WILKES-BARRE — They call themselves Campbell’s Kids. They call her Coachie.
More than 800 natators at three schools harnessed their suits, fastened their caps and strained their ears to the piercing sounds of a whistle wreathed around Mara Campbell Pawlenok’s ear.
Pawlenok’s 36-year coaching career comes to a close this December following the announcement of her retirement from Wyoming Valley Conference girls swimming. Despite the four decades between in their time in the pool, both Susan Marshall and Rachel Finnegan described Pawlenok’s lasting effect in similar ways.
“My mother may have given me birth to me but Mara gave me life,” Marshall said. “She worked my self-confidence, my determination. She is a believer in the possible. She makes adults out of children. She nurtured me.”
“She’s an amazing coach and person,” Finnegan added. “She’s been in it for a long time. But it was upsetting to know no one will be able to experience (her) like I did.”
The success of her Abington Heights, Bishop Hoban and Holy Redeemer teams are unprecedented within the swimming community. Her squads lost just 30 WVC matches from 1979 to 2015. Her squads’ 430 league wins gave her a .933 winning percentage.
Her former swimmers describe her in buzz words normally reserved for ambitious cover letters: strategic, thoughtful, deliberate, dedicated.
It was her “drill sergeant” mentality, as former Bishop Hoban swimmer Katelyn Ostopick said, that allowed Campbell’s Kids to “swim out of their suits.” The result: 21 conference titles, 23 district championships, 107 All-Americans from 42 athletes, 160 all-state performances, nine state champions, 15 silver medalists, 26 bronze medalists, 20 Coach of the Year awards, and 17 undefeated season.
Campbell’s Kids went on to swim at Tennessee, Penn State, St. Bonaventure, Boston College, Notre Dame and Clarion, to name a select few.
“I miss being with the kids every day immensely,” Pawlenok said. “We always had good rapport. It is always enjoyable to go to practice. It’s a labor of love. The daily interaction with the kids, watching them work hard but watching them succeed. This was always rewarding and amazing to me.”
Pawlenok contemplated retirement for the past few years but said she could never find a worthy replacement. Next month, first-year social studies teacher Jack Port will take over the Royals at the Wyoming Valley CYC pool deck. During his interview, Port answered a question the same way Pawlenok had 36 years earlier at Abington Heights, and Pawlenok knew it was the time to let go of her Holy Redeemer post.
“At the end of the two hours, I finally said, ‘Why do you want this job so badly?’ and he said, ‘Because I want to be the best swim coach I could possibly be.’
“This young man answered it the same way, and I thought it was a sign.”
Pawlenok will continue to teach health and physical education full time at Holy Redeemer.
Geese Fly Together
Affectionately known as Mango, assistant coach Beth Mangan will also retire from coaching at Holy Redeemer. Long-time friends, Mangan joined Pawlenok as an assistant coach when the latter took over at Bishop Hoban in 1984. The two have been together coaching until the end.
“It was a joint decision,” Mangan said. “We practically came in together, and we’re going to go out together. I think the WVC and state are missing out on a great coach.”
For 31 years, the pair worked hand-in-hand like a honey guide and a honey badger. Pawlenok was the more direct coach, while Mangan was more subtle with her tactics.
Twenty-one straight undefeated or one-loss seasons were forged by Mangan’s role as a technique person. Notorious for mentoring novice swimmers, she’s remembered by alumnae for taking them to the next level of Pawlenok’s expertise. Clipboard in hand, Mangan could be seen at district meets scouting, devising lineups through mental calcuations of splits and heat times.
“(Mara and I) were quite the team over the years,” Mangan said. “We were able to think alike after a while. I always knew what she was doing. She always knew what I did.”
Former Bishop Hoban standout Liz Byron credits Mangan for bringing light to an otherwise intense sport. Byron lightened the mood by having a “Quotation of the Day” to inspire the team.
“The quotes were sometimes cheesy, sometimes profound,” Byron said. “Mango compared ourselves to geese. We talked about geese a lot…about how they wouldn’t fly if one was left behind, how versatile they were.”
It’s a rare phenomenon in interscholastic sports to have an assistant coach stay on board for so long. Mangan never considered leaving the Argents or Royals, even after 11 straight district championships from 1993-2003. For her, there was no jealousy, only admiration in all of their years together.
“The reason for my dedication was Mara’s commitment to excellence,” she said. “Her knowledge and attitude towards competition; our family concept to coaching in that each member of the team was as equally important; the gratitude I felt for having the opportunity to share in the lives of so many wonderful kids, and the chance of a lifetime, to stand side by side with one of the most prominent coaches in the WVC, district, and state.”
