of the Sentinel Konah
The National High School Coaches Association named head swim coach Helen Houlihan as one of eight finalists for the national coach of the year in swimming. Nominated by the Montana High School Coaches Association, Houlihan was selected based on longevity, service to high school athletics, honors, championship years and winning percentage.
Houlihan serves as the head coach for Hellgate, Sentinel, Big Sky and Loyola high schools simultaneously—a fete not many can claim, let alone succeed at. Under her direction, both the Hellgate boys’ and girls’ swim teams have won the Montana AA State Championship title four years in a row and go into next weekend’s state competition as the defending state champs.
“This nomination makes me feel good, because it’s a recognition for our entire program—from the swimmers, to assistant coaches, parents, schools, the district, and our whole community,” Houlihan said.
A Sentinel graduate in 1981, Houlihan has been coaching swimming for 19 years, 10 as the combined head coach for MCPS Not many people can claim such success, especially when she has to coach her teams to compete against one another.
“It is very important that every swimmer feels like they are a part of their team and our overall Missoula team,” Houlihan said. “We try really hard to create an atmosphere of inclusion.”
Houlihan started coaching when her own daughters began to swim competitively. At the time, her family had moved to a new town, and the current program needed a new coach in order to continue the team. Thus her career began.
Nineteen years later, and she stays motivated by the student athletes.
“I am motivated by the great student athletes who come through our program and after leaving the program become my friends,” she said. “My goals as a coach are to allow each swimmer and school to achieve their highest level of competency. Ultimately, I would like to see each school in the top three at the state meet.”
Houlihan, who works a full-time job in the Communications department at the University of Montana, easily puts in 40 hours a week coaching swim as well. She has received the Montana Coaches Association Girls’ and Boys’ Head Coach of the Year several times in her tenure, and last year received the Chinske Award for Outstanding Coaching in Missoula.
This is Houlihan’s fourth time to be nominated for the national award, but first time to make the top eight cut. The winner will be announced in June in South Dakota.
“Swimmers are smart kids who have some of the highest GPAs in not only high school but college, too,” Houlihan added. “They are good people who work hard and become great citizens no matter what they choose to do in life.”