Troubled waters on the Boca Raton campus

A trend seems to be forming inside the school’s swim program, where success leads to firings.


Head swimming coach Lara Preacco. Photo by Max Jackson

Brendan Feeney, Sports Editor

Apattern is developing in Florida Atlantic’s swimming program, where head coach Lara Preacco has been kicking her most accomplished coaches overboard.

The firing of assistant coach Manny Noguchi in March led several swimmers, from both the men and women’s teams, to reach out to the University Press to shed light on dissatisfaction with their coach. Noguchi declined comment, saying he has no right since he’s no longer a part of the program.

“It is very critical time for me to move forward from here,” he said in an email.

The two swimmers, who both swam for Preacco a season ago, chose to stay anonymous because of fear of possible repercussions.

Preacco said that Noguchi was fired because of “philosophical differences,” but the swimmers believe their coach wants “absolute power” over the team.

“The only viewpoint you need to have in common is to have the team succeed,” a female swimmer said. “It seems like she wants to be the top dog and she wants people to just be yes men coming in.”

Noguchi’s firing occurred less than two years after former dive coach Michelle Davison-Sandelin was fired — three months after she was named Conference USA’s Diving Coach of the Year. She won the award in three of her five years at FAU.

“Michelle should’ve stayed as the coach because she was a proven coach,” said John Walsh, a former FAU swimmer, an official graduate assistant in the 2014-15 season and a volunteer assistant coach a season ago.

Walsh also believes Preacco mishandled informing the swimmers of Noguchi’s firing.

The team found out from high school recruits, who only heard because Noguchi was also the recruiting coordinator. Walsh himself found out from a club coach who is unaffiliated with FAU.

“The lack of description, lack of warning and the mishandling of the whole event was why I wanted to talk,” said Walsh.

Davison-Sandelin said, “A lot of people quit since [Noguchi] was fired and a lot of people didn’t like the way she treated him.”

Preacco, who has been head coach since February of 2014, declined to comment on all personnel issues.

“What [Preacco] did is not very professional nor is there any reasoning behind [it],” Davison-Sandelin said. “It just appears she fires people who are good at what they do.”

Walsh doesn’t believe she ever liked Davison- Sandelin as a fellow coach when Preacco was an assistant.

“There was no reason, she just didn’t like me,” Davison-Sandelin agreed.

Soon after Preacco was named head coach, she let the diving coach go. Davison-Sandelin said Preacco fired her for a similar reason as Noguchi — different coaching styles.

“It’s almost comical because diving and swimming are totally different,” Davison-Sandelin said. “We’re not even together, she doesn’t know anything about diving.”

That firing was when the anonymous female swimmer first noticed something fishy was going on. Now it’s obvious, she says.

The anonymous male swimmer, believes philosophical differences did not lead to Noguchi’s firing. He said that from the team’s perspective, “she wants to sit on top of her little castle and govern.”

What bothered the swimmers about the firings is that they believed Noguchi was the coach from whom they learned the most.

According to them, Noguchi put all of his effort into the team.

He researched and stayed up to date with all of the new techniques in the sport; he would walk around the pool deck and watch everyone, focus on every person. Noguchi would approach the swimmer if there was any problem and if that didn’t work, he would videotape and analyze each swimmer.

“It’s hard to watch everyone, but you have to try your best and that’s what he does,” the female swimmer said. “He’s just very dedicated.”

Noguchi’s dedication carried beyond the school year.

During the summer — which Preacco spent in her home country of Switzerland — he spent most of his time at the pool. The female swimmer said she saw most of her improvement when she was able to work closely with Noguchi.

“Manny was better, everything about him was better than the coaches on the team,” said the male swimmer. “He absolutely made the team better.”

“I have a lot of goals. Under [Preacco], I don’t think I can achieve them,” he continued.

Walsh said the main difference between Preacco and Noguchi is their experience. He believes Noguchi is able to provide more information since he comes from “great programs” and has learned from head coaches who have produced Olympic swimmers and NCAA champions.

