(Willmar, MN) -- When contacted about doing Ten Questions Val Swanson told me she was retiring at the end of the term from teaching at Ridgewater College concluding a 40 year career as an educator. That after she had retired from coaching volleyball at Ridgewater ten years earlier. What she didn't know was I was in on the surprise retirement party planned by her family, tough to keep a secret from Val, she's the kind of person you just want to tell things. She's easy to trust.
Her coaching resume speaks for itself: Inducted into the NJCAA Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007. 2002 NJCAA Division III Volleyball Coach of the Year. Region XIII Coach of the Year six times. 2003 Southwest MN State University Distinguished Alumni Award.
She coached Ridgewater (Willmar Community) College Volleyball starting in 1980 and retired in 2006 with 736 wins, among the best in college volleyball history according to the Volleyball Coaches Association. Her teams won five state titles, six region championships and a National NJCAA Championship in 2002.
Quoted upon her induction into the Hall of Fame in 2007 step-son and current Ridgewater Volleyball Coach Joe Sussenguth said "Aside from her success as a coach, Val has been a mentor, role model, teacher, instructor and friend to hundreds of students and athletes at Ridgewater College."
Among other duties in her illustrious career at "The Ridge" she was head women's basketball coach, athletic director, academic advisor and advisor for various clubs and activities. She also served on faculty boards and committees offering valuable advice not just to students but colleagues as well. Most recently she has been helping students learn how to become Alcohol and Drug Addiction Counselors.
Her son Sam Sussenguth said about his mother, "You don't need to tell people how good you are. They'll be able to tell, let your actions do the talking." I remember her saying this to us whenever we'd be watching sports/talking about a game. If anyone ever got a big head, she'd be quick to let us know. Even though I've been done playing sports for years, this quote applies to so many things in life. Be humble in your accomplishments.
Sam went on to say "She is truly the best role model I could have asked for. She's constantly looking out for others (She cooks meals for the Student Ministry at Ridgewater on a monthly basis for students that are in need of food), makes frequent trips to the prisons across the State of MN with our Church to visit inmates and help them with their spirituality. She decided to help coach the 7th Grade C-D Volleyball teams after she retired so she could "Give back to the volleyball community, since it all starts with enthusiasm and involvement at the youth level".
New London-Spicer AD John Vraa, one of Val's AD's while she was coaching at Ridgewater said "The biggest thing I noticed with Val and her players – they were always having fun when they were working hard. Val had the ability to get the most out of players and they never knew they were working – they were just having fun playing volleyball. I think it showed in how they played relaxed and very always very close teams who got along well. She was a great strategist as well – teams were always put in a position to have success because of the plan going into the game. She was top notch in every way."
I could go on with quotes from people whose lives have been touched by Val but I'll let her tell you her own inspirational and heartfelt story with answers to "Ten Questions with...Val Swanson" brought to you by Hansen Advertising.
1. Have you missed coaching since you retired nearly ten years ago now?
I don’t miss the time commitment of evenings with games, recruiting and fundraising on weekends. I miss the adrenaline of competition and relationships with players, coaches and media.
2. Did being a coach help you be a better teacher? Do you use a similar approach to planning a course as planning a season or game?
Being a coach makes one a better listener, as there are many different situations, all of which are specific to each person. The competitive drive in coaching where you need every team member to contribute helps you look for strengths in people, simply, “what skills they have.” Kids, athletes, usually understand their capabilities. It’s important in coaching and teaching to “catch them doing the right thing.”
3. You're retiring from teaching at the end of the semester, how did you decide it was time? How did you wind up teaching what you are now? Is there a personal story behind it?
Last fall I decided it was time to reduce the stress in my life and spend more time with Neil and family. I picked up additional teaching credits when I retired from volleyball in 2006. In the late 80s, one of my basketball players lost a brother to suicide. It became apparent that practicing basketball Xs and Os were meaningless during this time of loss, and I felt inadequate to help the family and my team. Thus, I entered the Community Counseling Master’s Program at St. Cloud State. Learning to be a better listener made me a better coach, as it helped me seek to understand people’s behaviors.
I’ve been teaching in the Human Service program since the early 90s and enjoy the students, several who are living in recovery from substance use disorders and mental illness. I’ve learned much from these students, learning to live “one day at a time.”
4. When did you and Neil get married? How did you meet? What was Neil doing for a living? Was it conducive to being married to a coach?
I met Neil when I taught at Breckenridge, and we married in 1982. Neil was a HS coach, and coached the MSHSL Boys Track & Field champions in 1980. Thus, his understanding of the time commitment was a given. He did not pursue teaching and coaching in this area, but did part-time track with the Cardinals. He was the main support in raising our three children, and he has been my hero, always by my side to help, as I tend to overschedule.
5. Mary is getting married this month, how is the planning going? Tell us about her and her life?
Mary (MSUM Dragon) was teaching Spanish and coaching volleyball in my hometown of Sherburn, now Martin County West HS. She met her future husband, John Spyhalski (Michigan State), through her college volleyball setter. John loves sports, a natural fit with our family. Mary decided to purse counseling (coaching=listening) and earned her Master’s Degree in School counseling and will be looking for a job in northwest Michigan.
6. Joe took over for you as the volleyball coach at Ridgewater, which must have been rewarding?
Absolutely. I thought Ridgewater had a good program, and Joe has made it better. He is a great coach and we enjoy discussing situations. He leaves no stone unturned and has remarkable dedication to the athletes, supporting their success on the court and in the classroom.
7. Casey also went into coaching, so it's a big part of your family, did you encourage them to pursue that profession? What advice have you given them since they decided to do that?
I am rather surprised that all of them (children) pursued coaching. They know firsthand, the time commitment, and how much time I spent away from home. They also benefited from being around my Ridgewater athletes and learn many life lessons from the athletes. Athletics is about relationships, not just the competition. You forget the numbers and stats (Ws and Ls), but you never forget the people.
8. Sam got a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament with the NDSU Bison, but didn't go into coaching full time. What line of work did he pursue?
Sam is currently coaching AAU basketball and has coached Special Olympics, finding both rewarding, and “much harder” than he anticipated. He is in sales and learned that athletics in HS and college taught him valuable life and business lessons, such as “what is your role, and it will likely change.”
9. When you were coaching and even still today, do you enjoy mentoring young coaches and teachers?
I do enjoy discussing with my children and other coaches what they do. I now officiate volleyball and find it challenging and humbling. I often share with people that “I never missed a call when I was coaching.”
10. Now that retirement is soon, what does the future hold for you, Neil and family?
“Catch my breath.” Odd as it sounds, I want to clean my house, and go through pictures. Cleaning out my office has been an emotional trip down memory lane, and a bonus, as I found my signed copy of John Wooden’s “They call me Coach.”
Neil has converted 210 videos to DVDs, and now, I’ve brought home 400+ basketball and volleyball videos from my coaching career; should keep us busy for a while. Neil’s daughter Sara and husband Kelly and grandson Albert, live in Laramie, Wyoming. Albert is a cross country, Nordic ski and track standout for Laramie. There will be trips to Wyoming (12 hours) and trips to Michigan (12 hours) to see Mary and John Syhalski. In August, we’ll be caring for Nolan and Ella, Joe and Marci’s children, as Joe begins the college volleyball season.
Neil and I volunteer in the community for Vinje Lutheran and I chair Kandiyohi County Adult Mental Health Local Advisory committee as well as serve for Kandiyohi County Drug Free Communities Coalition.
Thanks so much to Val for letting us know she'll still be busy being a wife, mother, volunteer and friend too many. Ten Questions with...Val Swanson brought to you by Hansen Advertising.