Sept. 13, 2004
During the past 28 years, the Ohio State synchronized swimming team has won 24 national championships. Assistant coach Holly Vargo-Brown has been around for 12 of them, earning two as a student-athlete and 10 as a coach.
Vargo-Brown was a four-year letter winner, a four-time Academic All-Big Ten recipient and an All-American when she competed for the Buckeyes under former head coach Mary Jo Ruggieri.
Vargo-Brown, a native of Toledo, Ohio, started the sport when she was 12 years old, an age that is considered late for a synchronized swimmer.
“My mom saw an ad in the newspaper for synchronized swimming tryouts,” Vargo-Brown said. “I had done gymnastics and I liked to swim so she thought it would be something I might be interested it. I really liked it because it was basically gymnastics in the water.”
Vargo-Brown was told she was too old to become successful at the sport. Usually, synchronized swimmers start when they are 8 or 9 years old.
“I spent years trying to prove everybody wrong,” she said.
Vargo-Brown did well in the sport despite her age. She swam for the Toledo Flamingo Club throughout high school and was good enough to have the chance to prove herself as a collegiate athlete.
“I remember going on a visit with Mary Jo,” Vargo-Brown said. “I was intimidated by her because she had a very strong presence. The team was so good. I had come from a really small program and was really the only older athlete. I was with all these athletes who were really good, but I wanted to take on the challenge.”
Vargo-Brown had four successful years as a Buckeye with national championships during her sophomore and junior years. After graduating with a degree in physical education, Vargo-Brown continued swimming for two more years on an Ohio State club team. She also spent time helping out the varsity program. Her primary focus was to utilize her degree and find a job teaching physical education in an elementary or middle school.
“In the process of trying to find a job, Mary Jo asked me to come coach for her,” Vargo-Brown said. “That’s how I started. It was something I thought I could do and something I would be good at.”
Vargo-Brown began her first stint as the Buckeye assistant coach in 1986 and continued for three more years. In 1990, she took two years off to have her second daughter, Jordan. After her hiatus, she returned to the program and won four more consecutive national titles with Ruggieri.
After the 1995 season, Ruggieri, the first head coach of the Ohio State synchronized swimming team, stepped down. Linda Lichter-Witter was hired to take over the reigns and she asked Vargo-Brown to remain as her assistant coach.
“That was a time in my life when I could have left,” Vargo-Brown said. “It would have been good timing. But I felt this extreme responsibility to everyone that had come before me that if I didn’t stay, some traditions would be lost.”
Traditions like the Carmen Ohio circle, during which the student-athletes and coaching staff for join together for one giant circle after each competition and sing the words of the alma mater. It is a tradition that has been around since the beginning of the program.
“If a person from 1970 comes to a competition and sees us doing that circle, they are with us and they know what that means,” Vargo-Brown said. “If we know alumni that are there, we invite them to join us. You don’t know what that does for a program. It’s unbelievable.”
Under Lichter-Witter, the program has captured seven national championships in nine years. After finishing second to Stanford in back-to-back years in 1998 and 1999, the Buckeyes reclaimed the title in their home pool in 2000 and have since won five consecutive titles.
Last summer, United States Synchronized Swimming announced Lichter-Witter as the assistant coach for the U.S. National Team that would compete at the Summer Olympic Games in Greece the following year. That meant Lichter-Witter would spend the majority of the 2004 season training with the Olympic Team in California and Colorado and Vargo-Brown would be filling her shoes at Ohio State.
“I was very happy for her,” Vargo-Brown said. “I knew it was a goal that she really wanted. It was a big deal for her. Having a personal friendship with her, I was very excited.
“It is unbelievable for the program. There are all kinds of things that come into play. I knew she could bring back information to the program that could only help us. If we can start doing what the Olympians are doing, that would be great.”
Vargo-Brown was anxious to know how things were going to play out.
Volunteer coach Annemarie Lichter moved up to function in Vargo-Brown’s role while former Buckeye Suzanna Hyatt (2000-03), who was serving as the team’s manager, moved up to Lichter’s spot. Another former Ohio State student-athlete, Victoria Bowen (2000-03), who was working on her undergraduate degree, also was around to help.
“Everyone just stepped it up a little bit,” Vargo-Brown said. “It was all people comfortable working with the program. Linda did a very good job of making sure everyone was ready to move into place. She is the kind of person who knows that when there is something that is going to happen she wants to be prepared. She doesn’t want to leave anybody hanging. Everything was handled very smoothly.”
The Buckeyes, under the guidance of Vargo-Brown, headed north to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the 2004 Collegiate National Championships.
“When we walked in, I think every single person was ready,” Vargo-Brown said. “I really do believe that. We had our homework done and we had everything ready to go. We talked a lot about not being able to control the outcome and all we could do was give our best. That started with the coaching staff and carried all the way down the roster. Everybody just wanted to get out there and do what they worked so hard for. They wanted to do well for themselves, for Ohio State, for the coaching staff and for Linda.”
After the semifinals were over on Friday night, the Ohio State squad realized that if every score were to stay the same during the finals on Saturday, the Buckeyes would finish second to Stanford. The Buckeyes were confident. The squad went above and beyond what they needed to accomplish, winning three events in the finals.
For her coaching efforts, Vargo-Brown was recognized as the 2004 Colligate Coach of the Year. She was presented with the honor at an awards ceremony following competition by the previous winner, Lichter-Witter.
“The award was nice,” Vargo-Brown said. “As an assistant coach, sometimes it feels like you don’t get the glory, which is obviously okay with me, because I am still here and working hard. That is not what motivates me. I just feel blessed that I was in the right place at the right time. It was a great honor and I was thrilled to get it.”
Set to begin her 14th year with the Buckeyes when they return to the pool in the fall, Vargo-Brown knows it will take a lot of work to keep the winning tradition going.
“You just have to keep looking forward,” Vargo-Brown said. “You know the past is behind you, but it just keeps pushing you on.”
Meanwhile, Vargo-Brown will continue to teach new Buckeyes the many traditions of Ohio State synchronized swimming.
“There is a joke going around the team that the longest of Ohio State synchronized swimming tradition is me,” Vargo-Brown said. “It’s kind of funny, but pretty soon I think it might be true. The main thing I have tried to do, still being part of the program, is to tell the story. I have always felt tradition has added depth to the program. They don’t think it’s just about them. They know it’s about everything that has come before them that it is still going to be here when they leave.”