Roncalli Head Swim Coach Retires

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Sectional Memories: After swimming an event, Roncalli swimmer Blake Ludge talks to Ed Merkling at the IHSAA Sectional meet at Franklin Community high school. Merkling has been awarded the Sectional Coach of the Year for many seasons. Photo taken by Rachell Ludge

After 19 years of coaching at Roncalli high school, Ed Merkling has decided to retire and focus on his career and family.

Before Merkling even thought of coaching, his love for the sport was sparked by Jim Taylor, Merkling’s high school coach.

“He (Taylor) just did an amazing job of coaching us and really fostered a love for the sport. I don’t think he knew the impact he was having in my life,” Merkling said.

After graduating from high school, Merkling went to Ball State and had wanted to join the men’s swim team. But he wasn’t fast enough.

“And so I thought, ‘Well if I’m not going to swim, then I wanna coach,’” Merkling said.

And without the spark of swimming from Taylor, Merkling wouldn’t have had the 19-year coaching career at RHS.

COACHING AT REBEL LAND

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Coaching current swimmers: After a race, Ed Merkling talks to a Roncalli swimmer after a race. At Roncalli, Merkling had coached around 400 athletes. Photo taken by Roncalli High School

Before Merkling became the coach of Roncalli, Keith Gast had approached him one day, in 1997. Merkling knew of Gast, because Gast was taking a WSI class at IUPUI.

“And he said, ‘Hey, I know you’re interested in coaching.  I coach this high school team, they practice at UIndy from 7- 9 p.m. Are you interested?’” Merkling said.

At first, Merkling was not interested in coaching the teams at UIndy and not having practice at that time. But Merkling had a compromise.

“‘Now, if we can get them up here to the Nat and we can get them here after school. Then, I’m all about it,’” Merkling said.

After the first year of coaching, Merkling though we would be fired.

“The very first girl’s Sectionals prelims, I walked out of Southport High School and thought for sure Roncalli was going to fire me,” Merkling said. “The girls didn’t swim very well.”

Then, Merkling realized Roncalli didn’t really care about state qualifiers.

“They were more concerned about really developing the athlete as a person,” Merkling said.

AFTER THE FIRST SEASON

When Merkling started coaching, he had big dreams for his athletes.

“I had goals of winning state,” Merkling said. “ Halfway through my tenure, my focus changed quite a bit.”

Merkling  focused on things that would be more impactful in the lives of the athletes as productive citizens.

“I knew that the greater good was teaching kids to be great young adults and passing them along to that next level, whether in academics or athletics,” Merkling said.

According to Merkling’s biography on RHS’s website, Merkling has had 11 individual state qualifiers, one state champion, and three relay state finalists. One of these moments, Merkling’s favorite was his only state champion.

MOMENTS THAT STAND THE TEST OF TIME

Ben Dexter, a senior at Roncalli in 2002, had qualified for the 2002 IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association) boys swim and dive state championships. Dexter won state in the 50-yard freestyle, with a time of 20.47. Merkling said that Dexter possessed the perfect recipe for being a state contender: hard worker, a great personality, smart, talented athlete, supportive parents and will to succeed like no other athlete that he has coached.

“That was coming from a school that the swim team is not a powerhouse per say,” Merkling said. “Being able to pull that off and win state was amazing.”

Two events later, Gast (head coach of Jeffersonville Red Devils) had a swimmer, named Benedict Hesen, in the 100-yard backstroke. Hesen also won state. Merkling said Gast was hesitant about leaving RHS.

“Because he knew Ben Dexter was coming in and he would have a possible chance in getting a state title,” Merkling said. “But he ended up winning state with a different Ben.”

With RHS’s only state champion being Dexter, there were other moments that stood out in Merkling’s career. Merkling said he has numerous stories about miraculous kids.

“I coached so many kids that, you know, laid it on the line every day,” Merkling said. “There’s no way they would qualify for state, but they just do it because.”

Other memorable moments were teaching kids from day one, who didn’t know how to swim, but who swam at Sectionals their senior year. Merkling said these are the moments that are special to him.

“The ones that I will cherish are the ones that gave up the most to sometimes get very little,” Merkling said.

The kids had an impact on Merkling, but so did the administration at Roncalli.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Every year, Roncalli’s administrative staff decide on how much money they want to spend on athletics. And through Merkling’s career, the staff have given the team an opportunity to swim at the IUPUI Natatorium. Merkling said they have been supportive of the team.

“Their investment is showing enough for me, that they make me feel like I’m just as important as anybody else,” Merkling said.

Even when Merkling walks through to get mail, teachers would welcome him with open arms. To compare this welcomeness with other schools, Roncalli is the top of the crop.

“Roncalli has meant a lot to me. Each year I listen to other coaches about their relationship that they have with their Athletic Director or Administration,” Merkling said. “And it’s not anything near of what I have experienced at Roncalli.

“I’m totally blessed that they treated me the way they did, because they made it really easy for me to come back and be part of that every single year.”

Before Merkling coached at Roncalli, he was coaching the Indy Dolphins Age Group club team, now named Jaguar Aquatics.

