UK coach says ‘goodbye’ after amassing over 200-career victories
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- After 22 years at the helm of the University of Kentucky swimming and diving program, Gary Conelly announced his retirement to his athletes Wednesday morning, closing the book on one of the longest head-coaching tenures in UK athletics history and a long, impressive journey through the sport.
Conelly began his coaching career at Kentucky as the head women’s coach for the 1991-92 season after spending three seasons as a graduate assistant with the Wildcats. A year later, Conelly added the men’s team to his responsibilities and became Kentucky’s head swimming coach. Over his 22 years, he’s guided the teams to more than 200 victories.
For the first time in 25 years Wednesday, Conelly will not be pacing along the Lancaster Aquatic Center pool deck with Kentucky swimmers, preparing them with competitive and life lessons.
“Retirement is one of those things you think you’re never going to reach and then it’s here,” said Conelly. “I’ve been really fortunate to be at Kentucky and it’s been a pleasure to work with everyone – athletes, coaches and administrators.”
Conelly has kept strong relationships throughout his time at Kentucky with athletes past and present, coaches, and many others he’s come in contact with over his term. It’s been a long ride that has made an impact on so many people along the way.
"Since being named head coach in 1991, Gary has helped hundreds of student-athletes realize their dreams in and out of the pool,” said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. “We appreciate everything he has done during his 25-year UK career and wish the best for Gary and his wife Kathy as they move into retirement."
Working as a graduate assistant at Kentucky after his time as an All-America swimmer at Indiana, Conelly never thought that coaching would be his selected path. A quarter-century later, Conelly decided to hang up his whistle and get ready for whatever life has prepared for him next.
“When I came to UK in 1988 I was a graduate assistant in athletics and in the English department,” Conelly said. “I thought I was going to move into teaching, but in one of those twists and turns of life, it turned into coaching. That has worked out well in so many different levels, for me, family, my children. Lexington is a great town and a great place to raise children. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
While Conelly urged his team to strive for greatness in the pool, he also emphasized the importance of achieving excellence in the classroom while using that education background.
Just this semester, each of the men’s and women’s team received College Swimming Coaches Association All-America honors with both teams achieving their highest marks in program history. The Kentucky women earned a mark of 3.48, a mark worthy of 12th nationally and third in the Southeastern Conference. The men checked in at 31st in the country with a cumulative GPA of 3.17, also good for third in the SEC.
Before his coaching days, Conelly was one of the best swimmers the country had to offer. Conelly competed on the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team, and he participated on the world record-setting 400-meter freestyle relay team. Conelly was a 15-time NCAA All-American at Indiana and is a member of the Indiana Swimming Hall of Fame.
Though he initially wanted to be a teacher in the educational field, Conelly fell in love with developing young people, both mentally and physically as a head coach.
In Conelly's 22 years as head coach with UK, the swimming and diving programs have made great strides as perennial competitors at the NCAA championship level. In 1990, Conelly coached the team's first female All-American and NCAA finalist, Kellie Moran. Since then, more than 60 Wildcats have garnered All-America accolades under Conelly's tutelage. There have been more than a dozen Southeastern Conference champions and numerous Academic All-Americans.
“Helping the athletes develop is gratifying for a coach,” Conelly said. “My first All-American, Kellie Moran, was my first athlete to get a bid to the NCAAs and score points at the championship meet. She worked her way through injuries to do that and that is a special memory. Those things continued over the years all the way through this season, when Kelcy Perry had a similar situation (of overcoming obstacles), and had three good years on the team.”
Undoubtedly, the most poignant moment of Conelly’s time at UK came when Mike Lyden, long-time friend and Wildcat diving coach, passed away after an extended battle with cancer.
“I’ll always remember when Mike was dealing with his cancer and our divers finished 1-2-3 at the SEC Championships and Taryn Ignacio went on to win the NCAA (championship),” Conelly recalled. “That was an incredibly emotional time for Mike and our team.”
In his career, Conelly guided UK teams to 15 top-20 NCAA finishes combined over his 22-year body of work. During his tenure, more than 60 swimmers and divers have earned over 200 All-America honors, he’s coached several individual SEC champions, an SEC relay championship team and two NCAA top-five individual finishes. He also coached United States Olympian Rachel Komisarz, who won two gold medals in the 2004 Olympics. In addition, he had other swimmers from outside the U.S. who competed in the Olympics for their home countries.
He also earned SEC Swimming Coach of the Year in the 1994-95 season, steering the women’s team to a fourth-place finish at SECs and then earning what was then their highest finish at the NCAA Championships with a 19th place showing.
Conelly’s banner year came in the 2004-05 campaign. After leading the Kentucky men to its best-ever showing in the SEC Championships with a fourth-place finish, the men went and broke a school record with a 12th-place finish at the NCAA Championships to secure the top mark in school history. On the women’s side, UK secured its best finish at the SECs in over a decade while earning the women’s third-highest mark in program history at NCAAs with an 18th-place showing.
The women’s program saw Conelly take it to its greatest heights in the 2006-07 season. That year, the women’s squad captured a school-best 12th place finish nationally at the NCAA Championships to highlight the best postseason finish in UK women’s history. At the Championships, Conelly’s 200-freestyle relay team became the first to place in the top-eight nationally. The same squad won the school’s first-ever relay SEC Championship that year.
In 2009, Conelly coached seven athletes to All-America status for the Wildcats while the Kentucky teams eclipsed nine new UK records in the pool. Megan Pulskamp earned a second-place finish overall in the 100-butterfly at the SEC Championships before earning All-America status in the event at the NCAA Championships.
In 2002-03, Conelly guided the men's team to its second-highest finish ever in the NCAA championships, a 17th-place showing. Conelly's 2001-02 men's team placed 16th at NCAAs, its highest-ever finish at the time. At the SEC Championships, the men had the second-highest point total in school history (282), finishing in sixth place. At the NCAA Championships, Joey Faltraco's 11th-place finish in the 200-yard backstroke earned him honorable mention All-America, the first UK athlete to earn the honor in the event, while Clayton Moss was an All-American on the 1- and 3-meter springboards and the platform. The women also competed at the national championships, continuing a string of 10 consecutive appearances.
Conelly and the 1996-97 men's team achieved a 26th-place NCAA finish and Nat Lewis finished third in the 1,650 freestyle and still ranks as the second-highest NCAA finisher in school history.
“There are so many athletes, coaches and others to thank who have helped me along the way and it is impossible to recognize them all,” Conelly said. “However, I do want to say thanks for Mitch Barnhart for his support and (UK associate athletic directors) Jason Schlafer and John Cropp for their work as our team administrators.
“There are people behind the scenes who help us every day – Sandy Bell, John Butler and Heather McAtee in the compliance office; our business office, Donna Cox, Kevin Garland, Kathy Fletcher, Sandy Wieck and Sean Hilen; and just so many others who make it possible to have a team.”
While the team will continue to train with the current staff under interim head coach Lars Jorgenson, Conelly will relinquish the responsibilities and day-to-day tasks that come with being a head coach at the collegiate level. He likely won’t miss those some of those things. What he will miss, however, are the special friends, people, and athletes that he met during this 22-year journey and working with them to achieve one common goal.
“What I enjoyed most, in general, was doing something special together as a team, to experience the camaraderie of the athletes and coaches,” said Conelly. “I heard someone say at the CATSPYs, ‘One of the best things in life is to do hard things with your friends’ and that’s what I enjoyed – working together to get somewhere.”