In 2001, Noguchi started as the head swimming coach at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Kyushu, one of Japan’s main islands. He then became a graduate assistant for the University of Georgia in 2002, before coaching at Michigan State University and the University of Wyoming, where he helped the program set more than 30 school records.

According to his FAU sports bio, he was a leading coach for Damian Alleyne, who competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece and led Wyoming to “thrive” in NCAA championships, World Championship Trials and U.S. Olympic Trials.

Former assistant coach Manny Noguchi (left) and head coach Lara Preacco (second to the right). Photo courtesy of Facebook
Former assistant coach Manny Noguchi (left) and head coach Lara Preacco (second to the right). Photo courtesy of Facebook

Preacco swam and coached at FAU under previous coach Steve Eckelkamp before becoming head coach in 2014. She competed in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta while she was still a student, and has been involved with FAU’s swimming program ever since.

She first was an assistant coach at the school from 1998-2001. In May of 2012, she took FAU’s assistant coaching job for a second time.

“I feel like a lot of [Preacco’s] coaching mentalities have come from Steve,” said Walsh, who also swam under Eckelkamp. “Not to say that’s a bad thing, but for quality of practices and the attention paid to the technique of the swimmers and different things like that, I definitely feel [Noguchi] is a superior coach in that aspect. He has more experience, he’s been doing it a lot longer than she has.”

Preacco wasn’t as open to accepting input from her assistant coaches as Walsh had hoped.

“I feel like she should’ve listened a lot more to them,” he said. “Even though she’s the boss, it isn’t the boss’s job to make all the decisions herself. The reason you hire assistants is to listen to your assistants and formulate ideas between the three. It feels like when you talk, a decision was already made and it just goes in one ear and out the other.”

The anonymous female swimmer said, “It got to the point where [Preacco] couldn’t really set those differences apart and she wasn’t being an adult. [She] took the easy way out and just fired him, and it’s not what’s best for the program and there was no reasoning behind it.”

Walsh said that Preacco firing her two most accomplished coaches in the past two years is odd, but believes it’s more coincidental than purposeful.

However, according to the female swimmer, that doesn’t mean the connection isn’t noticeable, which has her fearing for the program’s future.

“You’re not going to feel secure,” she said regarding any possible new hires. “You’re going to see all these amazing coaches, Diving Coach of the Year, and you’re like ‘Wow, how did they get fired? I shouldn’t go there because if they get fired, I’ll get fired.’”

For her, swimming at FAU is no longer fulfilling. She says some swimmers will stay if they’re on scholarship, but other than that something has to change or “no one’s going to want to stay.”

The female swimmer said she believes Preacco has the potential to be a good leader, but she needs to take a step back and listen to her fellow coaches. Until Preacco does that, she doesn’t think things will work out.

The team also feels that Preacco isn’t focused enough on the team’s success and puts too much emphasis on issues unrelated to swimming.

Walsh said, “She’d rather focus on all the other things outside the pool before working on making swimming a priority.”

Alongside Walsh, the swimmers believe a coach has to maintain a balance between academics and athletics — while Preacco seems to lean solely toward academics.

“It’s very hard for the student-athletes to [maintain a balance], because it’s a busy, busy, busy schedule. I do believe that academics come first and will always come first,” Preacco said. “And then we try to do as many community service hours that we can during the offseason when we have less meets … You’re always trying to do enough for the community but you don’t want to burn them out … I always listen to feedback from the swimmers and divers and it’s kind of a weekly juggle.”

The female swimmer said she felt her coach was more focused on pleasing the athletic department and letting the team suffer. “She seems very paranoid that she’s going to lose her job if she doesn’t meet a certain GPA standard.”

Walsh also says Preacco focuses heavily on Owl Points — points that athletic programs receive for going to events like resume critiques, Relay For Life and other FAU sporting events. At the end of the year whichever program has the most points wins the Owl Cup.

The anonymous male swimmer said Preacco will push “very hard” for events with double Owl Cup points, “even when they conflict with a healthy sleep schedule or we have work for school.”

