June 20, 2012
By Mae Margaret Davis
AUBURN - Everyone knows an athlete's story when he is competing at the highest level of a given sport. Spectators can tell you an athlete's hometown, date of birth, accomplishments and records held while the athlete is at the peak of his game.
What happens to the athlete once he is no longer the champion? For many, they fade into the shadows along with other storied athletes. They become has-beens. They become once-weres. They take their places in the history books and watch as the next new wave of stars takes the stage.
But for Auburn Swimming and Diving head coach Brett Hawke, when his career as a world-class swimmer had ended, there were bigger and better things to come.
Hawke has a list of credentials longer than most. Two-time Olympian. Five-time Australian champion. Nine-time NCAA Champion. Seven-time SEC Champion. Seventeen-time All-American. He was a part of two NCAA team championships, including Auburn's first in 1997, and three SEC team championships.
But the accomplishments that are perhaps the most important to Hawke aren't honors he garnered in the pool, but rather standing on the deck.
After a storied career in the water, Hawke decided he had more to offer the swimming world than just his speed and agility. He had knowledge. He had understanding. He had drive. He had everything it would take to create future champions.
In 2006, Hawke retired from professional swimming and returned to Auburn to join a coaching staff that changed the way he looked at and understood the sport.
"I was passionate about swimming, and I was passionate about the program," Hawke said. "I guess the thing for me was sometimes (then-head coach) David Marsh would say, `Just pull back. These guys are still young, and they're still learning.' I was so passionate about wanting them to be great that sometimes I forced that.
"I really tried to remove myself a little bit personally from the program and look at it from a coaching perspective. How can I help these guys? How can I educate them? How can I influence them? How can I give them some of my experiences to make them better in the future?"
Upon first arriving to Auburn in 1997, Hawke was looking for a fresh experience, himself, and a way to burst onto the swimming scene thousands of miles away from his native Australia.
"I came in with this attitude, this free spirit, not really putting limits on myself at all because I didn't really know or understand the art of swimming or American swimming," Hawke said. "I think that was refreshing to my teammates, but at the same time, they had the attitude that they wanted to be the best."
It didn't take long before Hawke shared that same hunger with his teammates.
"I'd missed the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, so I was coming in just ready to be part of something great," Hawke said. "It just so happened that I fell into a program that was on the brink of doing something great."
Under the leadership of former Auburn coaching great David Marsh, Hawke helped the Tigers to their first NCAA Championship in 1997. He also picked up three individual titles and another as a part of the 200 medley relay team that set a new U.S. Open and NCAA record.
In his three-year career at Auburn, Hawke collected a host of titles and All-American honors and in his final season in 1999, helped Auburn back to the top as it won its second NCAA Championship.
With the summer Olympics only one year away, Hawke knew he would soon have a second chance to make it to the grandest stage of all. He attributes part of his success in making the Australian Olympic team to what he learned at Auburn.
"I had a self-belief that I didn't have before 1996," Hawke said. "Being in a program like this, being around team members, having a great coach like David Marsh, it gave me the belief that I could conquer the world in that sense. Going back to my hometown of Sydney where the Olympics were being held, I felt a sense of this was going to happen, and I was going to make it happen. I went in with the attitude that no matter what, I was going to be on that Olympic team, and I was going to swim at the Olympics."
He did just that. Despite not qualifying for the 50m free final, Hawke lived out his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer just 10 minutes from where he grew up.
"It was incredible," Hawke said. "At the end of the day, I probably had 75 family members in the stands at the Olympics watching me. That was just one of those things that you're never going to live that again. It's just something that is part of your life forever, and it's never going to be the same."
After the conclusion of the Games in 2000, Hawke continued training and qualified for the 2004 team in Athens. This time, he had his sights set on higher goals.
"I wanted to be a little more successful than I was in Sydney," Hawke said. "In Sydney I finished 12th and made the semifinals, but I really wanted to be in the finals, where any athlete wants to be. Obviously if you're in the finals then you have a chance to be on the podium. I felt like, `Brett, you owe it to yourself to get in that final.' That was my sole focus."
Hawke did, in fact, make the final in 2004 to finish sixth in the 50m free. While he fell short of a medal, Hawke was satisfied knowing he had reached closer to his full potential than ever before.
"That was the realization of that dream to make the final, to be amongst the best eight in the world, to say that you had a place in that final," Hawke said. "I was in lane five, so I was in the center of the pool, as well. It was a great feeling to know that I was among the very top in the world at that point in time."
As Hawke finished up his swimming career and transitioned into collegiate coaching at Auburn, little did he know that he would soon have the opportunity to coach a rising champion in former Auburn great, Cesar Cielo.
Hawke discovered that while he was new to coaching, Cielo was the perfect pupil with which to begin his tenure.
"Cesar had already finished his freshman year when I came in, so he understood the American system," Hawke said. "Then when I started, 2006 was his sophomore year, and I think Cesar was known as a temperamental swimmer and pretty emotional. I think at that time, David Marsh was happy to pass him off onto me. We made a connection immediately just through what I do and what I'd done."
Hawke saw a lot of himself in Cielo from swimming the same events to understanding swimming in the same ways. After working together for almost two years, Hawke found himself at the Olympics once again, this time as a coach.
Cielo represented his native Brazil in the 2008 Games in Beijing, and Hawke wore green and yellow for a third time at the Olympics.
