When Ryan Bubb graduated from Ohio State in 2014, his goal was to head out west, to California, to break into the world of animation.
After four years on the Buckeyes swim team and an attempt at qualifying for the Olympics, Bubb was ready to try and break into Hollywood.
The only problem was, trying to move halfway across the country after returning home to Lincoln, Nebraska, is expensive for a recent college graduate.
So, the four-time Big Ten team champion leaned on what he knew most — swimming.
“I ended up coaching to make a little money to move on,” Bubb said. “I ended up falling in love with it, falling in love with the swimmers that I coached, you know, and just the process of helping these boys and girls grow in the sport and grow as people as they go off to college.”
His newfound passion led to coaching gigs at the high school and club level, which led to his selection as the first coach of the Midland men’s and women’s swim team in 2016.
“I ended up getting a call from (Midland’s) Athletic Director (Dave Gillespie) saying, ‘Hey, we want you to interview for this position,’” Bubb said.
By taking on the challenge of being the first Midland swim coach, Bubb had the opportunity to build a program from the ground up in the state he grew up.
“When I graduated from high school, there were zero men’s swimming programs in the entire state of Nebraska, not even non-scholarship programs,” Bubb said. “And so I had to go out of state. And so to say that I get to be the head coach and build this program that gives opportunities to Nebraska athletes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In the six years after graduating from college, Bubb rose from high school swim instructor to the first head coach of the Midland swim teams which now ranks among the best at the NAIA level.
Bubb is one of the many new faces to build a new program under the Warrior moniker.
Midland offers 32 men’s, women’s and co-ed sporting opportunities. Twelve of those sports have been added in the last eight years under the direction of Athletic Director Dave Gillespie, who announced his plan to retire at the end of the academic year this month.
The men’s and women’s shotgun squads were added in 2012. The next year, men’s and women’s hockey joined the fold. 2016 saw the largest addition of sports with eSports, men’s and women’s powerlifting as well as the swim teams. Men’s lacrosse was the 31st added in 2018. The latest sport to be added was women’s flag football last summer.
“I think that’s just part of our DNA is looking for other opportunities to provide to our potential student athletes here,” Gillespie said.
Midland offers all but two of the sports supported by the NAIA — women’s beach volleyball and men’s volleyball — though with the recent rise of men’s volleyball, Gillespie said it’s not off the table to add the sport at some point down the line.
In the modern age, it was not uncommon to see programs, even successful programs, cut because of financial strain. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that process across the country with more than 300 different programs across all levels of college athletics cut accord to one tracker.
“I think sometimes when schools in this day and age where small private colleges are closing fairly rapidly across the country each year, I think it could be looked at as a risk to start adding, to add to try to overcome that,” Gillespie said. “It’s worked for us and I think that’s a tribute to the leadership here. They’ve always had that mindset. That’s the way we were going to grow was by investing, and investing in things that kids are passionate about doing. I don’t know if there’s any magic thing there, I just think you just have to be willing to pull that trigger and commit to it and see it through.”
Deciding when and if the college is going to add a sport relies on a plethora of boxes that need to be checked — whether the school has existing facilities to accommodate the new sport, is there a local or regional recruiting base for the program and is there a coach available and compatible with the school among others.
“We first look at what the desire is, what the consumer wants, you know, and if there’s something out there that seems to be something that our clientele, our student-athletes, student body would be interested in participating in, and it would be able to bring a new set of students to campus,” Gillespie said.
Having a potential coach targeted going into the process, while they haven’t always been the inaugural coach hired, can kick start a look at beginning a program.
“Sometimes that has been part of our vetting process … what the coaching outlook is out there, what the potential pools that are out there, can we find someone that’s going to be able to come in and take the bull by the horns and, and nurture and grow a program,” Gillespie said. “And that’s important. So a lot of times that kind of went hand in hand with the decision to go ahead and start the sport up and start that process up.”
The process to add a sport is quicker than might be expected with Gillespie estimating that once the wheels were set in motion to add a program, it only takes a month or two to get it added to the roster.
“That process, sometimes that sounds like maybe a long, drawn-out process, but we actually I think we are pretty nimble and flexible here,” Gillespie said.
The Warriors’ eSports squad was even quicker than that, taking only a few weeks to add.
“When we decided to go to competitive eSports, there were maybe only five other schools in the country that would have eSports and collegiate eSports program in their athletic department,” Gillespie said. “And so from that standpoint, it wasn’t a very popular thing. But the current momentum, and everything was saying that this was going to be a huge sport, you know, that this is going to be the next big thing. And so we jumped in that pretty early, made those decisions fairly quickly.”
With the swim program started and a head coach signed on, Midland just needed the final, and most important, piece of the puzzle — the student-athletes.
