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‘It’s bittersweet’: Sehome swim coach nears end of 49-year career

Don Helling to retire after leading Sehome sports programs for decades

Sehome swim coach Don Helling gets a kiss on the cheek from daughter Lauren Gongwer Oct. 17 after beating Squalicum in a dual meet at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. Helling will retire from coaching after the fall season following a 49-year high school coaching career — 38 of which were at Sehome.
Sehome swim coach Don Helling gets a kiss on the cheek from daughter Lauren Gongwer Oct. 17 after beating Squalicum in a dual meet at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. Helling will retire from coaching after the fall season following a 49-year high school coaching career — 38 of which were at Sehome. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
By Connor J. Benintendi Sports Editor

After coaching at more than 90 state swim and dive meets over his 49-year career, coach Don Helling has just one left. 

“It’s bittersweet,” said Helling, who has spent the last 38 years at Sehome High School and coached upwards of 75 sports seasons since arriving. “I’ve got colleagues and friends across the state that I see at different invitationals and at the state meet, and I will certainly miss that. But I think the time is right to pass the reins.”

Helling, 67, is retiring following the 2A state swim and dive meet that will run from Nov. 9–11. A local legend, Helling enters his final state meet with seven team state championships under his belt and a resume that boasts more than 50 individual champions.

The longtime leader of several Sehome sports programs decided to step down last spring but wanted to get through one more girls season. As the end nears, Helling is still comfortable with the timing of his departure.

photo  Sehome swim coach Don Helling works with Priyanka Costanzo on her turns Tuesday, Oct. 31 as the Mariners prepare for districts. Helling has coached more than 50 individual state champions in his 49-year career. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)  

“You’ve got to have a lot of help, and I’ve been fortunate to have that,” Helling said. “I just feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to coach such a great group [of athletes] over my tenure here.”

Helling also coached girls golf at Sehome for eight years, leading the Mariners to one team state championship in 2008 and three second-place finishes during his tenure. All told, Helling is currently in his 101st total season coaching.

“Having done this as long as I have, I’ve been fortunate to get some really good groups coming through that were both good individually and as teams,” Helling said.

Helling wasn’t a golf expert, said Sehome athletics director Colin Cushman, but he knows how to get the best out of his players — regardless of the sport. 

“Don was one of the few people [who] was here before I came to Sehome,” Cushman said. “He knows how to coach, and he took a team that had not had much success, and they won a state title.”

photo  Sehome swim coach Don Helling gets a laugh from his team and assistant coach Lauren Heath Tuesday, Oct. 31 as they prepare for districts. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)  

Cushman arrived at Sehome in 1992, approximately six years after Helling began coaching at the school. Helling spent 10 years at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle — his first high school coaching job — before moving to Bellingham to earn his bachelor’s degree in education from Western Washington University in 1986. 

Helling began coaching at Sehome almost immediately while taking college courses. He became a mentor to other coaches, like Cushman, as they entered the fray.

“[Helling has] just had so many successes, and it’s not a fluke,” Cushman said. “It’s because he is an incredible teacher, and he has really done so many great things to build kids up and to have strong relationships with students.”

When he took over, Helling said nearly every coach at Sehome was a teacher. That landscape has since changed, he said, with community members being brought in who have expertise in a sport.

photo  Sehome swim coach Don Helling talks to a swimmer about their stroke on Tuesday, Oct. 31 at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)  

In addition to his coaching duties, Helling has been an English teacher since September 1991.

Dave Hageman, a retired former history teacher at Sehome, regularly saw both sides of Helling. Hageman coached Sehome swim in the 1970s and returned as a volunteer assistant diving coach alongside Helling in the late ’90s. 

“Before [Helling] got married, his reputation was he was a hard nose,” Hageman said with a laugh. “Then once he got married, the kids said, ‘Oh, he’s getting easy now.’”

One of Helling’s daughters, Lauren Gongwer, is a sophomore on the Sehome girls swim team. Much of Helling’s decision to retire from coaching was weighted on a desire to spend more time with his family and three children.

“It just seemed like it was time,” Helling said. “I want to make sure that I’m spending time with them, and the extra coaching energy and time — that affects it a little bit.”

photo  Sehome coach Don Helling gives his team two thumbs up Oct. 17 after hearing the Mariners beat Squalicum in a dual meet at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)  

Helling will get to watch his daughter swim at state this season before transitioning to the role of “swim parent,” as he coined it. 

“She’s not going to miss a beat, and I will still be there to cheer her on at the meets,” Helling said.

Helling will pass on head coaching duties for the boys team to current assistant, Lauren Heath, who has been with the team for the last six years. A decision about who will lead the girls team next fall is yet to be determined.

Also up in the air is how long Helling will continue teaching. That decision probably won’t come “for a while,” Helling said, but it’s something he is mulling over.

“There will never be another one like Don,” Cushman said. “He’s an incredible teacher and an incredible person.”

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