With her men’s swimmers already having jumped en masse into the water to celebrate their Mid-American Conference championship, Miami coach Hollie Bonewit-Cron stood on the pool deck, watched her assistants follow suit and then listened to the chants for her to join them.
That’s when she rocked her arms for momentum and, with her blond ponytail flying behind her, cannonballed in as everyone cheered. When she bobbed back to the surface, the watery tableau was complete:
The Miami RedHawks team was wet, was victorious and was all one.
Three years ago when Bonewit-Cron took over as head coach of Miami’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, there likely were some RedHawk athletes who wanted her to take a flying leap, as well.
The men’s and women’s programs — separate for decades and each under their own head coach — had just been combined under only one head coach.
And that was a rarity.
Today, only five women serve as head coaches of combined men’s and women’s teams in all of NCAA Division I swimming and diving.
Prior to her arrival, the male athletes had been recruited by and worked under a male head coach. The coach’s change in gender, the forced intertwinement of both teams made for a bumpy transition.
“There was a long period of adjustment,” she admitted. “There were a lot of growing pains and I had some turnover both in athletes and coaching staff. “
Now fast forward to that March 7 celebration in the pool, and afterward, when the swimmers gathered around Bonewit-Cron and dumped a cooler of water on her as a final baptism into their fraternity.
The Miami men had just won their first swimming and diving title in 13 years and they were showing their appreciation.
“It was a nice pat on the back really, we had done this together,” she said, then laughed. “At that point I was part of the ‘Cool Kids’ Club.’”
And she was part of a far more select group, as well.
It’s a club of one.
March is Women’s History Month across the U.S. and she – thanks to her Miami RedHawks – had just made history.
She became the first woman in the history of the MAC to coach a men’s team – in any sport – to a championship.
Since then the “attagirls” have come from alumni, who are surprised she uplifted the program so quickly, and from some coaches across the country who see the social significance of what she has done.
While women serve on the Supreme Court, as governors, congresswomen, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, admirals and generals in the U.S. Armed Services, there is still a reluctance sometimes when it comes to making them head coaches, especially over men.
Just about two percent of the coaches of men’s D-I teams are women. And that number includes assistants and head coaches.
“The landscape is evolving and women are being considered for coaching positions of combined programs,” Bonewit-Cron said. “That’s why this means something. I think it bodes well for what we as women can do if we’re given the chance.”
‘Prove the naysayers wrong’
As she was coming out of Athens High School, she initially struggled to get a chance in college.
Although her older brother Rob had been one of the nation’s top recruited prep swimmers and ended up at the University of Florida, she said she drew considerably less interest.
“I sent our 50 to 75 letters to college coaches, but I didn’t hear back from most of them,” she said.
“I had run out of options, but then Ohio University offered me a very small scholarship and I was excited to take it,” she said.
Her first year though – after overloading herself with difficult classes – her anemic grades kept her from swimming.
“I got picked on a lot my freshman year for being academically ineligible and for what I’d call not being ready for the rigors of college and the everyday demands,” she said.
That summer she went to Florida, trained alongside her brother and several other top athletes and learned what was required of top swimmers.
She said her failures from the year before now “fueled my desire to outperform everyone when I stepped onto the blocks. I just wanted to prove the naysayers wrong.”
And she did.
She had a 3.4 GPA. in her next two grading periods and, once in the water, she was named first team All MAC three straight years, won 17 MAC titles, qualified for the NCAA Swimming Championships and years later was enshrined in the Ohio University Hall of Fame.
She went on to Georgia Southern as a grad assistant coach, but midway through her second year there, the head coach was fired and she was given the job. Even while taking three grad classes and writing her thesis, she led the team to the conference championship.
At that meet she spotted Anthony Nesty, the Florida assistant coach who had been the Olympic 100 meter butterfly champ at the Seoul Olympics and knew her brother. She introduced herself and he told her Florida was planning to add another coach the following season.
She worked as a Gators assistant for six years, coaching men and women, including several Olympians and then followed her husband, Chad Cron — a top construction attorney and former Bobcat swimmer — to his new job in Miami.
She had spent a year as a volunteer assistant with the Miami Hurricanes when Nova Southeastern University just outside of Fort Lauderdale announced it was launching a swimming program.
She applied and got the head coaching job for what would be a combined men’s and women’s team.
She spent a year building the program before it ever competed and yet, within just a few years, she led the Sharks to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Division II Championships.
That caught the eye of Miami University athletics director David Sayler, who pulled off a major coup.
Hiring a good coach?
Yeah that, but he also managed to get a bone-fide OU legend – an Athens townie turned Bobcat Hall of Famer – to now wear Miami red and call Oxford home.
‘Mommy coaches RedHawks’
The walls, shelves and desktop in her office — which overlooks the pool in the Miami Rec Center — are filled with mementoes of past and present.
Tucked in one corner is a framed copy of an Athens News article – her first pub – detailing her swimming exploits at age six. Up above is a framed “No 1,” the gift Sayler gives each of his coaches when they get their first win at Miami.
There’s an original 1949 sketch of the old Miami natatorium and a signed poster of Ryan Lochte, the 12-time Olympic medalist she helped coach at Florida. On another wall is a poster from the 1955 NCAA Swimming Championships held at Miami’s old Billings Natatorium.
There’s also a memento from her days at the Olympic swimming coach of Grenada, an effort where she guided Esau Simpson to the 2012 Games in London.
On a far wall is a boogie board that belonged to Bill Mulliken, Miami’s only Olympic swimmer, who won gold at the 1960 Rome Games.
Next to it, she proudly pointed out a collection of old, tarnished trophies – the MAC team champion’s trophy, as well as ones designating the champions of particular events. They’re on loan for a year, much the way the NHL allows winners to keep the Stanley Cup for 100 days.
Her desk held the new MAC team trophy and her coach of the year award.
The latter is made more impressive when you consider along with directing the Miami men and the women – who finished fourth in the MAC and had a pair of all-conference first team swimmers – she and Chad are raising two daughters, six-year-old Evalyn and soon-to-be-five Emersyn.
While she said she tries to keep her professional and private lives separate during work hours, she said the girls like to say, “Mommy coaches RedHawks.”
They’re right, but now there’s more.
Their mom is now part of the “Cool Kids’ Club,” as well as a history making, very select club … of one.
Thank you for reading the Journal-News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to exclusive deals and newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Journal-News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.