Nov. 17, 2023 -- If you could only use two identifiers to describe Dan Budin, they’d have to be swimming and Heights schools.
Entering his tenth year as Heights High’s varsity swim coach, Budin is also a district alum, father to two Fairfax School students, and married to Heights High math teacher and fellow alum Cassie Budin, who he calls “the hardest working and most compassionate educator.”
As Coach Budin anticipates his 100th victory this December, it’s worth looking at the growth of Heights swimming under his tenure. While he always welcomes newcomers to the sport, he realized years ago that Heights couldn’t compete against teams where children had been swimming their entire lives, at private clubs and in backyard pools, if we had students just learning to swim in 9th grade. “We had to start looking at ways to maximize what he had,” he said. And that meant building up the feeder system.
Enter Heights Tigersharks, a nonprofit designed to provide swimming opportunities across age levels to all throughout the community. Tigersharks oversees the high and middle school teams, summer rec program, elite competition teams, and basic lessons and safety. “With fundamental aquatics at its core, Heights Tigersharks provides all levels of training and access, from crucial safety skills to elite competitive swimming,” according to its website.
Among the many changes Coach Budin made with the launch of Tigersharks was raising expectations. “I treat our rec team like a club team,” he says, with high expectations of swimmers and parents. “My job is to push them, stress them,” he says of his swimmers, emphasizing that parents should trust the process.
He takes the same approach with the high school junior varsity team: expecting the same level of seriousness and commitment from students and parents as from those on the varsity team. “Effort and integrity” are the two words he repeats over and over again to his swimmers, “at all times, in the pool, in school, and in the community.”
“It took several years for the mindset to change, but it’s paying off,” says Budin, despite two major upheavals over the past decade. When the high school was closed for renovations from 2015-2017, and the team had to be bussed to Warrensvillle High School to use their pool, participation dwindled. “But I knew we had to keep something going, but we were hanging on by a thread,” said Budin. Perhaps it was worth it as Heights High now boasts one of the nicest high school pools in Ohio.
The next challenge came during Covid when the City of Cleveland Heights shuttered its recreational offerings for the summer of 2020. Budin had to find alternatives, including participating in virtual meets for the 2021 season, where each team submits their own times. Twenty members of Tigersharks were often competing against teams with 200 swimmers, “but we still did okay,” said Budin.
Heights Swimming is now operating from a position of strength, with the boys’ team having never had a losing record in head-to-head meets and his girls’ team finishing with winning records since 2016. For twenty years, no girls’ relay team advanced to the District Championship, whereas last year, every girls’ relay team did, a feat Coach Budin hopes to repeat this year.
He recognizes that the switch the Greater Cleveland Conference will bring a higher level of competition to his swimmers, which he welcomes. “We may not necessarily get the wins,” he cautions, “but I always tell my swimmers to focus on micro-victories,” like trying a new event, swimming a personal best, or working through pain.
As he looks at the district 8th graders set to begin high school next year, he’s excited to see entire relay teams of kids he’s been working with for years. “I really had a moment,” he said, “where I was able to step back and see all we’ve built.”
The team’s accomplishments extend beyond the pool, where they frequently boast the highest average GPA in the building and one of the highest among swim teams across the state and country. They also, according to Budin’s observations, are the most racially and ethnically diverse team in the state. This is not by chance. Heights Tigersharks does explicit outreach to African-American communities which historically suffer from much higher drowning rates than white communities.
“Safety is first and foremost,” he says. Adding that “it’s all about access.” Prices for swim lessons and team registrations are kept low thanks to donations and scholarships, with many participants paying nothing at all. Budin’s goal with Tigersharks was to “actually make something FOR our community and not get in the way of getting kids in the water.”
Swim lessons are now taught by a combination of high school students and Heights alumni. “What we have now is in-house, a self-feeding machine,” says Coach Budin. His assistant coaches are also Heights grads including one of the only female coaches of color in the state and another who represents the LGBTQ community. Representation matters, “that presence on the pool deck is powerful,” and sends the message to students that all are welcome.
Congratulations to Coach Budin and his swimmers as they expect to secure his 100th high school victory in early December.