Bubb was still coaching at the high school and club level while trying to sign his first class of recruits.
“So I would get home from club practice at 9 p.m. and have to make a couple of calls before 9:30 p.m. before all the recruits went to bed, and, you know, it was kind of a whirlwind,” Bubb said. “I love recruiting, I love talking to high school kids and, you know, hearing their stories and hearing what they’re all about.”
The former Division I swimmer leaned on his experience of being recruited in high school and his time in Columbus hosting prospective students to tailor his approach.
Bubb’s initial signing class consisted of six freshmen and two transfers.
Paige Skidmore, now an assistant coach under Bubb, was the first and lone female swimmer of the bunch.
“I felt more like a team mom almost,” Skidmore said.
Skidmore started her college career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha after graduating from Millard South but stepped away from the sport, eventually landing a job coaching swimming in Omaha.
After meeting Bubb at a coaching clinic, the first-year head coach convinced Skidmore to get back into the water after a two-year hiatus.
“I wasn’t ready to be done, I just needed to take a step away from the sport for a little bit, but being on deck all the time, I missed racing and being in the water,” Skidmore said.
Skidmore now owns six school records and in amongst the top 10 in almost every event for the program.
“Being so small was such a weird experience because the club team I swam for was so large that we’d have 40 to 50 kids in the water at a time,” Skidmore said.
She went from that to being on a team where she swam in a lane by herself.
It was really nice not having to worry about running into anybody, but it was really weird being so small, Skidmore said.
Fellow senior Carter Hite echoed Skidmore’s sentiment.
“It was one of my favorite years just because it was so different,” Hite said. “My other teams always had 50, 60 kids in the pool and to be able to have a lane to myself, there was no avoiding all the pain and anguish that came with the hard practices, we were always in it together.”
The first year wasn’t without its growing pains.
Before moving to their now-home at the Dillon Family Aquatic Center, they practiced in a pool on campus that wasn’t the standard 25-yards, meaning to gauge times against other schools, a minor in math was sometimes required.
“One of the most challenging things was that we weren’t able to compete, not, not in the sense that we couldn’t go to meets, but well you have seven people on a team and one person on the other, you’re not going to win many meets,” Bubb said. “We have very highly competitive athletes on this team. And I have a very highly competitive person. And so I think that just fueled the desire to get better, fueled the desire to recruit harder and to work more, to building it to where it is now.”
That fuel pushed Midland to fill its roster in a short time, going from the original cast of seven swimmers to 23 on the men’s team and 17 on the women’s side for the 2020-21 season.
The Warriors continue to expand the team, adding diving coach Peter Charles to help fill out the diving portion of its roster.
Being competitive in meets went from being a dream for the near future to a reality over the same timeframe.
Currently, the men’s team ranks No. 2 in the latest NAIA National Coaches poll and the women are ranked No. 6.
Last season, Midland sent 16 athletes — nine men and seven women — in 39 individual races in addition to 10 relay teams to the NAIA National Championship meet.
Then-junior Tyler Penney made history, winning the 200-yard breaststroke with a time of 1:59.01 to become the Warriors’ first individual champion.
For Penney, bringing home the championship meant more than just returning with an extra medal for the trophy case, it meant having a chance to build a blueprint for future Warrior swimmers to compete at the highest level.
“If I can have that experience, then I can share it with my team and then share with them what you have to do to be that kind of caliber (of swimmer) in and out of the pool,” Penney said.
Penney’s individual title aided the men’s team to a fourth-place finish in the team standings with 255 points.
“I want to win conference championships or national championships, and we’re not going to stop until the job is done,” Bubb said. “And after that job is done, well then we’ve got a legacy to continue on. So I think that the sky’s the limit for the opportunities that are ahead for us.”
On Jan. 16, the Midland swim team added another first in their short time as a program — the first class of four-year graduating seniors.
Joseph Berrick, Kadisyn Kircher, Tim Thies, Nick D’Andera, Hite and Skidmore all made the walk down the deck to be honored in front of their teammates and a small group of parents in the stands.
Berrick, Thies, D’Andera, Hite and Skidmore are the last remaining members of the original crew.
“Those athletes took a leap of faith, a total leap of faith,” Bubb said. “I’m hoping at the end of the day, they look back at their experience, and they say, ‘Hey, you know, what we were able to build the team, that we were able to cultivate the culture that we instilled within these younger generations of swimmers, it’s gonna last for years and years.’”
The original group has just two meets left in their careers — the KCAC conference meet in early February and the NAIA National Championship in March — but regardless of times and team placement, their legacy is cemented in the program’s lore.
Bubb set out to create works of animation six years ago and instead, created the foundation of the Midland swim program.