Enter the cavernous aquatics center at Georgia Tech and your eyes instantly are drawn to the five iconic rings on one wall. They distinguish the pool as one of only two in America where college swimmers crease the same fast waters that Olympians once did.
With such a landmark to call home, Tech swimming might be expected to deal with an overflow not just at poolside but in its trophy cases. Yet those rings from the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta have not translated into NCAA championship rings.
To help bridge potential and achievement, Tech has entrusted its entire program to a 32-year-old with no prior head coaching experience. Too, the coach is a she, one of four among Division I schools overseeing men's and women's teams.
Oh, and she's a University of Georgia grad.
Courtney Shealy Hart never pauses to reflect on how her background, accented by a pair of Olympic gold medals, played into the hire. The Type Triple-A personality couldn't find the time anyway, not with planning practices, huddling with alumni, recruiting, conjuring up team-building games like Powerade chugging, clearing her office of Bulldogs artifacts and pumping herself up at meets as if she were still wearing a Speedo.
Shealy Hart served for two years as a Tech assistant. Theresa Wenzel, the associate athletics director who manages swimming, remembers the job interview: "I looked at Dan [Radakovich, Tech's AD] and told him that she's going to make a great head coach someday."
Coach Stu Wilson, who resigned last spring after four seasons, had steered Tech in the right direction.
The men had just placed 19th in the NCAA championships, a rung never before reached. The Jackets had never qualified for the meet, which dates to 1937, until 2001, then finished between 27th and 37th through the next six years.
The women, now in their ninth season, took 30th in 2008, just the second NCAAs in which they scored points.
A group of candidates to replace Wilson was winnowed to four finalists -- Shealy Hart and three males, all more seasoned than her. The issue of gender was never raised during the process, she said.
"I knew we would be charting new waters," Shealy Hart said. "I don't think they ever questioned it. If they did, they hid it well."
The search panel included four Tech swimmers, two of them guys with no qualms about taking orders from a woman.
"We have a lot of respect for Courtney because of what she's accomplished," co-captain Travis Wagner said. Besides, "today's society is more accepting of people in different roles."
Wagner declined to say if they recommended Shealy Hart. "Let's just say I was excited to hear the news" of her promotion, he said.
So was senior Will Woodworth, who told the team, "This is gonna be great, guys. Something to look forward to."
Woodworth acknowledges the reception might not have been unanimously high-fives.
"Some testosterone-riddled guys might look at women coaches and consider them weak," he said.
Jack Bauerle, longtime UGA coach and Shealy Hart's mentor, said, "It's not an easy situation" for all males. Still, "they should not flinch over swimming [for women]."
Wenzel endorsed Shealy Hart and a veteran male to Radakovich, in case he was concerned about her thin portfolio.
Shealy Hart had this going for her: familiarity with the natatorium's Olympic rings, having won two gold medals on relay foursomes at the 2000 Sydney Games.
"Everyone knows the other three," she said, speaking of onetime cover girls Amy Van Dyken, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres. "I was the other one."
Aware that recruits might Google her, Shealy Hart chose to keep employing her maiden name, without hyphenation.
"Courtney Hart doesn't get nearly as many hits," she said.
An Internet search will turn up several connections to volleyball. The 6-foot-3 Hart was South Carolina's Player of the Year in high school and divided her time at UGA between the pool and the net-divided court.
Against his staff's wishes, Bauerle freed up Shealy Hart to serve and spike even though volleyball stole her away from the virtual year-round demands of swimming.
But it worked. Along with fellow Olympian Kristy Kowal, she captained Georgia's first two NCAA women's team swimming champions.
"She was a program-changer for us," Bauerle said.
He recalled Shealy Hart as fanatically competitive. After a rare substandard race, she required up to a half-hour of cooling-off time until he approached her.
Volleyball was less intense, almost a decompression chamber for her.
"It really kept me in swimming," she said. "It's a heckuva lot more fun training."
After graduation, Shealy Hart moonlighted as a pro volleyball player in California while supplementing her income as a youth swim coach. It seemed inevitable that she would gravitate back to her passion full-time.
"She and Kristy took care of a lot of my talking," Bauerle said. "It was almost like having two more coaches."
Shealy Hart, whose lone remaining connection to volleyball is her husband's job as assistant coach at Emory, demands nearly as much of swimmers as she once did of herself.
"She's more of a zero-tolerance person [than Wilson], which I find refreshing," Woodworth said. "The system used to be that we'd have a lot more strikes than we do now [before repercussions set in]."
She will tolerate nothing less than a top-15 finish in the NCAA men's championships in mid-March, which would surpass all prior Tech teams. As for the women, she said, "We're gonna surprise some people."
Her boss, Wenzel, ultimately expects no worse than 25th annually for either, maybe 20th. It's not too much to ask of a coach with two Olympic medals in her home and the five Olympic rings at her workplace.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.