Mike Simpson came to Gardner-Webb University in 1999 intent on building a competitive swim team from scratch and he has done just that with the women’s program and is looking to do the same with a men’s program that was started in 2007-08. In the eleven seasons since the women’s program’s inception, Simpson’s teams won four consecutive Northeast Conference Championships from 2003-2007. The four-time NEC Coach of the Year recipient has produced 96 all-conference selections - 65 women and 31 men, been rated as high as 14th and 30th in the nation, won an NCAA individual national championship and have had the highest ranked team GPA in the nation on multiple occasions.
The 2012-13 campaign would represent a season of firsts for Simpson and Gardner-Webb’s men’s swimming program. The Runnin’ Bulldog men, for the first time in program history, recorded a first place finish in a relay event at CCSA Championships, winning the 200 medley relay behind a school record performance from Colin James, Drew Ellwanger, Matt Anderson, and Cole Hickey to spark a third place team finish at the meet. Gardner-Webb’s women’s swim team finished in fifth place at the Conference Championship meet, highlighted by an All-Conference performance from the 200 medley relay quartet Laurenn Singleton, Charity Byrum, Mary O’Doherty, and Giorgie Graves.
In 2011-12, Coach Simpson guided the Runnin’ Bulldogs men’s and women’s swim teams to a pair of Top 5 conference finishes once again, with the men taking third place and the women placing fourth at 2012 CCSA Championships. As he has throughout his tenure at Gardner-Webb, Coach Simpson led a team that was successful both in the pool and in the classroom. Fourteen GWU swimmers earned All-CCSA honors, nine new men’s swimming records were set, and two Runnin’ Bulldogs won CCSA championships (Drew Ellwanger, 100 breast, and CJay Wiley, 400 IM) in 2011-12. Additionally, standout Charity Byrum earned CSCAA Honorable Mention All-Academic for her impressive freshman season. Thirty-nine GWU swimmers earned 2012 CCSA All-Academic Team designation.
During the 2010-11 season, Gardner-Webb swimming continued to make strides under Simpson’s direction, setting multiple program firsts. On the men’s side, the Runnin’ Bulldogs knocked off CCSA rival Davidson in a dual meet for the first time in program history, winning the meet-closing 400 free relay to clinch a 138-124 win over the Wildcats in Boiling Springs. The Gardner-Webb men also achieved their highest-ever finish at CCSA Conference Championships, finishing 2nd as a team. On the women’s side, GWU captured 3rd place as a team, getting All-Conference performances from Sarah Steadman, Kim Zachensky, Lizzy Ketterer, and Elizabeth Charter, with Zachensky (200 breast) winning an individual title. Casey Brutus (men’s 100 breast) and Steven Caudill (200 fly) also won individual events at the Conference Championship meet for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
The 2009-10 campaign was another successful season for both programs, as the men's team finished in second-place and the women's team finished third at the CCSA Championships. Overall, the men's squad finished with a record of 6-2, while the women finished with a 8-3 overall record. The men's team had 11 student-athletes to recieve all-conference honors and the women's team had 10 student-athletes to recieve recognition, giving them a total of 21 on the season.
Once again, the effort that the Bulldogs exhibit in the classroom was nationally recognized, as the women's team finished the 2009 fall semester with a grade point average of 3.52, which was the best among all NCAA Division I women's swimming programs according to the Collegiate Swim Coaches Association of America (CSCAA), marking the third time that the team topped this list. The men's program had cumulative GPA of 3.26, ranking sixth in the nation.
In 2008-09 again both squads had a strong season as the men’s team finished in third-place and the women’s team finished fourth at the CCSA Championships. The men finished the season with a 4-4 dual meet record, while the women finished with an 8-2 head-to-head record. Each team had seven student-athletes receive all-conference recognition, giving them 14 total on the season.
Again the Bulldogs hard work in the classroom was rewarded, as the women’s team completed the 2008 fall semester with a grade point average of 3.62 which was the top in the nation among all NCAA Division I women’s swimming programs according to the CSCAA. The men’s team was also top dog, as the men ranked first in the nation as well with a 3.33 GPA, just .01 of a point ahead of Georgetown University. In the spring semester, the GWU women’s swim program ranked third on the list nationally behind Rice and Cincinnati with a 3.55 cumulative GPA. The men finished 16th overall, tallying a 3.23 cumulative GPA.
