‘Perfect diving coach’ dead at 51

By Leila Kalegi

Mike Lyden, the UK diving coach since 1993 who led the program to its first national championship, died Friday after a two-year fight with cancer. He was 51.

“Mike was the perfect diving coach,” head swimming coach Gary Conelly said. “From the very beginning he struck me as a guy with a lot of passion (for diving).”

Conelly said he formed a close friendship with Lyden over the years, both on and off the pool deck.

“What I always admired about Mike was he was always a straight talker,” Conelly said. “He’d talk to his athletes, sit them down, tell them what they were doing right or wrong and in a way that wasn’t offensive.”

Former UK Assistant Athletics Director and Olympic gold medalist Micki King remembers seeing Lyden’s relationship with his divers being more than just work related.

“He could empathize with his divers,” King said. “He knew they could do things they didn’t know they could do. That empathy transcended most diver-coach relationships.”

However, the passion and love for diving sometimes translated to giving his divers some tough love, even if he didn’t always want to be tough on them.

“He definitely pushed me,” junior diver Justin Smith said. “He’s a tough guy — fighting cancer proves that. He just wanted to make you the best diver you could be.”

In October 2005, Lyden was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer but continued coaching. A few months later in March 2006, then-junior diver Taryn Ignacio — who Lyden first coached at age 12 — earned UK its first national diving title with a record-setting dive on the platform.

Ignacio will remember that victory forever.

“Mike wasn’t at practice every day,” Ignacio said. “But his voice was in my head and kept me going. I was happy to have him there with me, and winning made it special.”

Over the years, Lyden earned the nickname “Iron Mike” for his grueling workouts and overall intensity.

“Mike made me mentally tough and mature as a person,” senior diver Kari Retrum said.

Along with his grueling workouts, Lyden’s work ethic stood out to everyone.

“Mike, to me, was one of the best coaches in the country,” Ignacio said. “He’d be at the pool all day with practice in the morning, doing work coaches do in the office, then practice at night.”

Lyden’s relentless work ethic — he would practice five to six hours a day in high school, his brother said — eventually earned him a full ride to Western Michigan University, where he graduated in 1980.

Lyden then went on to coach at Eastern Michigan University and Louisiana State University before coming to UK.

During Lyden’s career, he earned nine Southeastern Conference Diving Coach of the Year titles, including three consecutive seasons from 2005 to 2007, and was named NCAA Women’s Diving Coach of the Year in 1996. Twelve of the divers he coached at UK earned 51 All-America selections.

Even with deteriorating health, Lyden insisted on traveling with the team to the SEC Championships in February in Tuscaloosa, Ala. His younger sister Katie Lyden-Hitow made the trip with him.

“We had to take him to SECs,” Lyden-Hitow said. “He wanted to go.”

The highlight of the trip, she said, was after Conelly called a team meeting. When Lyden-Hitow asked her brother if he wanted to attend, Lyden said, “Yeah, I’ve got to be there.”

Conelly started by giving a speech thanking everyone. Then, Lyden stood up and thanked Conelly, the university, Ignacio — who had been acting as assistant coach — and the divers, for doing the work even when he wasn’t there for them.

The speech earned him a standing ovation. When Lyden-Hitow asked him where it came from, her brother said he wasn’t going to let Conelly outdo him.

After Tuscaloosa, Lyden traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for the women’s NCAA Championships, where the swimming and diving team placed 18th overall. He intended to then go to the men’s championships in Seattle but was persuaded not to by family members.

“He was driven to push people to excel, even on his death bed,” said brother Patrick Lyden. “He was willing to go to Seattle to support his diver, Stephen.”

Lyden’s divers said his overall presence and love for the sport will be missed.

“I’m going to miss him on the pool deck, the normal part of my life, him coaching me, and seeing him every day,” Smith said.

Lyden is survived by his wife, Emily, and his three children, Jessica, Jack and Brittany.

A public viewing will be held today from 5 to 8 p.m. at Kerr Brothers’ Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road. The funeral mass will be tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary on Clays Mill Road. A funeral at Lexington Cemetery will follow.

A luncheon will be held tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the Joe Craft Center on the women’s basketball practice courts.