A CLUB OF GOOD TERMS

In 1995, Merkling and Holly Day started the Indy Dolphins. This opportunity allowed Merkling and Day to coach kids at the “developmental level.” The club team allowed Roncalli swimmers to swim year round. Merkling said swimming year round didn’t sound enticing to his athletes.

“But for kids to be competitive at the Sectional level it’s really important for them to get in the water and swim, during the summertime,” Merkling said.

The club portion had taught kids how to swim, be competitive, and allowed high school aged kids to have more competitive situations.

“Also, it allowed them (high school aged swimmers) an opportunity to swim different events and to grow through the sport,” Merkling said. “Without club swimming, high school swimming wouldn’t be as successful as it is.”

During that first year, Day remembers Merkling being so busy.

“It was the year the Olympics Trials were in town and he was setting up the Natatorium for Trials for his first time,” Day said.

Day said she felt frustrated, but Merkling trusted her to run the team. A moment that stands out for Day is Merkling coaching Dexter to junior nationals in 2001.

“I enjoyed probably watching him taking Ben Dexter to junior nationals. The nationals were on Sept. 11, 2001 in Buffalo, New York,” Day said.

With Merkling retiring, Day will remember his approach to coaching: character first, success second.

“You wouldn’t meet a man who has more passion and integrity for people and was more interested in growing people than the success that he has in the books,” Day said.

Through this club team, Merkling has coached some outstanding athletes. Some of whom still swim competitively this day.

CURRENT SWIMMERS OPINION ON ED

Nic Eriksson, who swam for Merkling for the Indy Dolphins, swam five years with him. Eriksson remembers Merkling being very disciplined.

“He would let me know whenever I was doing the wrong thing,” Eriksson said. “That kind of kept me in check and made me think about if I was doing something right when I swam.”

Eriksson would later swim at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Compared to his college coach, Merkling lacked in some areas.

“The one difference is more amenities are there for the college coaches,” Eriksson said. “My college coach had the use of more technology and information than Ed.”

Throughout Eriksson’s club experience with Merkling, he remembers the good times and the bad times. One of the good times includes qualifying for the 2012 Speedo Junior National Championships.

“Me and him had a great time there. I didn’t swim fast, but him being there and us doing our thing having a fun time was good,” Eriksson said.

Earlier this summer, Eriksson had qualified for the USA Swimming National Championships in two events held at the IUPUI Natatorium. Eriksson said Merkling had helped with his kick in breaststroke when he was younger.

“He has always had me drive my kick through my breaststroke and the whole timing has helped me,” Eriksson said.

Being coached by Merkling has helped him too.

“Us training here made it feel natural to swim in this pool,” Eriksson said.

When Eriksson was younger, he and other swimmers thought Merkling was “a superhero.”

“Because of him doing triathlons and always having that kind of superhero mentality of him,” Eriksson said. “Always made us train hard and respect him every step of the way.”

Noah Buening, a male swimmer who swam through Indy Dolphins and at RHS, couldn’t agree more with Eriksson.

“ He’s (Merkling) helped make so many people’s lives better or helped them learn something,” Buening said.

Buening had swum for Merkling for five years. His favorite club moment with Merkling was swimming the mile at Senior State.

“Ed made me swim cool down a whole mile after I swam the mile once,” Buening said. “Then, he sat with me for a good hour going over the whole race.”

Buening will remember Merkling as one of the greatest role models.

“He’s helped shape so many lives,” Buening said. “In  the immortal words of Big Sean ‘one man can change the world.’”

And boy has Merkling changed the world for many alumni and current swimmers.

A GRACEFUL ENDING AND A NEW BEGINNING

It was a hard decision for Merkling to leave coaching, but he feels at peace with it.

“It was a decision that took me a bit to, even after I made the decision, I still wasn’t at peace with it,” Merkling said. “Because that’s who I saw myself as a coach.”

Every day, Merkling tells his athletes to not let swimming define them.

“But it’s really super hard to not let coaching define me as a person,” Merkling said.

Merkling said coaching is something that he will take with him for the rest of his life

“Coaching really has been my second family and just allowed me to be apart of amazing moments in the sport,” Merkling said.

The door to continue coaching for Merkling has already closed. Both RHS and Jaguar Aquatics have already hired a new coach.

Curtis Cox, who swam for Merkling in high school and club, will take over coaching this year. Last season, Cox was coaching the Decatur Township Aquahawks. Cox said Decatur’s team was not well established.

“They basically built a new pool in 2009 and it was pretty good as a high school pool,” Cox said. “The pool sat empty when it wasn’t high school season.”

But at DC, the pool was on the high school campus, as opposed to the IUPUI Natatorium.

“Rides will be an issue and trying to get kids down here every day,” Cox said. “But with that, we get to practice at one of the nicest facilities in the world.”

For coaching next season, Cox is going to employ the same coaching strategies that Merkling had. Cox said he had learned new trends of coaching at DC.

“I’m going to incorporate some modern coaching techniques, while still using a lot of the principles that Ed taught me as the foundation of the program,” Cox said.

With Cox, Roncalli will have a bright future of swimming next season and seasons to come.

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Teaching young swimmers: At the Roncalli High School Swim and Dive camp, Ed Merkling talks to kids after the day’s lesson was done. Merkling helped lead this swim camp with assistance from current swimmers. Photo taken by Patrick Murphy in Summer 2015

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