Two MVPs and the Coach In-Between
Of the many qualities of water, its ability to represent the flowing movement of time is perhaps its most preternatural. For a story about swimming greatness, that metaphor could go something like this:
February, 1987. Rob Peel — a tall, slender Spring Lake, Michigan-native, obsessed with going fast in the freestyle — has smashed Hope College and MIAA swim records and is named the league’s most valuable swimmer. His coach is John Patnott, a Kresge Natatorium deck pacer for less than a decade who guided the swimming star to national heights.
Now, flow forward 32 years.
February, 2019. Meg Peel — a tall, slender Spring Lake, Michigan-native, obsessed with going fast in the backstroke — has smashed Hope College and MIAA swim records and is named the league’s most valuable swimmer. Her coach is John Patnott, a Kresge Natatorium deck legend for close to four decades who guided the swimming star to national heights.
A polyester-Lycra® thread, plus a perennially walrus-mustached coach, has tied this father-daughter swimming tale together over the stretch of three-plus decades. Through time-traveled waters over two generations, they are the two MVPs and the coach in-between.
Rob Peel’s story has a bit of a Michael Jordanesque ring to it. Peel, like MJ, was cut from his basketball team as a high schooler. His Airness famously returned to the court and went on to soar to greater heights. Peel, on the other hand, would take a long and successful dive in a different direction.
As a junior in high school, Peel became a competitive swimmer by default. By today’s ultra-early youth-sport standards, starting a new sport at the oxymoronic old age of 16 is unheard of. But physically and mentally, he was perfect for swimming. After two slightly-above-average high-school seasons, the 6-foot-4, doggedly determined Peel came to Hope as a good swimmer but not one who had been heavily recruited, at least not by Patnott. The head coach couldn’t. At the time of Peel’s college decision, plus into his freshman season, Patnott was away from Hope, pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Utah in exercise science from 1982 to 1984. For his part, Peel never anticipated that he’d swim all four years in college anyway. “To be honest, I thought, ‘I’ll swim a couple of years, and if I don’t keep improving, I’ll probably stop,’” he recalls.
Peel stuck it out because he fulfilled his if-clause caveat. He did keep improving once Dr. Patnott returned. Over the next three seasons, Patnott would guide Peel to 10 All-American performances at the NCAA Division III Championships, as well as a conference MVP Award and national championship in the 50-yard freestyle in his senior year. And his Hope record in the 50 free (20.69) stood for 23 years (1986-2009).
“Swimming is a sport in which you determine your results because it’s based upon your own effort. After I got to know John my sophomore year, I realized he was the kind of coach who could help me a lot if I wanted to put the work in. He knows how to train people to get the most out of them. And I always felt he was the kind of coach who I responded best to versus the coach who could get in your face. That’s not John, so I just connected with him. I really respected his knowledge of the sport and his training methods, too.”
After graduating in 1987, the affable Peel entered the world of finance (he’s now the West Michigan market director for the investment firm RW Baird), but he also stayed in the pool for a while, too. In 1988, 1992 and 1996, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 50 free, with Patnott coaching him for last two trials when he finished 9th and 6th, respectively. “John’s commitment has always been unwavering,” Peel says, “not just to me but to a whole bunch of Hope swimmers who wanted to excel.”
Through to another generation, Peel would see that Patnott dedication flow onward.
When John Patnott took a leave of absence from Hope in 1982 to earn a doctorate at Utah, he admits that he had no intention of returning. He was leaving the Hope program that he founded in 1978 on good moorings, but as a former Division I long-distance swimmer and once head coach, both at Fresno State in California, he wanted to get back to a bigger school in the West. And who could blame him? Midwestern culture shock was a startling thing — Holland was smaller and winters were harsher. Patnott and his wife, Phyllis, had never driven in snow before, and the winter of 1979 was one of the worst on record. Plus, some Hope faculty wondered about the new guy’s seemingly-strict training regimens.
“The faculty here thought I was crazy because we were working out twice a day,” Patnott remembers. “It was common in the swimming world, but there had not been a swim team here before so people didn’t know. The student-athletes bought in, though.”