The team hosted several swim clinics for the community, where team members and assistant coaches were present to teach kids how to swim. The female swimmer said that while Noguchi would get in the water to teach, Preacco “never attended one of them.”

The swimmers continued: “If she really cared about volunteering the way we do, she would attend important events and lead by example.”

Preacco doesn’t believe she’s the only one who values Owl points. “[Owl points are] important to me because it’s important to the swimmers and divers.”

The male swimmer disagreed with Preacco.

“Owl Cup points mean virtually nothing to us,” he said. “Of course we enjoy doing community service and supporting our friends in other sports, but in the end, Owl Cup points are a meaningless construct that [Preacco] believes will make the team look better and, as such, pushes us to go to them — though it is worth noting that nothing is mandatory, everything is optional. But she will give you a hard time, interrogate you about why you didn’t go.”

The female swimmer elaborated on her teammate’s comment, saying she thinks the Owl Cup is irrelevant.

“I don’t think us swimmers who volunteer care about winning [the Owl Cup], [we] just enjoy meeting others in the community and passing down whatever we can,” she said.

Regardless of issues outside the pool, the female swimmer said she’s never seen the team perform as well as it did with Noguchi, and for him to be fired is “not in the best interest of the team.”

“We should bring anything to light that we can,” she said. “I think it’s important to prevent stuff like [Noguchi’s firing] from happening.”

“I no longer respect her as a coach,” said the anonymous female swimmer. “She used to be very caring and in tune with how we were feeling and very motivated and excited to coach and now she’s more worried about the logistics of things, like keeping the athletic department happy instead of keeping us happy. I kind of miss the way she used to be.”

Downplaying Success

According to two anonymous swimmers, Lara Preacco would find times when the team was successful and use them to bring up issues unrelated to swimming. They both told a story about a 5 a.m. workout, which they claimed was by far the toughest of the year.

One swimmer finished the workout, despite others being unable to complete it. However, this individual was not wearing the same shirt as everyone else — it was a year older and therefore had a different font size.
Preacco then spent 10-15 minutes ranting about how the different shirt would prevent the team from winning conference.
This angered both of the anonymous swimmers.

The female said that for Preacco to come and yell about the shirt after the swimmer’s workout and claim that the swimmer doesn’t care about conference was “a slap in the face. Why am I here? Why did I train all summer when you were gone?”

“I was absolutely infuriated,” said the anonymous male. “To dismiss our hard work and say it doesn’t matter unless we’re wearing the same thing truly bothers me.”

Both swimmers also stated that it’s not easy to swim for a coach like that. The male swimmer said it’s “hard to be civil” under her and there is a strong “dislike.”

“It does make it hard,” John Walsh said. “When you’re a college athlete, having that added pressure really takes a detriment to them, where they’re more focused on ‘What am I going to wear in the morning?’ rather than ‘How am I going to prepare for practice?’”

“I think that’s important as a team to represent FAU to the best that we can,” Preacco said. “I’m very proud of FAU, I love FAU. I always have, I always will … It’s your way to show your support to your team, your swimmers, your divers, to the other coaches, to the athletic department, to everyone around you.”

The female swimmer continued with another story at the end of conferences. According to her, after the team’s last meet, Preacco said, “You guys did a very good job at conference. Next year let’s come back and get higher GPAs and more community service.”

No Floaties

Michelle Davison-Sandelin was eight months into her pregnancy when she won Conference USA’s Diving Coach of the Year. While on her maternity leave, she said Lara Preacco “kept emailing me, saying ‘when are you coming back, how are you enjoying vacation?’”

Preacco fired Davison-Sandelin the first day back from her six-week maternity leave.

Manny Noguchi also had a child on the way when he was fired.

An anonymous male swimmer said, “Getting fired for philosophical differences when a child is on the way really says something about [Preacco].”

The female swimmer believes Preacco may be worried that having children interferes with coaching. When Preacco was an assistant, coach Steve Eckelkamp would arrive late and postpone practices because of his kids.

The anonymous female swimmer said, “I don’t know what it is with her and kids, but I guess she has a problem with it.”

Brendan Feeney is the sports editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @feeney42.