by Jill Ragar Esfeld
ROELAND PARK — Dennis Mueller, head swim and dive coach for Bishop Miege here, is proud of his team’s impressive performance at the Boys State Swimming and Diving Championship in Topeka last month.
But the highlight of the event for Mueller may surprise you.
“A favorite memory happened not in the pool,” he said, “but on Friday night at our hotel.”
Mueller was in his hotel room just after 10 p.m. when he heard a knock at his door.
He opened it to find his entire team, led by co-captains Max and Lex Hernandez-Nietling, crowded outside.
They wanted to pray together.
“It was kinda cool to have 20 guys lining the hallway to pray at a hotel, of all places,” he said.
Leading with faith
Bishop Miege didn’t win the state championship, but they took fourth and posted some outstanding individual performances.
“We dominated the meet, winning six out of 11 swim events and broke three state records,” said Mueller. “And we just missed the other three by a half-second or less in time.”
But it was that moment in the hotel that assured Coach Mueller that his team had learned the most important lesson Catholic education has to teach — faith matters.
“I am saddened with the loss of seniors [to graduation], but our team will remain strong and can compete for the trophy next year with God’s blessings,” he said.
Two of those seniors, twin brothers Max and Lex, are top swimmers in the Midwest and ranked nationally.
They earned their spots as co-captains with their athletic talent, academic achievements and leadership skills.
They’re also the kind of leaders who would encourage their teammates to pray.
“They are just two of the finest young gentlemen I’ve coached,” said Mueller. “They have all the attributes you’d want in a scholar-athlete level.
“But their faith is still the center point of their lives.”
For these brothers, faith is behind the drive to be their best.
“Faith surrounds my whole swimming career and anything that comes with it,” said Lex. “I like to think God has a plan for me.
“If something doesn’t work out the first time, that’s because he is preparing me for the next thing that’s going to be even better.”
The road to Miege
Max and Lex, along with their older sister Frankie, were born near the ocean.
Their swim training started early because, according to Max, “our parents didn’t want us to drown.”
It wasn’t love at first stroke.
“I didn’t like it,” Max confessed. “They had to bribe me with goggles and candy.”
Lex preferred baseball, soccer and basketball.
“But I fractured my nose in third grade,” he said. “And swimming was the only sport the doctor would let me do.”
Eventually, the family moved to Holy Family Parish in North Kansas City, Missouri.
“They swam with a USA swim club called KC Swim, and I was a coach,” said Mueller.
Mueller coached the boys from fourth grade on. When their sister decided to attend Bishop Miege and swim for the school, her brothers came along for a tour.
“I asked if they thought they might come here,” recalled Mueller, who has coached at Bishop Miege for 23 years. “They said, ‘If you’re here, we’d like to be here with you.’”
Mueller is more than just a coach to the twins.
“He’s someone I always want to be around,” said Lex. “It’s just a blessing that he’s a coach, too. He always tries to make the best of everything, and that helps us a lot.”
“He’s like a second father to Lex and me,” he said. “He’s always there for us, helps us perform well, helps us train.
Part of the twins’ strong work ethic stems from their constant competition with each other.
“That’s still their trait today,” said Mueller. “Every practice we’re doing, they’re trying to outswim each other.”
That competition has paid off.
“The [Bishop Miege] record board should be titled the Hernandez- Nietling board,” said Mueller. “They have broken all individual records of our state championship in 2014 here.”
Max and Lex were both Kansas state champs in two individual races at state last year as juniors.
They shined in Topeka again this year and both were named first-team all-state.
The twins have been recruited by some of the top Division I colleges in the country. And they’ve chosen to continue their personal rivalry — both have committed to swim for the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
As if that’s not enough, they’ve also set their sights on going to the Olympics together — representing Mexico.
Both Max and Lex speak fluent Spanish and have Mexican citizenship through their father.
“We’ve been racing in Mexico since the summer of 2015 and we’ve gone back ever since,” said Lex.
They swam at Junior Nationals for both the USA and Mexico this past year, and have top 10 finishes with medals in several events.
Their parents are their greatest fans.
“They’ve always told us to keep dreaming,” Lex said. “That’s what we’ve been doing, and they have supported us.”
Max and Lex are competitive with each other but, when it comes to their team members, it’s all about motivation and support.
“The team is a brotherhood,” said Max. “It’s a family. And within a family, there is always going to be some conflict.
“We just keep the team settled, we get them hyped up, we encourage them during training to go their hardest and enjoy.”
The twins are so skilled that Mueller equates them to assistant coaches.
“And that helps when you’ve got a lot of boys to worry about,” he said. “You can’t pick up everything, and they may pick up something.
“It’s been a good relationship.”
And how do they deal with defeat?
“I’m not going to lie,” said Lex. “It hurts; but it also motivates us to bounce back and perform better the next time we have the chance to swim.”
According to Mueller, faith is at the core of that motivation.
“I think that is one of the strengths of their character,” he said.
With God in their corner, these boys will continue to shine.
“I just believe that God gave me the gift and the ability to swim,” said Max. “How I train and how I use it and live it out is up to me.”
“God also keeps us going because sometimes swimming can be very lonely,” added Lex. “So, having someone there with you in your head is really nice.
“We’re never alone.”