On two occasions, Mike Lehto has rebuilt the Saint Ignatius swimming program into a powerhouse program with strong numbers.
Now, for the second time, Lehto is ready to say adieu.
Not long after completing his second stint and 16th season as head coach, Lehto decided to hang up the stopwatch.
"For me, it was a time issue. The responsibilities of my day job force me to miss some of our meets," said Lehto, who works as the Athletics Facilities Coordinator for Cleveland State University. "I don't feel that it's fair to the boys to not be able to be there for some of their biggest competitions. That's never going to change with the job. When you compare calendars and you see five conflicts with meets, you can't get around it. Also, I feel bad that I'm not home very much during the winter. There's no coaching burnout, I love these kids. You get to coach such a wide range of swimmers and there is so much excitement here."
Lehto started his Saint Ignatius journey in 1988, assuming the reins of a solid, but small program. His initial task was to encourage more swimmers to join the team and increase the depth.
Lehto stocked the cupboard in no time. The Wildcats' depth became a calling card and the team soon began competing in Canton.
One of his favorite experiences occurred a few years later in his fourth campaign in 1992. After several years of making strides and becoming stronger, the Wildcats stole the spotlight in Canton. At the State Meet, the Aqua Cats earned the first runner-up trophy in the history of the swimming program.
"We knew going in that we had a good program, but to get the first runner up was fantastic," Lehto said. "At that State Meet, St. Xavier got the state championship trophy and we got the runner-up, so we sang our alma maters together on the podium in Canton, since it's the same except for a couple of words. It was really cool."
Lehto and the Wildcats repeated the feat in impressive fashion next season. Lehto and the Wildcats were on the top of their game.
Following his sixth season in 1993-94, with two young kids at home, Lehto decided to step away.
Sixteen years later, as his four boys (Brian '10, Sean '12, Nolan '14, and Michael '17) were walking the halls of Saint Ignatius, Lehto was called back into action for the 2010-11 campaign.
His task was similar – build the program's numbers and create a culture of excellence.
Lehto did just that. Over his 10 seasons, Lehto worked incredibly hard to find more swimmers at Saint Ignatius to join the program. A very important part of his job was to work on the team culture.
"It was almost like the first time. We had great talent with some awesome swimmers, but the numbers were small," Lehto said. "You need talented guys, but you also need a deep base. You need to build a culture to be open to having a bigger team."
As any coach will tell you, an important aspect of culture-building is forming strong senior leadership.
With a small number of seniors at first, Lehto worked to cultivate leadership characteristics in his swimmers. The process took time, as having a good number of seniors is important. But over time, Lehto's work began to bear fruit.
In 2017, the Wildcats broke through and captured runner-up at the State Meet in an epic upset.
"One of my favorite memories was when we won the runner-up trophy again in 2017. That was special," Lehto said. "It was a total surprise. We knew that we had a good program, but dominoes fell perfectly together for us."
Over the last three seasons, the success continued. Not only at the State Meet, but during regular season meets as well as the District and Sectional Meets.
The Wildcats became an absolutely unstoppable force at the Sectional level. The men of Ohio City won the vast majority of the events and sent every swimmer to the District Meet during the last two seasons. And then in 2020, the Wildcats unseated the perennial Northwest District champs, the vaunted Toledo St. Francis Knights.
But beyond the victories in the pool, the success was evident by the sheer number of swimmers in the program. For the 2019-20 season, the Wildcats had 41 swimmers and divers in the ranks, a program record.
"We have a wide range of young men," Lehto said. "We have some boys coming out to be part of a program and part of a team. We some guys with big individual goals. Accomodating all of these goals and building that depth of the program is important. If you look at roster numbers, we have a large program. The nature of meets means only so many spaces, so not every guy can swim every week. Kids who are willing to participate and their desire to work is so great. You need guys like that to have a successful program."
Lehto's good work has not gone unnoticed.
Just ask Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick '88.
"Swimming is a very difficult sport to be apart of. It's a tough sport physically and mentally. But he's created a culture to coach kids of all kinds of abilities," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm very thankful for him. He's built a super strong program and he's coached three of our four runner-up finishes. We've been so lucky to have him. His guidance has provided our programs with some of the best teams we've had."
If you had to describe Lehto in one phrase, it might be "program builder." Lehto did wonderful work in constructing a powerhouse program to compete locally and statewide. In the process, he did a great job of teaching men of faith.
"His sons went through Saint Ignatius, so he understands the culture. He's done a wonderful job in forming young men and in making the program accessible to kids of all different talent levels in order to build a true program," Fitzpatrick said. "Not everyone is going to the State Meet, so for a coach to build a program that welcomes and develops kids of different talent levels is something really important. Mike coaches to the entire program. He's done a wonderful job of program building. I can't thank him enough. With his job at CSU, the time commitment was very challenging. I'm appreciative that he hung on as long as he did and for doing the job well."
Even though he'll have a tad more free time now, Lehto will definitely miss his team.
"The learning aspect and teaching the kids was my favorite part. Unlike some of the other sports, where you have freshmen, JV, and varsity teams separated, we're coaching everyone together. It's great to watch the younger kids flourish, and you get to see the fruits of your labor, such as seeing a kid win a state title," Lehto said. "It's never a good time to walk away from a program. But the program is in good shape. We have a large number of swimmers and a young man like Tyler Hong, who's one of the best swimmers in program history. The culture and the senior leadership is in place: These seniors will not let anything fall between the cracks. We had some great leaders this year which really made a difference, and next year's seniors will, too."
Before Lehto departs, he has some thank you's to say.
"I want to thank the coaching staff over the last several years. We've stuck together as a group: Phil Symons, Jim Hlavity '89, Kevin Carmichael, and Tom Blankenship has been there with us, too," said Lehto. "Anthony Rubino has also been great with strength and conditioning.
"Overall, the parents have been great. Their support has been wonderful in helping me. A lot of things that take place behind the scenes that you don't notice unless you're the head coach. Getting team apparel orders, team meals, senior night, etc. The parents have to be part of it, and they are. They've been amazing. And our swimmers. I'll miss them. I didn't expect to wrap up with pandemic. But with my position at CSU, I'll see the guys, and I'll stop in to say hello. I'm a part of getting the Viking Invite at CSU operational, so I'll still see the guys and I'll get to watch them swim."
In the meantime, Fitzpatrick will start to look for the next Mike Lehto.
It will not be an easy task, but the right person for the job is out there.
"We're looking for a good leader who will understand Ignatius and our mission, and bring that to the program," said Fitzpatrick. "Our mission is integral to who we are. We want someone who can continue to build a strong culture and program from top to bottom. Also, we want someone who can lead the kids in the right way and continue to build a very strong feeling of team and family."