Still, off he went. It took him only three months to determine that he and Phyllis would return to a place where he knew that academic and athletic priorities were in line with his. Once he walked the Kresge deck again, Peel’s presence, plus a new nickname, awaited him. Patnott would soon become known as the “mad scientist.”
“I would draw out different (physiological) pathways on a whiteboard [on the pool deck],” Patnott says. “‘This is the enzyme you are training, this is how it works with your muscle fibers, this is why it’s important as that muscle is oxygenated.’” He stops and a small smile grows under his immense mustache. “Did the swimmers want to hear it? No, they probably fell asleep. But I needed them to buy into what we were doing here… I remember one swimmer on our first men’s championship team coming back and saying, ‘Man, I thought you were crazy about all that lactate stuff, but it worked.’”
Over the course of Patnott’s 39-year career, the exercise-science lessons, accolades and achievements added up in the swim world: National Coach of the Year in Division III three times, 34 MIAA championships combined between men’s and women’s teams, 32 MIAA MVPs and, 319-75 record in MIAA dual meets. He has coached 121 All-Americans, 41 Academic All-Americans, and 31 national champions who swam to eight NCAA records. For his classroom work, Patnott received Hope’s Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003.
Fittingly after all of this, the legendary coach was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America in May 2018. He retired from coaching and teaching at Hope at the end of this academic year.
I don’t like to compare them. I told Meg I’d never do that. ‘You are not your father; you are Meghan.’ But they do have similarities in character and personality that lead to their success. Like strong work ethic and competitiveness. And just a love for the sport.
With Rob Peel in 1984, Patnott knew he had raw talent to refine; with Meg Peel in 2017, he had a known skill set. Of them both, the long-time coach sees and appreciates two top-notch student-athletes who entrusted their swimming careers to his coaching expertise.
“I don’t like to compare them,” Patnott declares. “I told Meg I’d never do that. ‘You are not your father; you are Meghan.’ But they do have similarities in character and personality that lead to their success. Like strong work ethic and competitiveness. And just a love for the sport.”
With that, the mad scientist has worked his wonders.
Following in her father’s footsteps, or rather arm strokes, to Hope, Meg Peel was fully aware of her dad’s swimming legacy. Thirty-two years after his departure from the Dow pool, Rob Peel’s name still sounds as familiar there as the flop of seconds on the lap clock. While some young athletes who aspire to reach the national stage might shy away from famous familial associations, Meg Peel saw it a differently when she arrived at Hope.
“I never really thought, ‘I am in my dad’s shadow,’” says Peel, “but maybe that’s just because I’m kind of dialing in my own thing. I actually think in a weirdest way that following him here gave me a sense of confidence. I look up to my dad.”
When she officially visited the college for the first time, Peel was exposed to passionate professors, friendly teammates and a coach who knew how to bring out the speed in her. Which he did. Along with co-head coach Jake Taber this year, Patnott guided Peel to that MIAA Most Valuable Swimmer Award for winning all three of her individual events as well as three relays at the MIAA Championships last February. A month later, the sophomore became an All-American with a runner-up finish in the 200-yard backstroke in a Hope record time (1:58.50) at the 2019 NCAA Division III Championships.
Though she dabbled in basketball, soccer and track and field earlier in life, Peel — sociable, creative and inclined to laugh quickly — says, “I realized I wasn’t very good on land, but it was fun. I got to meet new people.” Swimming, even with its demands and unchanging scenery of water and a wall, captivated her. Participating in the sport was not forced by her parents and came from her own set of priorities. In fact, she recently decided to continue her swimming career at a Division I institution. “Jake [Taber] and I support her aspirations to compete at the DI level,” Patnott says. “Yes, it is disappointing that she is leaving, but we wish her the best and hope she succeeds. There is significant room for her to continue to improve, and she has the drive to do it.”
“Pushing yourself, especially in practice, looking up at the clock and then knowing what you can consistently do, that you’re better than you were the last time, that’s so much fun to me,” conveys Peel. “It may just be practice but working really hard, it’s super fun especially when you’re surrounded by people you love. And then at the end of the season, after all of that, it’s one big party.”
One big party? Why? Because it’s over?
“No, because then it’s time for the league meet,” Peel says. “Coach P calls it one big, four-day party where you get to celebrate your work. If you do the hard work, it pays off. Time after time.”
And so it flows.