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Home » 'These athletes are giving us their all, so they deserve a coach who … – Sun Devil Athletics

'These athletes are giving us their all, so they deserve a coach who … – Sun Devil Athletics

TEMPE, Ariz. – The clutter of sticky notes that stretch across her desk are less about the minutiae that comes with coaching but more about the passion Rachel Stratton-Mills has for the Sun Devils.
There are dozens that weave in between sheets of practice sets, notebooks, pens and a laptop. Each sticky note is devoted to each swimmer she works with. They are replete with notes, nuggets, thoughts and ideas – tailored for the development of each student-athlete. 
“I’m trying to have everybody feel like there’s a plan for them,” Stratton-Mills, the Sun Devils’ associate head coach, said in her corner office at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center as she thumbed through each note. “They’re an individual and their paths may be similar to everyone else in the group, but they’re not identical.”
To do this for this long – 20 years exactly – Stratton-Mills acknowledges you have to be passionate. About swimming, of course, but more so about coaching, teaching and the never-ending quest that is student-athlete development.
“It’ll be 1:00 a.m. and I wake up and I’m thinking about things, the athletes, the team, what we need to do next. That’s how you know you’re passionate about it,” she said. “Thinking about this all the time, to me, it just keeps me excited.”
Stratton-Mills is in her sixth season with the Sun Devils, currently in her fourth as the team’s associate head coach. This program looks vastly different than it did when she first arrived in 2017. 
There are conversations being had now within the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center – centered around competing for Pac-12 Championships, consistently sending swimmers to the NCAA Championships and setting new school records – that simply weren’t taking place nearly six years ago.
Perhaps then, considering the timing of her arrival and the rise of this program, that’s no coincidence. Stratton-Mills and the Sun Devils found each other at a perfect time. A program with its sights set on greatness needed a coach intent on getting them there.
It was what made her hiring a no-brainer for head coach Bob Bowman.
“Rachel is a world-class coach and a natural leader who has positively impacted every aspect of our program,” Bowman said. “With a formidable skill set and a tireless work ethic, she is a model of dedication, consistency and drive. 
“ASU is fortunate that Rachel chose to join us during our building phase. We will all certainly enjoy the results of her hard work in the years to come.”
Under Stratton-Mills’ tutelage, ten Sun Devil Women have reached All-American status at the NCAA Championships, highlighted by First Team All-American Cierra Runge, who won gold at the 2016 Olympics.
A trio of Sun Devils have won Pac-12 Conference titles in this span, the most recent of which came when Erica Laning won the 500 free in February 2022.
In 2018, the Sun Devil Women finished third at the Pac-12 Championships, the first time since 1994 they’ve finished among the top three.
They have the kind of core and nucleus now that suggest the Sun Devils are built for the long-run. Captains and redshirt juniors Lindsay Looney and Jadé Foelske are set to return next season. Underclassmen Charli Brown, Emma Gehlert, Ieva Maluka are among the team’s budding stars, with the former two having gained valuable experience at the Pac-12 Championships a season ago.
Ask Stratton-Mills about her Sun Devil tenure, and a theme of unfinished business is evident. There is lots to point to that she can hang her hat on. Yet much remains on the table.
“Every year we’re moving on up and this year is going to be our best year,” she said. “We’re not where we want to be. It’s exciting. I see so many little things – the leadership, the involvement and engagement in all the athletes. There’s so many things like that that are happening on the Women’s side that to me is the real big first step into us developing into a really cohesive team, not just a team of three people who swam well that year. 
“That’s very exciting. We have work to do. There’s a lot on the table we haven’t accomplished yet.”
Stratton-Mills is pleased with the buy-in she’s received this year from her entire roster this season, from captains and veterans to transfers and first-year freshmen. Creating an atmosphere like this has always been positioned near the top of her coaching bucket list, and the Sun Devils are tapping into that now more than ever.
“I really want to be at a place where our athletes come back year after year, because this was the best part of their lives so far,” she said. “I just think that’s something if you plan your season and your coaching around … then we’re really doing something special. We’re getting athletes at the top level and they’re coming back and saying, ‘This was a tremendous experience and life-changing in a very positive way.’”
Looney, a co-captain, applauds Stratton-Mills for the effort in creating and implementing that kind of culture.
“Rachel makes a positive impact on our team by encouraging leadership from our student-athletes,” Looney said. “It’s clear that she wants the Sun Devils to succeed. What I appreciate the most is that she wants to see us grow into strong women in and out of the pool.”
Wishing a big Happy Birthday to Coach Stratton-Mills ?? pic.twitter.com/vHH9jSTydg
A career in coaching came largely by happenstance for the Los Gatos, California, native. With her sights set on teaching, she coached local swim teams while home for the summers in college. It originally began as nothing more than making some cash while on summer break.
But it was here where her passion was unearthed.
“I was considering teaching and doing student-teaching and I said, I kind of like the aspect of coaching better, because these athletes are choosing to be there. I thought that was more enjoyable. My passion was matched with the athletes’ passion.”
There have been past stops and destinations since then, including tenures on the staff at both Dartmouth College and the University of Maryland. She was a member of Team USA’s staff at both the Short Course World Championships and Junior World Championships.
She was also part of the inaugural season of the International Swim League in 2019, the first professional swim league, where she coached for the DC Trident on one of the first all-female professional sport staffs in history.
And then there was the 15-month, cross-country journey in 2015 where she observed and interviewed swim programs of all levels. She met with 60 different competitive swim programs, documenting and speaking on her findings, and left with new insights into the many ways a coach can find success in the sport of swimming.
Among all the stops, her passion has never wavered. It’s intensified.
And it’s what continues to fuel her to this day for the Sun Devils.
“These athletes are giving us their all, so they deserve a coach who does, as well. Everyday, I have a workout and I’m excited to see how each person is going to do and how they’re going to do something that day to get one step closer to their goals. I think that notion of individuals having a goal, coming in everyday and doing all they can to get there, is one of the most exciting things somebody can do in life. 
“Whatever their goal is, whatever their passion is, people who go in everyday, working toward that, giving their all to that. If it were up to me, I’d say that’s what life is about. When you get to provide an opportunity for athletes to do that, it’s exciting.”
The Sun Devil Women are back in action for the first time in 2023 on Saturday, January 14, when they welcome Washington State to the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center at 12 p.m. MST.
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