‘He lived what he taught’

By Leila Kalegi

Laughter echoed off the blue-padded walls of the UK basketball practice courts yesterday as family and friends listened to stories at a memorial service for diving coach Mike Lyden.

Lyden lived by a motto: “Bigger is better.” He kept that motto in mind as a father trying to choose which branch he would hang the family swing from. About two-thirds up the hill behind his house, he found the perfect one, but friends thought he was crazy.

To John Brucato, UK’s assistant swimming coach and a close friend of Lyden, the branch would have been high enough to fling his daughter, Brittany, onto the neighbor’s roof — the one across the street.

The story was just one indication of Lyden’s fearlessness, Brucato said.

The UK diving coach since 1993, who led the program to its first national championship in 2006, died Friday after a two-year fight with cancer. He was 51.

“Mike lived what he taught,” Brucato said at the memorial service. “Fear never holds you back. Fear never held Mike back as a diver, never held him back as a coach and never held him back with his fight with cancer.”

Stories of Lyden’s love for the sport of diving, the outdoors and his family brought comfort to those who knew him, as more than 300 people packed the Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church for the funeral and the Joe Craft Center for the memorial service to celebrate the life of the man who had become familiarly known as “Iron Mike.”

“Mike would have wanted everyone to sit and talk about things they’ve done and memories they have of Mike,” swimming coach Gary Conelly said.

Those close to Lyden knew the things that mattered most to him were his family, his wife, Emily, and three kids: Jessica, 17, Jack, 16, and Brittany, 10.

Lyden was especially proud of Jack’s accomplishments as a guard on the basketball court and a wide receiver on the football field for Lexington Catholic High School, Brucato said. And members of the diving team knew that if they asked about one of Jack’s games, Lyden’s explanations would give them at least a 30-minute break from their workouts.

During his career, Lyden was named Southeastern Conference Diving Coach of the Year nine times, including three consecutive seasons from 2005-07, and NCAA Women’s Diving Coach of the Year in 1996. Twelve of the divers he coached at UK combined to earn 51 All-America selections.

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.

While he’s known for diving, Lyden’s real legacy is his kids, Conelly said. Lyden would want people to tell stories to his kids about him so they could get to know the real Mike and know how much he loved them, Conelly said.

If there was ever any doubt about Lyden’s influence, it was removed by the number in attendance at Lyden’s service and memorial, said senior diver Kari Retrum.

“I thought it was an amazing turnout,” she said. “Showing him and his family support, it’s evident that he touched people’s lives.”

“I think the support was tremendous from the community,” said senior swimmer Will Vietti. “It was fitting because Mike was an outstanding guy and will be missed by a lot of people.”

The number was so substantial that the funeral procession blocked many of Lexington’s main roads, including the intersection of South Broadway and Waller and the intersection of South Broadway and Main Street.

“The number of people was overwhelming,” Conelly said. “Looking out my window, I had a line of cars in front and behind me while stopping at a major intersection.

“Mike would have loved that he stopped traffic.”

The turnout was not limited to just family, friends and current members of the UK athletic department. UK President Lee Todd, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and head football coach Rich Brooks were also in attendance. Conelly said that with one exception, every UK diver Lyden ever coached was there.

The day was not meant to mourn the loss of a coach and friend, Conelly said, but to remember the times shared with Lyden.

“Mike was an amazing person, and incredible guy to be with — a family man, and I’ve said it before, the perfect diving coach, ” Conelly said.