Via UMass Athletics
Via UMass Athletics

Sean Clark’s journey back home to UMass

Clark swam at UMass and now he's back to coach

March 9, 2022

In March of 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, a new era was also beginning for the Massachusetts swimming and diving program, as Sean Clark was hired as the new head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams. Clark, a 1993 UMass graduate, replaced both retiring women’s coach Bob Newcomb and retiring men’s coach Russ Yarworth for the 2020-21 season. Clark is now in his second season as the head coach of the swim and dive program.

Clark had returned to UMass in 2017, serving as an assistant coach before being promoted to the head coach position of both the men’s and women’s swim and dive teams in 2020. He had previously been at Binghamton University in New York as their swimming and diving head coach from 2006-2014 and before that an assistant coach at UMass from 1999-2004.

Clark grew up in Bellefonte, a small town in Pennsylvania. He swam for the local YMCA starting at eight years old until he graduated from Bellefonte Area High School. At 14 or 15 years old, Clark got his first taste of coaching when a coach needed him to help a younger swimmer learn how to do a flip turn.

The coach made him work through the challenge and Clark taught the swimmer some skills.

“I felt good about it, started to do it more,” Clark said. “I became head coach of the YMCA team [the] summer after high school. This has been what I’ve wanted to do my whole adult life.”

Clark first came to Amherst in the summer of 1989 as a biochemistry major and was a swimming commit under Yarworth. Yarworth had just won a few New England titles and his recent success, along with the quality academics in the chemistry and biochemistry department at UMass, were major factors in his decision to commit to the school.

“Took a couple visits, looked at some options, and it didn’t take long to realize that I really wanted to be a part of Minuteman swimming and diving,” Clark said. “Russ offered me a spot on the roster, and I jumped at the chance.”

At UMass, Clark was an accomplished swimmer, leading the Minutemen to four conference titles and set three school-record relay times. He was also co-captain of the men’s squad and a three-time letter winner.

However, Clark also loved his major: biochemistry. In the end, he decided that he loved swimming and he wanted to spend his days coaching swimming rather than in a lab.

“I did a lot of soul searching on that. I took a fair number of graduate school classes, specifically in exercise science at the time, which is now kinesiology,” Clark said. “I still love biochemistry; I get to use it every single day.”

So instead of working in a lab, Clark dedicated himself fully to swimming. He coached high school teams, club teams, master’s teams, and coached as an assistant at UMass.

In the early 2000s, UMass took away the assistant coaching positions in the swimming and diving programs so Clark had to look elsewhere. He landed his first head coaching job at Binghamton in 2006.

“I had no other choice but to swim upstream and see what else was out there,” Clark said.

Clark, although from Pennsylvania, was born in upstate New York, so he was familiar with the area. He took over the Binghamton coaching position after the previous coach Patrice Back stepped down. During his time at Binghamton, Clark was a three-time America East Coach of the Year and coached 53 athletes to America East gold medals.

“I took over and had a nice eight-year run. During which it was neat to have to compete against my old boss [Yarworth],” Clark said.

In 2020, when Clark was offered the head coaching position at UMass, he knew that it was the right time to take over the program. Even during his time away from Amherst, his ties to the program remained strong.

He maintained a close relationship with Yarworth and was in touch with Newcomb every year. Clark always came back to campus for the championship swim camp that Yarworth and Newcomb hosted.

First, he took over for Yarworth, and then when the pandemic hit and Newcomb decided to retire, Clark decided it was a good time to essentially merge the men’s and women’s programs and become coach of both.

“One of the primary motivating factors is I essentially bleed Maroon, I’m a UMass grad, I swam here, and I have incredible ties through the decades from that,” Clark said.

As new UMass swim coach, Clark has gotten right to work in his first two seasons. But with the ongoing pandemic, it’s been a very difficult first two years. In the first season with the university doing virtual learning, restrictions were at their highest. There were major limitations to how the swim team could interact in team meetings and conduct training, and there were no team gatherings or fun activities to do outside of the pool.

Although Clark’s second season has been a little more normal, with the university back on campus doing in-person learning, there have still been challenges.

“This season, we had been looking forward to doing more of that, more of becoming a real team, working more as a family unit,” Clark said. “It just proved more difficult than we hoped it would be, still with the ongoing restrictions and masks.”

The gatherings and fun team bonding activities haven’t been possible during the pandemic and that made the transition harder.

“With just everything that needs to get done as you’re merging a program, we’re not there yet,” Clark said.

Because of the restrictions, last season UMass was limited to six people at each end of the pool and only 12 total swimmers training at once. During the 11 week season last year, the coaches were doing six hours a day, six days a week since there were four different practices each day.

“There was never a full team practice, we were never really able to have the dynamic that we need and want,” Clark said about the restrictions.

This season, the swimming team was able to do more full team practices. Clark had planned to use the winter break to do split groups, with a training group, sprinter group, stroke group and distance group, who would all train together. However, that wasn’t able to happen due to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

“We haven’t really been able to merge and get some true mingling in the pool going on just yet,” Clark said.

What has it been like to coach both the men’s and women’s teams? With so many personalities to manage, Clark does his best to juggle the ups and downs of pandemic training and keep everyone’s spirits high.

“I have to satisfy all the characters of both…it’s a daily challenge, I won’t lie,” Clark said.

“There’s a lot of communication involved, a lot of reassurance. Still a lot of transition days and times, and changes that keep cropping up. It’s been fairly amazing to handle all that.”

Coach Clark is looking to improve the program, and one of the goals is to continue moving up the ladder in the Atlantic 10. Last spring the men finished 4th and the women finished 5th at the A-10 championships in Ohio.

As part of the change in leadership, there is hope that some of the traditions and things that the program has done could be reimagined. In particular, developing a new team cheer that both programs could do together was an idea that Clark mentioned, as well as having phrases and sayings that both teams use together.

Although swimming is more of an individual sport, Clark made it a point to mention that the swimmers are not just representing themselves and the program, but they are representing UMass and what it means to be Minutemen and Minutewomen.

“I like to remind our group that it’s not you out there, its UMass. We’re representing ourselves to the public to each other,” Clark said.

Clark finished top 10 in the nation as a master swimmer, roughly around the age of 34. As a coach, he went to the men’s NCAAs. While those accomplishments prepared him for various experiences, nothing was like coaching during the pandemic.

“I think that the way we got through the pandemic last year and the way that we were able to band together, accept the challenges, enjoy the experience and difficult times, the group that we did that with I will cherish forever,” Clark said about the group he had last year.

Pandemic or no pandemic, UMass brought Clark back home.

“This is where I belong. I love UMass, I love this team and I’m really excited to see what we can become.”

Marco Lopez can be reached at [email protected].

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