By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, February 28, 2017
U.S. Open water coach Tyler Fenwick, also the associate head coach at Tennessee, found something very important in 2016: Peace. And himself. He had just finished reaching the top of his profession as a coach, and then he realized there had to be something more. He re-established contact with his family. Though he already had a college degree in English and attended law school, he went back to school again. He explains what the journey was like, and where he goes from here, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How did the whole thing unfold with your father and what made you reach out?Tyler: I was pretty upset at my Dad. Much of my childhood, I can remember him kind of comatose, taking painkillers or drinking. I think anger can only take you so far. You get to a point where I got to in my life and I saw this void sitting there.
2. So it was an emptiness in your life?
Tyler: The void was creating a lot of anger. I said to myself, instead of complaining and letting it affect me negatively, what’s the solution here. I slowly came to the conclusion that having my father in my life was the solution.
3. What did you go into it thinking?
Tyler: I went into it with no expectations. I thought it might be no more than a phone call. I was at a meet in Atlanta last summer, I pulled into my hotel, and I decided to give my Dad a call
4. How did that first call go?
Tyler: We talked for 10 to 15 minutes. Then we started talking every week, we had a set time. This relationship blossomed. He’s been clean for several years now. I’m getting to know my father. It is awesome. He is lucid and he is there now. So I just asked him, “Can you tell me about your life? About the decisions you made? What did you do that has made you happy?”
5. How were you able to look past all that had happened?
Tyler: We can only control what we can control. We can only control so much in our lives. We have to take a look at ourselves. Look at the pieces we can shift and put into place. This is something I had control of. I’m glad that I picked up my phone even though I didn’t know how it would work out. How many times in life do things exceed our expectations? And this has.
6. And of course you too will be a parent someday so this helps, right?
Tyler: One day I will be a Dad. And I can’t wait to help shape my kids’ lives and show them the world. It’s something we do with our athletes at Tennessee and it is so rewarding. Their eyes light up when they learn something new.
7. You are all about learning, doesn’t that make you even better as a coach?
Tyler: I hope so. We had a bunch of seniors at the last chance meet in Athens. They have learned so much about their lives. There were a lot of tears. Tears that it was over, but also for what they have learned. It’s exciting for me to share that moment for them and see what they have in front of them.
8. On Facebook, I joined hundreds of others in following this experience of yours -- you opened a window for a lot of people, do you realize that?
Tyler: I heard from so many people, many of whom had similar experiences with a mother or father, a brother or a sister. I’ve reconnected with my sister this year as well. She struggled with alcohol, crack cocaine, and heroin. That has been a tough road. She’s been clean for about two years. It’s been great getting to know my sister again, and help guide her a bit and give her confidence.
9. What made you go public online with this?
Tyler: The reason I went to social media with it is because I didn’t know who else was out there who was struggling and didn’t know if they should reach out to a parent or friend, or in a position where that would be appropriate. I wanted to let them know, this was an amazing experience for me. Sometimes, you close your eyes and jump. I wanted to send the message that nobody’s life is perfect. We hide from those imperfections. We put up this image of ourselves that is not totally true. I wanted to give a raw glimpse into my life. I don’t regret anything -- this is what brought to me to today. The reaction has been overwhelming.
10. Your beautiful dog, Knox, has also opened this beautiful part of you inside, hasn’t he -- is he standingby right now with you?
Tyler: He is and he’s ready to go! I’m going to take him to the quarry to find some mud to roll around in. I wondered for 10 years if I should get a dog. I just didn’t know how it would work with my schedule. Then I realized I could find time if I cared to make it work. He’s my buddy. He makes my life so much better. Animals change us. Knox, since the day I picked him up when he was six weeks old, has been completely dependent on me. Knowing that huge responsibility, you connect. All he shows is love, every day. He can’t wait for me to get up. He’s so excited for us to get up. I’ve got a toy in my face at 3 a.m. with this massive Rottweiler in my face. That’s been a positive change in my life.
11. How did you decide to get a dog -- I only ask because I thought the same thing and ended up rescuing a feral cat that is now my whole life and love?
