Nearly two years before becoming the Stillwater High swimming coach, Brycen McConnell went through a traumatic life experience most 20 year olds never imagine.
It happened in November 2016, shortly after McConnell returned to his home state of Oklahoma from Baylor University to be closer to his girlfriend, now wife Shay, and attend Oklahoma State University. A few months into his junior year of college, McConnell began having trouble swallowing.
He thought it was strep throat – an infection he’d experienced several times. However, the problems swallowing became worse to the point where it became difficult breathing.
McConnell’s voice became muffled and the lump in his throat enlarged, so of course, he went to see the doctor. Then came the word no one wants to hear – cancer.
The 20-year-old college student was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I thought I had strep throat, and within six weeks, what was a tiny swelling grew to the size of a kiwi and I had this big tumor in my tonsils,” McConnell said. “They cut that out the day after Thanksgiving, and then I went through six months of chemo and radiation,” McConnell said.
McConnell said the diagnosis and surgery date made for an awkward family Thanksgiving. He said everyone knew he was having surgery the next day, but no one wanted to talk about it.
The surgery came and went successfully. But the concern wasn’t over. The difficult time was just beginning.
“I didn’t allow myself to come to terms with what happened until much later,” McConnell said. “I had to deal with some post-traumatic stress afterward that took me about a year to get over. I disassociated it, went through it and got it done, and afterward kind of had to pay for that. I very much like attacking things task by task, but do not be afraid to feel emotion whenever you’re going through that stuff.”
McConnell was less than three years removed from his final meet as a high school swimmer. He had an offer to swim at the University of Wyoming, but was ready to done swimming competitively.
Now, he was faced with his biggest adversary out of the pool.
“It was terrifying. It’s not every day that a 20 year old has to come to terms with his own mortality,” McConnell said. “It was really hard for a bit. I think the hardest part was when I got diagnosed and it was taken out, they didn’t know what it was and they didn’t know if it was just there. For about a week after, we were waiting for biopsies and CAT scans, because we weren’t sure if it was in my lungs or not. So, it was a really scary situation.”
He said his type of cancer usually begins in the lungs, but the tests revealed the cancer was only in his tonsils. That was the first step. Many more followed.
McConnell underwent chemo and radiation for the next six months until he was cancer free in March 2016. That process is never easy, but he pushed through it, thanks to his support system and his faith.
“I moved back in with my parents after surgery for a bit,” McConnell said. “I actually came back to OSU when doing my radiation. I lost my hair, lost a whole bunch of weight, but made it through.
“… If this was happening to me, I would just pray to let me be able to deal with whatever happens. That helped me get through it quite a bit.”
His then-girlfriend was also a big help during the diagnosis and the months that followed. Yet, he tried to keep her focused on her education at OSU and not on himself.
Looking back, he admits it was a good decision, even if she wasn’t thrilled about it.
“I might have kept a bit of information from her at the time,” McConnell said. “It happened at Thanksgiving and she was in her junior year of microbiology, so she was coming up on her finals. She was wanting to go to vet school. The thoughts I was having – the real dark reality of it – I very much kept that in a box and let her just know what was happening as it was happening. It makes her mad in hindsight, but allowed her to stay in Stillwater and do her school. She was extremely supportive through the whole thing.”
It worked OK for the young couple. They stayed together and married each other in June. How they began dating makes McConnell laugh, though.
He and Shay attended Deer Creek together, but never talked to each other. Yet, they were seated next to each because of their last names. Her maiden name is Shay McClain.
It was during graduation McConnell made his move.
“I flirted it up the entire time, went on a date two days after we graduated and then immediately started a long-distance relationship,” McConnell said. “I got tired of being away from her, so I moved back home to get engaged and all of that.”
Now, they are married, living in Stillwater and attending OSU. She studies at the OSU Center of Veterinary Health Sciences, while he is studying creative nonfiction creative writing. McConnell hopes to earn is Master’s Degree and become a professor, while hopefully remaining as the SHS swimming coach.
He actually began coaching at a much earlier age than most do. As a freshman on the Deer Creek swim team – the only boy on the squad of a young program – he became the de facto coach of the program because he swam for a club team for six years prior.
“All of my friends were very competitive,” McConnell said. “The friends I got to join the team when I was there were all football, cross country or track kids, and they all wanted to do really well, so it was this interesting dynamic of being their age or younger, and having to put aside being friends outside the pool to being this is how we’re going to run practice in the pool.”
The team grew in size as the school continually grew. McConnell said Deer Creek grew from a Class 3A school to 6A from his fifth-grade year to when he graduated in 2014.
“At the time, we didn’t have a coach, so I just wrote the practices and recruited like crazy with the football and track teams,” McConnell said. “When I graduated, we had a team of 22 kids. We got a coach the second semester of my senior year, and he’s still there now rocking it.”
Just a few years later, McConnell took over a Stillwater program that had the same coach – Kurt Goebel – for three decades. It’s now his regime and he’s enjoying his inaugural season as a coach actually being paid as one.
“I’m 100 percent into this right now. I’m not a teacher right now,” McConnell said. “I’m still a student, but this is my favorite thing in the whole world, so I’m very invested in this. I love coaching. I love seeing them get faster. I’m very passionate and this is what I want to end up doing.
“… My wife is in veterinarian school, so my goal right now for the next three-and-a-half years is to get her through school, because she has her job to do and I have my job to do. I love coaching so much, I’ll keep doing this as long as they’ll have me.”