Coach leads team through troubled waters


Standing on the edge of the PEIF pool, NMU head swimming coach Bob Laughna claps his hands vigorously while cheering his swimmers on as they cut through the water back and forth to finish their workouts for the morning’s practice.

Laughna may seem like any of the countless other NCAA swim coaches, but he is a unique coach – and a fascinating person.

Laughna lost most of his hearing when he contracted meningitis at a year and a half old.

“I can hear five vowels but no consonants,” Laughna said. “I’m lucky because I can read lips and with a hearing aid, I can use a telephone.”

After becoming deaf, his parents sent him to an oral residential school where he learned to communicate better.

He was first introduced to life at NMU when he was recruited to play on the men’s basketball team by legendary NMU coach, and later NBA coach, Stan Albeck. Laughna went on to play with the team for three years before graduating in 1969.

“I enjoyed being on the team,” Laughna said. “It was fun.”

After graduating from NMU, Laughna enrolled at Eastern Michigan University where he graduated in 1974 with a master’s degree in deaf education. He also earned a second master’s degree in administration/supervision from Cal-State Northridge in 1985.

Laughna said he loved his time in the Upper Peninsula, and even though he left for school and work, it always remained a special place for him. He was offered an opportunity to return in 1986 and began working as an assistant with the NMU swim and dive team.

“I’d always wanted to come back to the U.P. The job opened up and I took it,” Laughna said. “I haven’t left since.”

Laughna worked as an assistant for three head coaches during his 20 years with the team, including NMU Sports Hall of Famer Anne James. Laughna said he learned valuable experience in teaching swimming and running practices, as well as how to handle the team.

“It was great. I’ve learned a lot from the coaches I’ve assisted for, and I’ve learned a lot from all the swimmers and divers we’ve had. I learned a lot about training methods and how to understand the sport,” Laughna said. “It hasn’t been easy but it’s been fun and I’m glad I had the opportunity to coach for so long.”

One unique coaching job that Laughna has held is head coach of the United States Deaf Association National Swim Team. Laughna said he applied for the job on a whim.

“I was reading an article and saw they were looking for a coach. I knew I was a long shot, but I applied anyway. I didn’t hear from them for about six months,” Laughna said. “One day they called (then NMU head coach) Anne James and offered me the position. I was shocked.”

As coach of the Deaf Olympics team, Laughna competed in the World Invitational Meets in Canada in 1991 and Russia in 1992. He later led the United States team in the World Games for the Deaf in Bulgaria in 1993, Denmark in 1997 and Italy in 2001. His latest major world coaching experience was in 2003, when he was selected to coach for the Deaf Pan-America games in Argentina.

“It was a great experience. We had athletes who set world records and won championships,” Laughna said. “I got to work with lots of swimmers from bigger D-I schools like Texas Tech, Texas A&M, California. We also had a lot of swimmers from other countries-it was a real challenge but it was fun.”

After 20 years working with the NMU swim program, Laughna got his chance to lead the program this August following the departure of previous head coach Jon Wilson. Only a few weeks before the start of this year’s season, Laughna took over and began his era as head coach. Laughna said it was an honor to be selected to take over the program.

Sophomore swimmer Sarah Van Oss said that, though Laughna had been involved in the program in the past, many of the girls on the team didn’t know him well before the start of this season.

“I didn’t know what kind of coach he was going to be, if he was going to be good or bad, if he was going to be strict. I was a little bit hesitant but I went into it with an open mind,” Van Oss said.

Her questions about Laughna were soon answered.

“He ended up being great,” Van Oss said. “I love him as a coach. He is a nice person, he is great to talk to, he’s easy to communicate with, even with his hearing impairment and he really knows what he is doing with our training.”

Junior swimmer Emily Olson said the team has been most impressed with the commitment and dedication that Laughna has shown to improving the team.

“The thing we like best about him is we know he cares about us and doesn’t care about moving up or getting a better job,” Olson said. “He just wants us to succeed at swimming and at school.”

One thing that the swim team has had to deal with is how to work with a coach who is deaf. Members of the team said that despite small communication problems, his hearing impairment has very little effect on how Laughna acts as a coach.

“Sometimes there are communication problems. Like sometimes I would ask him a question and he would answer ‘yes’ when it wasn’t a yes or no question,” Olson said. “I think I learned more because of it. I picked up a little bit of sign language and it made it so when he was talking to me I really had to listen to what he was saying.”

“We don’t think of him as deaf – to us he is just Bob,” Van Oss added.

Laughna said one of the best memories he has of this past season was spending winter break in Marquette with the swim team. The swimmers spent two weeks in Marquette living out of hotel rooms in the Country Inn and Suites, so they could continue their training uninterrupted during the break. To help build team unity, Laughna made home-cooked meals for the entire team every night.

“I figured that the team needed something to eat,” Laughna said. “And if I didn’t make them something, they might starve.”

Laughna made many meals for the team including lasagna, tacos and many on the team’s favorite dish, Thai chicken.

“The Thai chicken was amazing,” Van Oss said. “He told us that it was one of his favorite meals, so it was really nice that he was able to share that with us. To be able to share one of your favorite foods with your team is real special.”

Olson agreed that Laughna’s cooking was a memorable part of the season that showed just how much he cares about the team.

“He’s a really good cook,” Olson said. “He would make chicken and they were just little individual chickens for everyone.”

The swim team’s season came to a close last weekend with an eighth place finish at the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) championships. Laughna now faces the daunting task of assembling a recruiting class with no guarantee that the program will exist more than a year from today, due to an ageing pool.

“With our pool situation and our geographical disadvantage we naturally have trouble recruiting every year,” Laughna said. “With no commitment from the university, it’s very hard. I’m still hoping that one day the university will give us a firm commitment and say ‘Yes, next year you will have a new pool.'”

Until that day, Laughna will keep fighting for the program and swimmers that he cares so much about.

“Everyone likes Bob and everyone respects him,” Olson said. “He is a great coach and perfect for our team.”

Although the NMU swim team has a clouded future, Laughna will continue to cheer on his team, no matter what the outcome.