The long journey and long hours of work paid off with his winning the 2008 Georgia Age Group Coach of the Year.
"I was a little bit surprised because in Georgia swimming, there is so much talent that comes out of Atlanta and its clubs," said Byars, the program director and head coach of the Aiken-Augusta Swim League. "There was a lot of satisfaction, as well, knowing that my swimming team had been recognized."
Making the honor even more gratifying is the respect he has earned from the coaches who voted on the award.
"It's really a validation of the work that we've been doing, and it's really a credit to the athletes that I work with," said Byars, the first Augusta-area swim coach to win Age Group Coach of the Year. "The dedication and the talent that they have has really paid off."
Byars meets six days a week with his swimmers, most of whom are high school students, going back and forth between USC Aiken and the Augusta Aquatics Center. They are harvesting the fruits of their labor. During the past year, five ASL swimmers have won state titles, including two in state record times. Several swimmers also fared well on sectional, junior national, senior national and Olympic trial levels in recent months.
"The achievements that his swimmers have made are incredible," said Jennifer Miller, ASL president-elect and the mother of one of Byars' swimmers. "Now part of it is that there's a lot of talent, but he's also taken a lot of swimmers who never would have gotten to the level that they did: achieving state times, sectional times, junior national times, kids going to Zone, kids getting scholarships. He sets a level that kids strive for."
The swimmers need look no further than Byars' own swimming career to see a level that they should aspire to reach. Byars was a standout at the University of Wisconsin, both in the water and the classroom. He earned All-America honors in 2001 and was named to the Big Ten All-Academic team three times. He was a team captain for the Badgers from 2000-2001 and was the team's MVP both seasons. Byars graduated in 2002 and moved to Washington state, where he began pursuing a business career. Still, his heart had unfinished business with swimming.
"After I took a job out in the Northwest, I decided I really wanted to get into coaching," Byars said. "I started looking for positions and luckily it worked out that I would end up in Augusta."
Byars said he would love to get back into the college ranks as a coach. But for now, he is taking pride in passing along his knowledge to youth in the Aiken-Augusta area.
"I enjoyed being a swimmer and the competitive aspect of it, but I've got to say, I feel like I enjoy coaching more," Byars said. "There's an enjoyment that I get just out of seeing kids improve and progress."
Reach Joey Jones at (706) 724-0851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.