"It was the same colors, but it was just a different name," Hawke said. "It was interesting seeing all the old coaches I swam for and seeing my old teammates and then actually having an allegiance to another country. I tried to remove myself so much from the country that I was representing. I knew who it was and what I was there for, but I really tried to focus on athlete and what they're there to do and try to get the best result from the athlete."
The best result turned out to be a gold medal.
Cielo swam his way to Olympic gold in the 50m free and became Brazil's first gold medalist in swimming.
"I felt like it was destiny," Hawke said. "I got 12th in Sydney, and then I finished sixth in Athens. I just felt like the law of averages, I had to finish on top in the next one. I knew we had the best athlete, and I felt confident that he could get the job done. When he was actually standing on that podium, for me it felt like I was standing on the podium, as well.
"It's a strange thing to put into words. You just have to feel it. It's something that you feel deep down inside. Again, it's a realization of a dream that you have as a kid. Him standing on that podium, I really felt like I was standing next to him."
Having finally achieved Olympic gold, Hawke returned to Auburn and continued his quest to produce the highest quality student-athletes that he could.
Hawke had the opportunity to learn from some of the finest in the sport as an assistant coach on The Plains. He coached under his former coach in David Marsh for one season and then spent a year working for the late Richard Quick. Hawke was named Quick's co-head coach for the 2008-09 season in preparation to take full responsibility of the program the following year.
"I really feel blessed that I've had the best knowledge passed down to me and the best experience passed on to me," Hawke said. "I really couldn't have asked for a better way to start my coaching career than to be influenced by David Marsh and Richard Quick, especially."
As co-head coach in 2009, Hawke helped the Auburn men's program to its eighth national title and its 15th overall and 13th-consecutive SEC Championship.
The past three seasons, the Tigers have continued their impressive streak and brought home their 16th, 17th and 18th SEC titles to extended the record to 16-consecutive top finishes.
Reflecting back on the success of the program thus far, Hawke is proud to have been a member of the team that is considered a spark plug for the 16 years of success the program has had since its first national title.
"It's pretty inspiring to know that we kind of started this, and I'm still a part of it," Hawke said. "You feel a really strong connection to the program, and I don't lose that every day that I walk into the program. I sense it every day. I feel, it's not so much a weight of expectation, but I feel a sense of something bigger than myself that we have to carry on here, and it's not lost when you walk into the pool."
Hawke also believes his athletes' desire to win championships has translated to an even stronger will to win at the international level. Including Hawke, since the 2000 Games in Sydney, Auburn has had 35 current or former swimmers compete in the Olympic or Paralympic Games and five members of the Auburn staff who have served as Olympic coaches.
"I think, initially, the goal was to win national championships, and once you start bringing those like-minded people together you realize now you have people that really want to be the best in the world, not just the best in the country," Hawke said. "We've brought international athletes from various countries, and they have this attitude that they want to come in, and they want to be Olympic swimmers."
This summer, the Tigers will once again have numerous representatives from the swimming and diving program representing their home countries and Auburn in London, and Hawke will take his position as a coach, once again.
Twenty-five-time All-American and three-time NCAA Champion Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace will be representing the Bahamas as she returns to the Olympics this summer under Hawke's leadership.
Having just completed her senior season at Auburn, Vanderpool-Wallace is making her second appearance at the Olympics, having competed in Beijing before starting her career as a Tiger in 2008.
Hawke was excited to be named the Bahamian head coach and have the opportunity to help his star pupil add a gold medal to her extensive resume.
"She's the only representative from the Bahamas this year, so she's really the only one with a shot at making it happen," Hawke said. "She's set herself up to be in that position. We're not going with a goal of a certain position. We're just going with the goal of being the best we can be. I think if she's in that range of her best, then she's going to be in the range of the best in the world. She has the chance to do some pretty spectacular things for herself and for her country."
There are several other former and current Auburn swimmers vying for a chance at the podium, including two of Great Britain's own in James Disney-May and Adam Brown. Hawke hopes his experience of competing in the 2000 Olympics in his hometown will help draw some parallels for Disney-May and Brown as they approach the London Games.
"As we get closer to this meet, we're going to really start to talk about ways that we can be successful because the meet can take away from your performance, as well, if you let it, especially being in your hometown," Hawke said. "You can get caught up in wanting the whole experience and really forget about why you're there and what you're there to do."
No matter what the results of the Games, Hawke acknowledges that there is something special about being a member of the Auburn family as an Olympic athlete or coach. The experience is transformed from that of representing not only a country, but a unique university and family, as well.
"It's funny. You walk around the warm-up pool, and you see this person and you see that person, and it's kind of like you're at Auburn's home pool," Hawke said. "There are so many people who have been through the program, so many people who are related to the program. It's like a big family. We all get together and it's almost a relaxing feeling knowing that you have family members around you. They're always going to support you.
"It's a very isolating feeling being at the Olympics when you feel like you're up against all these other countries. When you have somebody that you can relate to from various countries, it gives you a secure feeling. That's what the Auburn family has. You really feel at home, and you get that secure feeling that the people around you want you to succeed."
As Hawke and the rest of the Auburn Olympic delegation wait for the Games to begin, Hawke reflects back and looks on with excitement at the opportunities he has helped pass on to the young swimmers that look remarkably like him not so long ago.
"The Olympics have that ability to give you those moments, and it's something that I want for all my athletes in the future," Hawke said. "It's an exciting period, and you don't want it to come too quick, but at the same time, you can't wait for it to happen."