“Once again our swimmers have done a tremendous job in the classroom,” said Head Swim Coach Mike Simpson. “This is a tribute to their discipline, hard work, and dedication to being true student-athletes. We are very proud of our team for their great year both in academics and in the pool.”
However, 2008-09 was also a year of firsts for the Bulldogs, as GWU swimmers Mallory Weggemann and Tucker Dupree combined for 13 gold medals and 13 national titles in the 2009 Spring Can-Am Swimming Championships in Gresham, Oregon on March 19-21. The event marked the first major swimming competition since the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, hosting some of the world’s top swimmers from the United States, Canada, and Columbia.
Gardner-Webb newcomer Weggemann, who has been swimming for the Paralympics for less than year, shattered six American and Pan American records in her first official swim competition at the Can-Am Championships. In doing so, the U.S. Paralympic Women’s Swimming National Team added her to their roster, making her the 39th swimmer on the team. Her record-breaking swim in the 400 freestyle officially made Weggemann the newest member of the National Team. The Gardner-Webb freshman lowered the mark by more than 21 seconds, finishing in a time of 5:27.66. Weggemann also set new national records in the 200 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 50 freestyle, 100 back, and 100 fly.
Also competing was fellow Bulldog Dupree, a freshman at Gardner-Webb, who also had a stellar performance at the Can-Am Championships, winning seven gold medals and claiming seven national titles. Dupree recorded wins in the 50 back, 100 back, 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, 100 fly, and 200 Individual Medley.
The 2007-2008 campaign could best be defined as a new atmosphere for Simpson. He guided the first-year men’s swimming program to a third-place finish in the newly formed CCSA. The women’s program also took third in the first-year league after departing from the NEC. Simpson led the women’s team to two conference titles while the men’s program boasted its first-ever individual title winner.
With some of the most talented student-athletes in his tenure during the 2006-2007 season, Simpson guided his squad to its fourth consecutive NEC conference title while garnering his fourth straight NEC Coach of the Year award. Terra Wilson, who was named Most Outstanding Swimmer of the NEC meet, led a group of 10 that received all-conference honors. There, the Bulldogs set five NEC and school over the three-day meet.
Wilson, who qualified for the NCAA Championships in two events, took home All-America honors in the 200 free after touching the wall in 1:45.40, finishing sixth. In the 100 free, her time of 49.03 earned honorable mention All-America honors by placing 12th. She ended her career by being named to the Mid-Major All-America Team for the second consecutive season.
Outside the pool Simpson’s team’s credentials are just as impressive. In 2007, 11 student-athletes earned a spot on the NEC academic honor roll. The College Swimming Coaches Association of America tabbed the squad as an Academic All-American Team for the 2006 fall semester as the Bulldogs’ GPA of 3.419 placed them 10th nationally among all Division I women’s swimming programs. The honor marked the ninth consecutive semester in which the team had been ranked in the top-10 nationally.
In 2005-2006, the Sarasota, Fla., native guided the Bulldogs to a superb 12-3 record en route to capturing their third straight NEC conference championship. The Bulldogs came back from a day-one deficit to take the championships by more than 100 points. GWU had nine student-athletes named to the all-conference team while once again for the third straight year Simpson was named the NEC’s Coach of the Year. For the second straight season, the Bulldogs won eight overall conference titles, as Wilson won the 100 free and 200 free, Taylor Simpson took first in the 200 IM and 200 breast, Whitney Hooley nabbed first in 100 back and Heather Roka won the 1650 free. Gardner-Webb also won two relay titles, with its 400 and 800 free relay units touching the wall first.
Wilson became the first-ever swimmer to compete at the NCAA Championships in GWU’s Division I history. She earned honorable mention All-America honors in the 200 free and had a time good enough to make her an Olympic trial qualifier in the 100 free at the summer USS Nationals.
Once again, the Lady Bulldogs excelled outside the pool in 2005-06, as GWU placed 14 student-athletes on the NEC Academic Honor Roll. For the second consecutive year Simpson was named the NEC Scholar Athlete for the sport of women’s swimming, and was honored by the ESPN The Magazine as a member of the Academic All-America Women’s At-Large first team and the All-District Women’s At-Large Team. The College Swim Coaches of America Association honored the Lady Bulldogs’ team by naming them as an Academic All-America Team. The Bulldogs finished fourth in the nation among all Division I Women’s Swimming programs.