‘Never Again Ever’
A graduate of Meyers High School and East Stroudsburg University, Pawlenok began her career at Abington Heights in 1979. It took her four seasons until she lost her first league meet, winning more than 34 straight. In her first exhibition dual meet against Bishop Hoban, the Argents beat the Comets badly. On the bus home, Pawlenok scolded her team, telling them, “Never again ever.” The next year, they beat Bishop Hoban by one point for a district championship.
The margin was so close (225-224), it took two hours to decide the winner, Marshall said.
A 1982 graduate of Abington Heights, Marshall was the beginning of a large assembly line of state finalists – the foundation of a coaching career. Local coaches, Pawlenok said, were awestruck by her almost immediate success.
“She has a gift and that gift is of maintaining young athletes,” Marshall said. “I had all this energy and nowhere to put it. She worked me hard. I wanted to be an outstanding swimmer. As I excelled in the water, I got better in the classroom. She enhanced those kills. She was the hand on the pillar to do great things.”
The pinnacle of Pawlenok’s coaching career culminated in a pair of back-to-back PIAA runner-up team finishes in 2002 and 2003.
Liz Byron led the Argents to second place (behind Oakland Catholic) in 2002 with a team comprised of Ostopick, Justine Grilz, Caroline Byron, Julie McLaughlin, Bryn Mesko, Kristen Clark, Amanda Boyle and Maria Whitman that racked eight PIAA medals in State College. Bryon became the first D2 winner to garner 16 district championships and 16 state medals in her career, which in 2002, made her the most decorated district athlete of all-time in NEPA.
“Seeing Coachie in complete shock and exuberance both of those years was unforgettable,” Ostopick said. “It made every early morning practice, weight lifting session, dryland session, tears (both happy and sad) and sweat worthwhile. All of us probably didn’t sleep for weeks after both of those state meets.”
By then, Pawlenok became renowned for her rigorous practice. The day began at 6 a.m. with Mangan showing up for weight room sessions. After school, swimmers would return to the CYC for a 2 1/2- hour practice that featured between 7,000 and 9,000-yard workouts. The practices went set after set, leaving the 20-to-30 swimmers with little time for goofing around on the pool deck. By the time swimmers left for home, they put in a 12-hour day of school and practice.
There was a “No Tears on Deck” rule, 2003 graduate Ostopick said. One time, she finished in third place against Meyers and Pawlenok practically pulled her out of the water by her ear. By coach’s rule, she had to get off the pool deck to cry, collect herself in the locker room, put everything behind her, and be ready for her next race.
“But that’s the thing about Coachie: even though she was so hard on us, drove us into the ground with workouts and her ever so loudly ‘Go’ voice, it’s what she expected,” Ostopick said. “She sees talent in kids when they don’t see it in themselves. And she not only drew it out of all of us but forced us to see it the way she saw it.”
Caroline Byron, Liz’s younger sister, became a returning two-time state champion in both the 50 and 100 free at the 2005 PIAA championships at Bucknell University. When she won her fourth and final gold medal, Caroline took off her gold medal on the podium and placed it around Pawlenok’s neck.
It’s a moment the veteran coach highlights as one of the most touching in her career.
“A lot of people think swimming is an individual sport because there is only one person between the lane lines,” Byron told Times Leader, at the time. “When you are swimming all those long hours, it is your coach and your teammates who are with you. That’s why it was really important for me to show how important my coach was to me over the last four years, and how much she means to me.”
During the Catholic School merger of 2007, Pawlenok assumed the role of head coach at newly formed Holy Redeemer, taking in swimmers from Bishop O’Reilly and Seton Catholic – two schools that did not have programs at the time.
Another dynasty took form and the Royals won four straight championships off the legs of Julie Ann Mahle, Ariel Smith, Lauren Barnes, Elizabeth Finnegan, Rachel Finnegan and Bethany Chmil.
Pawlenok’s 23rd and final districts matched her first in terms of excitement in an otherwise tumultuous season in 2013 after the Royals were hit hard by graduation. Kelsey Williams started off with a first-place finish in the diving competition en route to a silver performance at states. The next weekend, Mahle, Chmil, Rachel Finnegan and Lucy Reilly shocked a star-filled Scranton Prep lineup by six-hundreths of a second in the 200 medley relay to begin the swim meet. Holy Redeemer held off the Classics by 41.5 points.
“We didn’t have a lot to work with in in terms of returning talent,” Rachel Finnegan said. “It was gloomy all season. We won out first event and something changed in the mood. With the whole team pulling together and swimming fast, we were somehow able to pull it out.”
Young and old, Campbell’s Kids stay in touch with their former coach. Flowers arrive on birthdays. Monthly phone calls, advice seekers and holiday visits from alumnae. Her tactile organization wore off.
“When you have success early on, you have to be thinking, ‘I’m doing something right’,” Pawlenok said. “When I got older, I realized that I was blessed with some incredibly good athletes – incredibly good athletes that would have succeeded with or without me.”
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