More than a Coach: Dedicated to Dan
Relationships are the foundation of everything we do. 100% of us are in relationships for 100% of our lives, but often don’t stop to cherish them until they’re gone. Every type of relationship is special and different, and takes time to develop. Whether that relationship is a romantic one, a friendship, a mentor, a coach to an athlete, a teammate, or anything in between.
"When your whole support system surrounds your sport, and all your time is consumed by it, your coaches and teammates become family."
As an athlete, some of the most important relationships in my life have been those I have with my teammates and my coaches. Swimming at Duke has taught me more than ever the importance of cherishing those connections.
But what do you do when one of those connections vanishes? When someone you cherish so much in your life, all of a sudden, isn't there?
The head coach of the Duke Swimming and Diving program, Dan Colella, unfortunately passed away on December 16th, 2022 after a long, gritty battle with cancer. I was lucky enough to have Dan as my main presiding coach. He was the coach I spent by far the most time with throughout my career at Duke. By the end of our time together, he grew to be someone I saw as more of a parent and mentor than a coach.
"Nothing I knew helped soothe the extreme pain I was feeling, and no information I knew would have prepared me for losing someone so pinnacle in not only my career, but my everyday life."
As the President of One Love, a group on campus teaching the foundations of relationships, I pride myself on being able to navigate all situations involving relationships. Even though I knew all the protocols, I had honestly no idea what to do when Dan passed. I never could have been prepared to lose someone who brought so much happiness, laughter, and importance to me and the people I love the most.
I’ve heard of life as a metaphor to a book, how one chapter closes and another one opens. But with Dan, our time was cut short. It felt as though all the pages were ripped out.
I found myself confused and lost. How do I move on, how do we move on? Should we?
Amidst the grief I endured as the pages of my chapters with Dan were being torn apart, I realized that I had to take a deep breath and turn back the page. Dan, being the incredible coach and mentor he was, had already given me all of the answers to my questions regarding how to move forward.
First, he gave me my teammates and coaches. They were the people that sat next to me while I mourned him, the people who listened to every thought in my mind, the people who checked in on me everyday, and sat in reflective silence with me.
"Dan couldn’t have put together a team who loved each other and cared more deeply for one another. He put together the strongest group to rise out of the worst situation."
When tears at competition became inevitable, they held my hand until I stepped up onto the block. When I found it impossible to come to practice, they showed me unconditional grace, love, support, and understanding. And when I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, they reminded me that Dan would’ve wanted me to continue pushing myself to perform at my best in the pool. My team knew how to balance the grief we all felt with Dan’s desire for us to be the best version of ourselves.
When one relationship ended so suddenly and tragically, I was, and still am, so lucky to have so many other relationships around me that lifted me up to help with the hurt I was feeling.
"Dan wouldn’t have wanted me to mourn him, but rather make him proud by living the life he gave me the opportunity to live. "
Dan instilled in me the resilience to move on from so much hurt and loss, the strength to keep going, and the belief in myself to chase the dreams that we had established. I've realized, after grieving Dan's loss and feeling his absence each day, it is vital to tell his story in a way that honors his legacy.
I think that Dan may have genuinely been the only person who saw something truly special in me, and believed to his core that I could do what I (or he more often than not), set my mind to. One of those out-of-reach goals was that I make it to NCAAs in Knoxville this season. And he gave me the biggest blessing anyone could by believing in me until the very end.
I got the privilege to go visit Dan and spend some time with him on the Tuesday before he passed away. One of the last things he somehow managed to again be able to weasel into the conversation, as he often did, was that I will be in Knoxville for spring break. I started laughing, and told him I was going to try my best.
In reality, I didn’t believe in myself. At that point in the season I wasn't close to NCAAs. I almost wanted to tell him that it's ok, and that he didn’t have to pretend to believe I could make it anymore. But I soon realized, he really wasn’t pretending. He just knew.
"From then-on-out, I committed to racing and living my life with the same belief in myself that Dan had in me."
I will forever cherish every minute of that night.
And now I am writing this story from my hotel room in Knoxville. Lesson learned Dan: yes, you told me so, and I will never doubt myself again.
"If I can make people smile, laugh, and feel special in the same manner that Dan did for those around him, I can say with certainty that this is a life worth living."
Carrying Dan’s legacy with me is one of the most important and special things I could do. And it's been an honor thus far.
What I have learned from these last few months is that everyone that has been or is in your life crosses paths with you for a reason, and not everyone is meant to stay in your life forever. At the end of the day, it's about cherishing the lessons they taught you, making the most of the opportunities they gave you, and learning to love those you hold close. Figure out what impact you want to leave on the world, and figure out how you're going to do it.
But most importantly, do what makes you happy, make sure to smile, and remember to dance a little, no matter how inappropriate the situation.
To Dan - Thank You for everything, I love you.
- Catherine Belyakov
Photo Credits: Duke Athletics, Reagan Lunn, Kelsey Groff,
Colson Zucker, and Catherine Belyakov