Aaron Helander instructs a group of young swimmers at Heart of the Hills Swim Club in Rochester Hills.

Aaron Helander instructs a group of young swimmers at Heart of the Hills Swim Club in Rochester Hills.

Photo provided by Carolyn Reif

Meet Aaron Helander: Inspiring swimmers a ‘dream job’ for Rochester resident

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Rochester Post | Published December 18, 2023

 Aaron Helander works with swimmers at Heart of the Hills Swim Club in Rochester Hills.

Aaron Helander works with swimmers at Heart of the Hills Swim Club in Rochester Hills.

Photo provided by Carolyn Reif

 Aaron Helander stands with his Rochester High School girls swim and dive team.

Aaron Helander stands with his Rochester High School girls swim and dive team.

Photo provided by Carolyn Reif


ROCHESTER — They’re the center of attention at every sporting event, and they’re what children everywhere come to see.

We’re not talking about the star athletes, but rather the one person who is energetic, a showstopper who captivates the audience’s attention like no other at Phillies’ games: the team mascot.

For Rochester resident Aaron Helander, he showcased the same qualities that led him to wearing the Oakland University Grizzlies mascot outfit during his time at the university, even earning the opportunity to wear the bear paws on graduation day.

“It was awesome,” Helander said. “It’s funny, because one kid had his birthday party every year at OU, so the Grizz was there,” Helander said. “I came back to a basketball game as an alum and I went to go give him a high-five, but he has no idea who I am. I got to see him throughout the years and I knew him, but he didn’t know me without being the Grizz. That was pretty funny.”

Helander’s personality fit the mold of what every mascot is expected to possess, and while he had an opportunity to be a mascot over in Japan for a professional baseball team, Helander chose to put his passion and energy into his first love — swimming.

Helander, 28, was a dynamic high school swimmer as a two-time team captain for the Byron High School co-op swim and dive team in Illinois, receiving team most valuable player honors before helping Oakland men’s swimming and diving his freshman year win their first-ever Horizon League Championship title in the school’s first year in the league, which Oakland has since dominated on both the women’s and the men’s side.

While paving his own way in the pool, Helander used his energy and passion for swimming to inspire others throughout his swimming journey.

In high school, Helander was conducting private swim lessons for younger swimmers and coaching an 8-and-under team in his hometown of Dixon

“One of my core values is inspiring others and being a mentor. I’ve had great mentors in my life, and I’m really just big on building people up,” Helander said. “I really do like to help and run things how I want to run them, which is how I started my own coaching business as well.”

While running his own swim coaching business that helps train swimmers and build training programs for triathlon athletes, Helander has been the varsity swim coach for Rochester High School for five seasons on the boys side and four on the girls, while also coaching the past eight years at the Heart of the Hills Swim Club in Rochester Hills.

“He has a lot of energy, and the kids really respond to him in that manner,” Rochester swim assistant coach Carolyn Reif said. “When he was younger at Heart (of the Hills), the kids were all drawn to him because he had that playful, high-energy demeanor about him that they could engage and connect with him on that level. He still has that in a way here at the high school with the boys and girls teams.”

Helander’s impact in the swimming community is unmeasurable, and his dedication to the sport was honored this year when he was named the head coach for the USA Down Syndrome Swimming National Team, set to compete at the World Down Syndrome Swimming Championship in Turkey in March.

For consideration for the job, a coach has to submit an application and go through a set of interviews before the selection is made.

Helander has had years of experience between Heart of the Hills and Rochester High School working with Down syndrome swimmer Tim MacLean, who graduated last year from Rochester High School as a four-time Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 1 State Finals qualifier.

Reif, who’s known MacLean since he was in kindergarten, said Helander was able to bring a different side of swim training for MacLean.

“He was always trying to figure out a different method to get Tim (MacLean) to swim more or to really swim competitively,” Reif said. “He adjusted himself to meet Tim at where Tim was at, instead of forcing Tim to be where some other swimmer in the pool might be.”

Helander and MacLean made the trip out to Orlando in October for the USA Down Syndrome Swimming National Team training camp, where 55 attendees came out to compete for a spot on the team, but more importantly, enjoy themselves and the sport of swimming.

With Helander as head coach, the task of keeping swimmers energized and excited to swim wasn’t a difficult one.

“The biggest satisfaction was doing the training camp and being there to meet all the athletes, work on just inspiring them and giving them hope to work towards their goals,” Helander said. “We want them to learn something, but also have fun while doing it. On two of the nights, we had a dance party at the hotel pool. They’re working hard and motivated to get there, but at the same time enjoying the process and having fun while doing it.”

There are not enough words to describe the impact Helander has made as a coach to young swimmers, but he still has a swimming career of his own he’s focusing on while coaching seven days a week between Rochester High School, private lessons at Oakland University, and swim clinics every Sunday for Heart of the Hills swimmers.

A USA Triathlon competitor who completed an Ironman last year in Canada; a United States Masters Swimming Champion, which is an organized swimming program for adults; a USMS national record holder in the 400 medley relay; and a MI Masters state record holder in multiple events, Helander is a well-accomplished swimmer looking to add to his list of achievements.

“Right now I’m doing more of a swim focus on my own training, because next year the Canadian Nationals, which is open to U.S. athletes, is in Windsor,” Helander said. “I’m planning to compete at that one, and the U.S. Masters Nationals is in Indianapolis next year, so I plan to compete at that too. Swimming has my focus right now.”

Between competing and coaching, Helander will be the first one to tell you he’s doing exactly what he was meant to do.

“I always say I have the dream job, because it’s always 80 degrees and sunny on the pool deck,” Helander said. “It’s pretty much given me everything in my life. I couldn’t think about where I’d be if I didn’t get involved in it.”

For more information on the USA Down Syndrome Swimming National Team, visit usadownsyndromeswimming.org.