By: Robby Veronesi
Lisbon, Portugal: a beautifully stunning European capital city on the continent's far southwestern coast. Decked with loads of historic architecture dating back to the days when the small nation was a world superpower, the city (and country) provides quite the respite and getaway from a busy life back home.
For two married Americans, Jessica and Bret, a trip to Lisbon was simply part of a massive 34-day Southern European expedition, seeing places such as Switzerland and Spain, Italy and France--places they might not get to see in the midst of their busy schedules and lives back home in the United States.
It was during this time in Lisbon where the next chapter of their lives would then begin...after some time worrying if their plans would actually happen.
"We had no idea what we were coming back to," said Bret. "Technically, I didn't have a job, (Jessica) didn't have a job. I was in Portugal when my friend texted me and he said `You may have made a really good move.'"
Pause. Rewind. See, Bret and Jessica took this European trip while in the middle of a big move from Upstate New York to the bustling outdoorsy college city of Knoxville, Tennessee. Only after putting their belongings in a Knoxville storage facility did they then go on this trip.
Of course, this wasn't a random move. Bret had been offered a graduate assistant position at the University of Tennessee for their women's swim team under then-women's head coach Matt Kredich. After changes to the former swim staff's organization in February, the job that Bret once had was in question.
After much thought and discussion, Bret and Jessica decided to go for it and go through with making the move to Knoxville, even after turning down an assistant coach offer at a university close to Bret and Jessica's family, one of Bret's hometown colleges.
Now, fast forward back to that text. Bret and Jessica began scrambling for access to a computer in downtown Lisbon, wondering why they may have made a really good move. On April 12, 2012, Kredich was named the head coach of a newly-combined swimming and diving program at the University of Tennessee. After landing in the United States, Bret went out for an interview and was then hired.
Bret is Bret Lundgaard, current assistant coach for the University of Tennessee swimming and diving team.
Bret's story actually starts miles and miles away from the shores of Europe, even from the rolling mountains of East Tennessee. Boulder City, Nevada, on the banks of Lake Mead and the Arizona borderland, sits at the cusp between vast, dry desert and the seemingly-popping-out-of-nowhere metropolis of Las Vegas.
Yet in this dry, arid landscape, swimming has caught hold like a desert wildfire, especially for Bret, whose community--and parents--made the integration much more seamless.
"The cool part of Boulder City is that it's this really small community," said Lundgaard. "You grow up with the same people from age three until 18, so you develop these friendships. Fortunately, a lot of my friendships were integrated in the sport. Our lives always revolved around swimming.
"My mom swam recreationally in college, but she was always really involved in athletics. My dad also swam every day, so they were always in the pool. My mom remarried a swim coach and she was the high school swim coach. I grew up all around it, to say the least."
Of his group of friends, five enrolled in division one swimming programs, including Bret, who traded the homogenous communities of arid Nevada for the wetter, more diverse and eclectic atmosphere of Seattle, Washington, and the state's flagship campus, the University of Washington.
"One of the things I really wanted was something really different," said Lundgaard. "I needed to branch out and be a little bit uncomfortable. UW was my first recruiting trip and I remember thinking `this is awesome!' There were mountains, lakes, rivers, ocean. You had this really cool, diverse city, but it also had a small feel, an organic community feel, so it was all A+'s."
Out of all the great attributes of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, one special part of Bret's life still remained back in Boulder City. During his sophomore year of college, Bret took his best friend home for the Christmas break, since he needed a place to stay. After being invited to a party (and then urged to go hang out by his friend), Bret met up with a girl named Jessica. She certainly was no stranger to Bret: the two were in pre-kindergarten class, in the same social group and friend circle, but never dated--or anything close--all through high school.
By the time he graduated from UW, Bret was engaged to Jessica and moved back home for their September 2008 wedding, in front of their family, friends and tight-knit community. After spending some time helping to coach the highly-successful Boulder City High School swim team, the newly married Mr. Lundgaard stepped in a completely different direction. The owner of Las Vegas's Agape Children's Services, a foster care agency, was a friend of Bret's sister, so he ended up getting a job with the company.
Title: Psychosocial Rehabilitative Worker. Translation?
"The thing that I loved about it was that it was teaching, it was relationships, it was working with people," said Lundgaard. "About six months into it, I realized I was missing something and that was the competitiveness."
So, if one is in Bret's position, how does he combine the communication and relationship-building with the competitiveness that he so craved? In Bret's case, going back to his roots proved invaluable.
"I got into coaching because my parents were coaches, so it was easy," said Lundgaard. "Then I reached out to one of my former coaches who recruited me to go to UW, and he was the head coach at West Point. I called him up and said `I know I'm not very experienced to be a division one coach, but I'm interested. Do you have anything available?'"
Long story short, an assistant coach had just left West Point. Yes, that West Point. Adding on to what would be a much longer list of travel, the newlyweds packed up their belongings and went across the country to West Point, New York, on the banks of the Hudson River, and Lundgaard began his job at the United States Military Academy, otherwise known as Army.
"I think I was prepared for it, not that I had any military background," said Lundgaard. "I had my culture shock (at UW) and I felt ready to handle that situation. Fortunately, my wife was a trooper and went with it. We never thought we'd live there. We always loved the west coast, but at that point in our lives, we were like `why not? Let's get an in into coaching and experience a different side of the country."
Black Knight fans sure are glad they decided to come across the country. As the recruiting coordinator, Lundgaard helped Army land its best men's signing class (2010) and women's signing class (2011) in more than a decade. The team saw steady improvement, both finishing in the six in their conference championships during his final year with the program.
With his third season on Rocky Top just taking off from the starting block, Lundgaard has grown in his coaching confidence, being a part of transforming a pair of top programs. After inheriting almost 30 freshmen at Army and helping to turn that program around, Lundgaard came to Tennessee and helped lead the Lady Vols to its best ever NCAA finish (3rd), while also winning their first three NCAA relays.
"I would like to think (of myself as) a teacher first," said Lundgaard. "I really get a lot of energy from teaching people, in working with them and seeing them do things that they never thought they could do. I think it comes from honoring who we are as people and honoring the needs of humans. In order to teach, you need to honor those needs, so that the message is being perceived. If they don't feel comfortable or safe in their environment, they're not going to accept it because they're always uncomfortable.
"In order for me to be an effective teacher, I need to do a good job of providing that kind of atmosphere. It's so easy now to be in my coach mind all the time (and) get tunnel vision. If you take a step back and say 'Hey, do you remember when you were 19 and a sophomore in college? What was your mindset? It's healthy for me to reflect back on that in order to relate to the kids that I'm coaching."
As much stock as he takes in providing such a kind, loving and comfortable environment, Lundgaard knows that there's one piece of this puzzle that has remained consistent throughout this well-traveled, exciting journey.
"(Jessica) has been incredible throughout this whole experience," said Lundgaard. "I'm not sure I would have been able to do it without her. She's just really brave to leave home as well. Neither of our families really left home, so for us to be out here and for her to provide the support she does and be flexible and supportive, it's been a really nice resource."