. He read it. He smiled, and read it again: It was an opportunity to go to London with Rachel and Lia. “Someone just asked me if I wanted to go to London,” Glenn said to me, almost in disbelief. “Should I go?” Just then, Rachel walked in, sat down, read the email, and asked, “So, do you want to go to London?” A member of the 1980 Olympic team, Glenn had never been to an Olympics. For 32 years, he had stayed away from any Olympic venue. But when his wife leaned in and asked him the question, he looked at her and didn’t even hesitate, “Absolutely.”
"I don't think it was so much emotional," Glenn says of his trip to London. "The travel wasn't. It was going to the pool, obviously, I always dreaded. I was worried who I sat next to or what questions came up."
Attending the London Olympics, Glenn was worried that he might be relegated to share his story with someone in the stands as Lia was getting ready to swim. He didn’t want to relive that 1980 boycott experience. He wanted the experience to be about Lia and Rachel. He was worried conversation with the spectator next to him would turn to the 1980 Olympics, and Glenn would explain the situation. But when he finally talked to the person next to him, an American, he realized he didn’t have to explain anything: Of the thousands of fans in the natatorium, he was sitting next to a person who understood better than almost anyone.
“We asked him why he was at the Olympics. He said, ‘My wife is the head coach of the swim team.’ It was Teri McKeever’s husband. There was no conversation about the boycott or 1980.”
Glenn watched Lia lead-off the relay. She swam fast enough to earn a “night swim.” But watching finals was a different story. Rachel attended finals, but Glenn couldn’t find a ticket. So, Glenn found himself watching the Olympics with a friend and an assortment of fans from around the world on a TV outside the venue.
“We made a ton of new friends – people from Spain, UK, France. When the relay came up, everyone knew who Lia was, everyone knew who Rachel was. Lia and Rachel had all kinds of new fans. It was the true meaning of the Olympics. It wasn’t country versus country. It was a lot of support. They understood it was a human side of it. It was the best way to watch finals.”
A Life Dedicated To Swimming
Back on the pool decks of Asphalt Green in Manhattan, Glenn bounces from group to group. Sometimes he coaches alongside his wife (who was just named a coach to the 2012 World Championship team), teaching the next wave of future Olympians. He’s a stroke technician, working with coaches and swimmers. He also helps run a company called GoSwim! with Barbara Hummel that provides instruction DVDs and swimming drill videos online. This weekend, on the 10th anniversary of the company, Glenn is offering a free weekend-long subscription where anyone can watch anything on his website, even the DVDs, for free.
“We’ve created a site that has everything we’ve ever done on it. 40 DVDs. There’s a lot of content on the DVDs. We wanted to show people for our 10th anniversary to give them an opportunity to experience it. They sign up on Friday, you sign up like you have a full subscription. You have the full weekend to look at it and cancel. You can see everything we’ve ever done.”
Glenn often spends his time in his apartment working, and when he’s not working on a new swimming DVD or “Drill of the Week” video (he streams about 20,000 YouTube videos a day), Glenn returns back to the pool and coaches near Rachel. When I ask Glenn what his swimmers have been working on lately, Glenn explains with his last group, he worked for two hours on streamlines.
Any swimmer would tire of the monotony, but after the practice, Glenn pointed to a nearby poster and showed it to his group. The poster says: “Lia Neal: Bronze Medalist.” Glenn told his swimmers, “Without those streamlines, that sign for Lia doesn’t happen. She has to be perfect.” Then, Glenn asked his swimmers if they knew where Lia was at that moment. The swimmers turned and pointed over to the National Team lanes, where the national swimmers were practicing in the pool.
He said, “No she’s not. She’s being honored at the Jets game.”
Each one of those young swimmers will remember that moment, as young swimmers tend to do, the moment they realized one of their own was being honored at Monday Night Football. Just like they will remember the moment when their teammate won an Olympic bronze medal. And when I ask Glenn of all the snapshots, quotes, memories, and races that happened this summer, which he will remember most, he says:
“It’s a series of pictures of the Asphalt Green team as they’re watching Lia swim. It was one of those series where she’s coming down the last 25, and then she makes the team. Rachel with her arms in the air. The absolute look of joy on her face. That’s what I will always take away. Watching someone you love reach an ambition and a goal – there’s nothing better. It’s better than you reaching it yourself.”
He adds: “You have no control over someone else’s goal. When the swimmer dives in, you’re done. Nothing you can do will make any difference at all. You’re helpless. I’m  miles away jumping in the living room. There’s nothing I can do for Rachel. There’s nothing Rachel can do for Lia. So seeing the end result and that joy on the one I care the most about – Rachel – that’s the moment you remember forever.”
It’s hard to fathom that the biggest swim fan in the world -- a man who lives, breathes, eats, and has dedicated his entire life to swimming -- was 1246 miles from Omaha during one of the biggest moments of his family’s life. But he would have it no other way. Looking back, he wouldn’t have changed a thing. Lia made the Olympics. Rachel coached her there. And far in the background, in New York, smiling, shouting at the TV, dog barking, jumping up and down, cheering wildly hundreds of miles away, was Glenn.
Swimming, like the Olympic Trials, is unpredictable. And strangely, wonderfully, unpredictably, in one race, after a lifetime of races, in that moment, Glenn Mills had unknowingly punched his ticket to London, to the Olympics, 32 years after that boycott, in the most remarkable, loving, and ultimately fitting way.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.