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After 67 years of coaching, McMurry's Bev Ball hangs up the towel

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ABILENE, TX - With her 67 th year of coaching/teaching swimming coming to a close in 2016-17, McMurry University's legendary head coach Bev Ball has decided it's time to throw in the cabana towel - so to speak - announcing that this past season was her last guiding the McM team.

The War Hawks' 87-year old icon embarked on a then-new career when - in 2000 - she started McMurry's fledgling intercollegiate swim program, after "retiring" from a long teaching and coaching tenure on the middle school and high school levels (locally at both Cooper and Abilene High Schools).

While she will no longer serve as the program's head coach, she will remain involved with War Hawks swimming and connected with the program through yet-to-be-determined roles. "We appreciate and love Bev Ball," McM Director of Athletics Sam Ferguson said. "She will always be an important part of our success at McMurry and we are grateful to her. She is a true gem who makes everyone around her better. We are grateful for being blessed to be a part of her story."

Although Ball admits she actually made her decision to step aside as the head coach some time back, McMurry's venerable aquatics mentor announced her retirement exactly as she wanted: with no fanfare, in a private meeting with her swimmers and after the 2016-17 competitive season was completed. The only thing missing was the background music of Frank Sinatra doing his signature song, "My Way," because Ball would not have had it any other way, insisting that the focus should be on the team members and the university; she did not want anything she did to become a distraction. Her swimmers and their well-being always come first.

And they always have.

Perhaps that's what has made Ball one of the most beloved individuals not just in McMurry history, but in the Abilene community. Ferguson said - tongue-in-cheek (but probably accurately) - that "Bev could be elected mayor of Abilene without spending a dime campaigning." That's what happens when someone has dipped their coaching and teaching toes in all or part of no less than seven different decades.

Likewise, not too many folks can say they've had their own day in a city, let alone have a high school volleyball tournament named after them! If you learned to swim or competed as a prep or college swimmer in Abilene, there's a better-than-average chance that Bev Ball had something to do with it at some point.

Former Abilenians - and those from the surrounding area - of all ilk have had their breathing bettered, their strokes strengthened and their turns tightened in the pool at Bev Ball's behest. Pupils and athletes ranging from those in blue-collar work, to educators/coaches and to those in the loftiest bastions of power, have all labored under her watchful and caring eyes. Counted among her former students are record-setting NCAA and NFL quarterback Colt McCoy and Vice Admiral Mark Fox, USN retired (the former Deputy Commander of United States Central Command). Not to mention numerous others who have gone on to high school and college coaching careers.

But Bev Ball is not one to name-drop about those she has tutored in the pool or met along her journey. Heck, she has rubbed elbows with rock and roll royalty and barely mentions it.

That encounter occurred in 1957, after one of Bev's roommates - in a house full of fledgling educators - won a promotional contest for a "date" with the young singer. But the rising star had recently burst upon the national scene and was homesick after an extensive tour schedule. So, the solution was to instead invite him to their house to enjoy some homemade cookies and milk after he finished playing his show in Abilene. That future icon's name: Elvis Presley.

To try to recap a complete list of Bev accolades would be prohibitive and likely wouldn't do her justice. However, some of the highlights include Fox Sports Southwest "Coach Who Makes a Difference" in 1997-98, the Theron Pickle Outstanding Achievement Award by Texas High School swim coaches in 1998 and the Chuck Mosier Girls Coach of the Year in 1999 (named after the legendary Abilene High football coach who won three state championships).

In 2003, she was inducted into the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame for her service to Abilene and Cooper High Schools. To celebrate her 55th year of coaching in the Abilene area, Mayor Norm Archibald declared June 10, 2006 as "Bev Ball Day" in the City of Abilene. In April of 2012, Ball was named as a Woman of Outstanding Achievement by the Abilene branch of the American Association of University Women and, later that same month, also received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Texas Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Legends Dinner.

In a fitting reminder of her ability to still impact and nurture her swimmers, Ball was named as the co-winner of the 2016 SCAC women's swimming "Coaching Staff of the Year" award after her teams set five school records and had virtually every swimmer achieve personal-best times.

In August of 2016, Coach Ball was selected to throw out then first pitch at the Texas Rangers game. (The Rangers responded with a 9-0 win over the Cleveland Indians!). But Ball bristles at the mere suggestion of her having a lofty stature as a coach and mentor. That is Bev; humility at its best. It's hard to imagine that the word "me" is even in her lexicon.

"I really don't know why I'm getting recognized in those ways," Ball says of the attention poured on her. "I'm just an old coach that loves kids."

And her kids equally love her. It's hard not to. Whether it's an encouraging word after a tough race or the unmistakable "Whoop, Whoop" (translation: "Get your butt going") that she belts out with Pavarotti-like gusto to communicate to her athletes during a race, Bev Ball is revered. How many other octogenarians purposefully stride the deck of the pool with the energy of someone half their age or would volunteer to lead the entire cadre of participants at a swim meet in doing the "Harlem Shake" at the height of that video craze or jump on the back of a motorcycle of a total stranger, just to help relax her team?

Not taking herself too seriously - yet holding firm to lofty principles, a vision and high expectations - are what helped her lay the foundation for the War Hawks' swimming program in its beginning stages and what continues to the present day. Ball wanted to make sure athletes had fun, while still pushing themselves toward improvement. Likewise, for the program, it was her incessant drive that eventually took the program from "independent" status to SCAC membership and a conference home for McMurry swimming that will offer national competition opportunities.

So, as Bev Ball closes the book on this particular chapter of her long career and moves on to the next opportunity in her life, we can all be thankful that this woman of conviction - synonymous with the word swimming to many - spent a season of her life guiding the Maroon & White programs. And by doing it her way, Bev Ball made sure McMurry University swimming - from the beginning - got it done the right way.

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