Tyler: I was in Colorado Springs and I had some down time. I started researching dogs. There was a breeder who raised them. So I got in touch with them and they were having a litter. He’s a big dog, but all he knows is love. I spent a lot of time with him teaching him boundaries and etiquette. People have that stigma about this breed, but they are amazing with kids -- he’s especially amazing with really little kids. We saw a toddler the other day, who couldn’t even talk yet, and she just wanted to touch Knox. The mom was of course worried. Knox gave her a kiss on the face. That’s typical for Knox. He’s a gentle giant.
12. On top of all that, you end up back in college again as a student, why and how?
Tyler: I had to find something I would be engaged in and something I could apply to my life and the rest of my career. The University of Tennessee has some great programs and different certifications. I decided getting a certification in Human Resources could help me as a leader. If you are going to lead a business, you need that background in Human Resources in this day and age.
13. Those classes end up teaching you more than you ever thought?
Tyler: One of the greatest things is the people who I have met in these classes -- my classmates. All these people who are making Knoxville great.
14. The group you have coaching at Tennessee applies those same organizational communication things you are learning in school, doesn’t it?
Tyler: We’re learning as a staff every day. Swimming is not linear. It is a constant process of being faced with adversity and creating a plan to overcome that adversity. As a coach I am learning as much if not more from the athletes as they are learning from me. I just try and guide them and put the pieces in the right places.
15. What else does taking classes as a 36-year-old make you realize?
Tyler: It’s important to stimulate your brain. Being on a university campus is an advantage for that. I’m interested in Human Resources and I have a greater understanding. I will never be an expert. But what I have learned has improved me in so many areas. And it’s just fun to learn. You’ve got to plan to very deliberately put that into your life -- an opportunity to learn something new.
16. How do you choose these challenging paths for self-improvement?
Tyler: I try to surround myself with people much brighter than I am and who have more experience than I do. What’s the saying, “When you know more than everybody in the room then you’re probably in the wrong room.” I have a pretty tight circle. They give me good advice and guidance, and understand where I am at any point in life. I can reach out to them and discuss things with them. I don’t always follow the advice but I take it and analyze it and make my decision off that.
17. Olympic Trials, you all put Molly Hannis on the team -- Tennessee’s amazing run continues -- what was that like?
Tyler: It was awesome. Especially to have a sea of Orange in the stands. I think we had the third largest team at Trials, so we had most of the Tennessee family there. All the kids who trained with Molly every day were there. That was a night we’ll never forget.
18. And Molly’s personality, she’s such a great ambassador for the culture of your program, isn’t she?
Tyler: Molly is such a great worker, such a great student, and such a great teacher. (Tennessee head coach) Matt (Kredich) and I were talking about this the other day -- the evolution kids go through in college. There is this series of steps, three of them. The first one is understand what you are walking into. Kids think they know what college is like, but they get there and it is so different. The first step is to understand what you are going through. The second step is then embracing it. Taking it and working in the system you are in, with the people who are there, and becoming comfortable. The third step is teaching, and I point to Molly in this, because her evolution is incredible. She is such a teacher. She is always searching for solutions, and she is helping everyone around her. It’s not just at Tennessee, it’s when she’s at National Team Camp. I talk to other coaches who rave about her energy and desire to connect. That’s special.
19. You must be thrilled to see Matt create not just this kind of great success, but this great culture?
Tyler: It all stems from Matt. He’s been an unbelievable mentor to me, but he’s also a good friend. What he’s created at Tennessee is a family. I know that’s a cliché term that you hear, but it’s true. It’s a safe place where people can grow as individuals and as teammates. He fosters that environment. This is our fifth year together as a staff. None of us are looking to get out of here. We love Knoxville. We love what we’re doing here. We love being a part of it. It’s just fun how bonded we are. And that stems from the culture Matt’s created.
20. Some bemoan the plights and social media goings-on as a year lost, but for you, it was a year where you gained a lot, wasn’t it?
Tyler: Absolutely. I spent a lot of time analyzing my life in a quest for peace. That meant reconnecting with my sister, with my father. Looking at the way my life is set up and what changes can be made. The other thing I started to do was immerse myself in Knoxville. It’s an amazing place that has given me so much, it was time for me to give back. That’s really important to me. That’s what this year has started out with. This is a place I plan to be for a long time, so I want to make my mark on this community by helping the people in it.