The Bulldogs had perhaps their best season ever in 2004-05 as they turned in a 15-2 record and won their second conference championship in as many years. In only their second season as an associate member of the Northeast Conference, Gardner-Webb led the NEC Championships from day one, and saw nine student-athletes named all-conference in 2003-04. Simpson was named the NEC’s Coach of the Year for the second consecutive year. GWU won eight conference titles along the way, with Wilson winning the 100 free and 200 free, Simpson winning the 200 IM and 400 IM, and Roka winning the 500 free. Gardner-Webb also won a trio of relay titles, with its 200, 400, and 800 free relay squads taking conference crowns. As has become customary, Simpson’s team was also dominant in the classroom, as nine student-athletes earned spots on the NEC Academic Honor Roll. Simpson, with senior standing in the classroom, was named the NEC Scholar Athlete for the sport of women’s swimming, and the team as a whole was first in the nation in GPA among all Academic All-America teams named by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America.
The 2003-04 squad posted a 10-4 record on the season and won the NEC Conference Championship in its first season in the league, while the 2002-03 squad posted 12 wins to match which at the time was the school record for single-season victories, and turned in a second-place finish at the Southern States Conference Championships in its final season of competition in the league. Gardner-Webb had five student-athletes earn all-conference accolades and set a school record for academic all-conference performers with an astonishing 17. Cheryl Horne and Simpson each won individual conference titles, with Horne taking both the 50 free and 100 free and Simpson claiming the 400 IM.
In 2001-02, Simpson guided Gardner-Webb to a 12-5 record and a third-place finish at the Southern States Conference meet. Horne again took home all-conference honors, and was joined by first-time honorees Hamilton and Chester. The Lady Bulldogs improved dramatically on the previous year’s showing at the ECAC meet, coming in 11th and placing eight members on the All-ECAC squad. Five relay squads earned the distinction, while Chester, Hamilton, Horne and Smith all took individual honors. The 2001-02 squad also excelled in the classroom, earning CSCAA Academic All-American team honors.
Gardner-Webb made the jump to Division I athletics in 2000-01, but Simpson’s squad was up to the challenge. The Lady Bulldogs came in fourth at the Southern States Conference meet in 2000-01, again getting an all-conference year from Horne. In its first year of competition at the Eastern College Athletic Conference meet, GWU placed 19th and had seven swimmers named All-ECAC. Katie Alford, Megan Campbell, Sarah Fair and Horne all garnered the honor for the 800 freestyle relay, while Hamilton, Smith and Becky Henninger were tabbed for individual events.
In the team’s first year of existence, 1999-2000, the rookie coach took a squad of only four girls and turned in a 9-1 record for a stellar inaugural year. Gardner-Webb came in eighth at the Southern States Conference meet and had freshmen Melissa Smith and Horne named to the all-conference squad. At the NCAA Division II Championships in Buffalo, N.Y., the Lady Bulldogs placed 14th out of 29 teams, highlighted by Smith claiming the national championship in the 1650 free. The freshman’s winning time of 17:05.75 brought the program its first NCAA title just months after its inception.
Simpson earned his stripes at the club and high school levels before moving to GWU for his first collegiate head-coaching job. Prior to his arrival, he coached the swim team at Venice High School. There, he guided Venice to its first-ever district title and produced a high school All-American and several all-state honorees.
Before his stint at Venice High School, Simpson was making a name for himself on the club circuit, coaching nationally ranked teams in Ohio, Illinois and Florida. His Sarasota team took four state championships and placed second at the YMCA National Championships. Simpson’s 1985 Jolliet, Ill., squad also took second at the YMCA National Championships, taking home 13 individual national titles. That team turned out five senior national finalists and three Olympic trial qualifiers, in addition to setting seven national records.
A 1980 graduate of Florida State University, Simpson transferred there from the University of Houston prior to his senior year. A swimmer at Houston, Simpson qualified for the NCAA Division I nationals his sophomore year.
Simpson, resides in Boiling Springs with his wife, Kathi. The Simpsons have four children – Taylor (27), Saxon (22), Logan (21), and Garrett (15), and one grandson, Mason Liam Jackson, born May 2010.