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In a little less than a month, longtime swimming coach Mitch Crouse will be saying his final goodbyes.

Crouse has guided both the Billings Aquatic Club and Billings West swim teams since 1989, but will be finished giving words of wisdom, traveling to meets and planning practices on August 3. That is the day Crouse will relinquish his head coaching duties at the BAC to Jim Hawbaker.

However, Crouse officially hasn’t stepped down at West. He said he may continue to coach at the school and the decision will be made soon. Most of the decision’s weight may come down to Hawbaker, because Crouse knows high school coaches can always use the extra money.

“If he (Hawbaker) wants the high school job, I will step down,” Crouse said Wednesday evening.

The reason for Crouse’s retirement isn’t because he was tired of coaching. It’s far from that.

Crouse and his wife of three years, Jana, just purchased a coffee house located across from Rocky Mountain College on Poly Drive. And the couple also has a 1-year-old daughter, Dara Grace.

“My wife and I purchased the 17th Street Station and I just don’t have the time to do both,” said Crouse. “I tried it for three weeks. We just wanted to see where we were at. … It was just way more than we could handle and I decided it was time for a change.

“It was a tough decision. Every day you think ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”

The USA swimming-affiliated BAC is basically a year-round swimming club for kids ages 7-21 in Billings. It’s short course (indoor) season begins the Tuesday after Labor Day in September and ends in the middle of March. The long course (outdoor) season starts the first weekend of April and ends during the first or second week of August. Between events there are plenty of practices at the Rocky Mountain College pool.

“It’s a long season and sometimes tough to keep kids motivated,” said Crouse.

But Crouse enjoys it or he wouldn’t have stayed involved this long. Over the years Crouse has had to find other jobs to supplement his income, as he wasn’t a full-time coach at the BAC until this year. Before this year, Crouse painted houses for six years and worked at Yellowstone Country Club for two years. He also worked at his father’s convenience store in Roundup.

“I did basically anything I had to so I could coach. Coaching wouldn’t pay the bills,” said the 37-year-old Crouse. “At any time with coaching I could have three jobs going on.”

Crouse began swimming for the then-Billings Big Sky Swim Club at age 12 and swam for both the team and West High until he left to attend college in Bozeman. While at Montana State, he swam two years for the school’s club team.

“I got better, I swam two years for the club team in college and got considerably faster,” said Crouse. “The head coach up there asked me if I wanted to start helping him coach swimming and I was sunk.”

Crouse then helped coach in Bozeman from 1984 until 1989 when he returned to Billings. Under Crouse’s tutelage, the BAC captured state titles every year from 1989-1998.

What was really neat for Crouse about working with the BAC was the fact that he was joined in the coaching ranks by his mother, Erna. Erna Crouse began as a swim parent while Mitch was a youngster and helped out in whatever way she could, eventually becoming the club president. When Mitch left for school in Bozeman, Erna became a coach as the club was short of instructors.

“She was calling me up in Bozeman asking me what to do with the older kids, because she didn’t know what workouts (to use),” said Crouse.

Erna Crouse quit coaching last year because she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren. But that didn’t mean Mitch Crouse was out of help.

Another person Crouse has enjoyed working with is his assistant at the BAC, Rich Hartl. Hartl swam on Billings West state championship teams in Crouse’s first two years at the school. Crouse also explained that Hartl has been a big part of the BAC’s success. Crouse said Hartl will stay on at the BAC as an assistant under Hawbaker.

“With Rich and her (Erna), I attribute that to the club’s success,” said Crouse.

Crouse admitted that he wasn’t the cream of the crop as a high school swimmer, with sixth place being his best showing. Some might have quit, but he kept on because he had a passion.

“I loved the sport,” Crouse explained. “I just really enjoyed the sport and loved the competition.”

The last two meets on Crouse’s schedule, unless he stays on at West, are the state long course championships in Bozeman July 21-22 and the Senior Sectional Championships in Beaverton, Ore., the following week.

As he heads towards the end, Crouse said there are way too many former swimmers and parents to say goodbye to. He just wants them all to know he had a fun ride, saying, “I just want to thank my coaches and all the swimming families for a great career.”

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