Janesville native Maureen “Mo” Sheehan knew what she wanted to do in life when she was 9.
She didn’t want to be a doctor, or a nurse, or a veterinarian or a teacher.
Sheehan wanted to be a swimming coach.
“I just kind of knew I wanted to do it,” Sheehan said about her early decision. “I always had great experiences with the coaches that I had.”
So after earning nine letters in swimming, basketball and track and field at Janesville Craig, and being part of four Big Eight Conference championships while on the Kansas University women’s swim team, Sheehan got a job at the Lake Forest Swim Club in Lake Forest, Illinois.
That was 39 years ago. Until she left her position of executive director in January, she spent her life fulfilling the dream job she envisioned back in 1967.
After helping coach five youngsters who went on to compete in the Olympics and guiding thousands of others throughout her four decades at the northern Chicago suburb, Sheehan was inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Associated Hall of Fame a month ago in Dallas.
During her induction, Sheehan’s Kansas University coach Gary Kempf recalled their first year at the school. Kempf was a first-year coach; Sheehan was a freshman.
Kempf was trying to turn around a program with tough training. One day, 13 of the 14 freshman decided to skip practice “to test the waters of the new coach,” Kempf said.
Only one of the freshman showed up for practice. It was Sheehan.
“Her quietness transformed into confidence,” Kempf said. Her stubbornness transformed into strong commitment to excellence and values. Her loyalty grew so she could mentor and guide whoever she worked with.”
Sheehan was inducted into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 for her accomplishments at Craig and Kansas.
It turned out those years were a small part of her overall life accomplishments.
Sheehan is revered by swimmers, fellow coaches and parents she encountered at Lake Forest.
Kempf recounted a comment from Cindy Dell, who coached with Sheehan for 30 years.
“She said Mo changed and blessed her life, and she was a great role model for her and her daughter,” Kempf told the audience at the induction ceremony in Dallas.
While the swimmers that went on to compete at the Olympics were the highlights of her coaching, Sheehan believes she fulfilled her dream in a broader scope.
“It’s the overall,” Sheehan said. “Working with kids who are willing to work hard and just want to get better. That’s a highlight of coaching.”
Sheehan works out daily. She took up golf a few years ago. True to her work ethic, she became good enough to qualify for the first U.S. Senior Open.
Then her life changed significantly last summer. She had a persistent cough, which was first dismissed as a cold and then an allergy.
“I kept going, ‘I’m not right. I’m not right,’” Sheehan said.
Then one day while she was coaching her swimmers in the weight room, her lung collapsed.
A non-smoker and workout fanatic, Sheehan was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
“It’s crappy,” she said of her prognosis.
She’s been on chemotherapy for a year, which has helped.
“Five years ago, I wouldn’t even be here,” she said.
People around Sheehan aren’t surprised with anything Sheehan accomplishes at this point.
Doug Lennox-Silva is one of the swimmers that was influenced by Sheehan at the Lake Forest Swim Club. Lennox-Silva competed for Puerto Rico at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
“He said she’s the toughest person he knows,” Kempf said. “She never shied away from a challenge, and lives with courage, integrity and humility.”
Michael Lawrence, who took over as head coach and executive director when Sheehan stepped down, marveled at her tenacity and fairness.
“Michael said if there’s an example of Midwest grit, it’s Coach Maureen Sheehan,” Kempf said.
And this year, despite the chemo treatments, Sheehan qualified for the USGA Senior Women’s Championship.
“I qualified as a medalist, which is something of a miracle because that was something I’ve been trying to do since I turned 50,” she said. “It’s just one of those crazy things.”
It is something that people have come to expect from Mo Sheehan.