It was time for me to start a new chapter in my life. Well, maybe not an entirely new chapter, but at least it was time to turn the page. I was happy with my family life, my church life, and my career with the YMCA. But I was a bit burned-out on water polo. I’d devoted much of my spare time over the past 20 years to the sport, providing guidance at the national level – chairing nine national committees at one time or another – while working diligently, day after day, to meld together winning teams at the local level. None of it had been easy. I needed a breather, a change of pace. By the grace of God, this was provided for me by the Congress of the United States and the YMCA of the USA.
Title IX, which had been passed by Congress in 1972, was finally being enforced by our courts. Thus the high schools and colleges, both locally and nationally, were offering more activities for women and girls. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978, in which my polo pal Bob Helmick of Des Moines played a major role, was also passed by Congress. One of its provisions removed control of all amateur sports in the country from beneath the umbrella of the AAU and enabled each sport, if it wished, to set up its own governing body. A few sports stuck with the AAU. Most, including water polo, decided to establish their own separate identities.
Water polo created U.S. Water Polo, Inc., which was immediately controlled by the polo people from California, which had more teams and better teams than anywhere else. I’d worked closely and effectively with the Californians in the past, but suddenly I and others around the country were being stonewalled. USWP set up a number of new committees, and I remember calling the head honcho from my aquatic office at the Asheville YMCA and volunteering to serve on a couple of the committees. She was abrupt and impolite, and I never heard from her again. Communication over the next several years was non-existent.
Then my friend Tom Thrailkill, who was the Y’s director of physical education and recipient of the Roberts-Gulick Award for being The BEST physical education specialist in the entire U.S., walked into my office one day and said, “I’ve just received some disturbing news.”
“What is it?”
“The people at the YMCA of the USA’s office in Chicago have decided to terminate the Y’s Athletic Achievement Program.” This was a long-time program promoting physical fitness for youth, which included national competition. Many of Tom’s boys and girls had won national championships.
“That’s not all,” he continued.
“The YMCA is dropping national competition in wrestling and weightlifting. And water polo, too.”
No one had contacted me about the water polo situation, although I’d been chairman of the YMCA’s National Water Polo Committee in the past, a position that was currently being held by Ken McGartlin of the YMCA in neighboring Greenville, South Carolina. When I inquired further, I was told that having just 80 Ys playing polo across the country with perhaps a dozen of them competing at our national tournaments was “an insufficient number” to merit the sport’s continuation. There may have been some truth to that. Maybe not. What was I to do?
My wife Lee put it to me bluntly. “Look, Chuck, the YMCA of the USA isn’t going to continue promoting water polo, whether you like it or not. The AAU has relinquished its role in the sport, whether you like it or not. The Californians have taken control, whether you like it or not. If water polo is your main interest in life, let’s move to California. If other things are more important – family, church, career – let’s stay here. This is a great place to live.”
The other things – family, church, career – plus liking Asheville as a place to live out the rest of my life – were in fact more important to me, and we remained here. But I figured that while we were dropping out of the national water polo picture for reasons beyond our control, there was no reason we couldn’t keep playing polo “for fun, fitness, and fellowship” amongst ourselves at the Asheville YMCA. One era was ending. Another was starting. Frankly, I wasn’t too disappointed. As I’ve said previously, I needed a change, and the YMCA is famous for changing with the times. That’s why it’s remained the No. 1 social service agency in the world for sooo many years.
An article appeared in the Citizen-Times informing the community that “two former Asheville YMCA water polo stars, Rob Baker and Karen Hartman, will be serving as the Y’s water polo coaches for the new season. They will be replacing Chuck Hines of the Y staff, who organized the local polo program in 1969-70 and coached the Asheville teams to 10 tournament triumphs. Hines will continue as the YMCA’s director of aquatics and will be creating a new program in whitewater kayaking for the Y’s National Physical Education Management Team.
“Baker, 23, is a recent graduate of Appalachian State University with a degree in physical education. Employed by the Asheville Chapter of the Red Cross, he played on the Asheville team that won the YMCA National Boys Championships in 1973. He has been an assistant coach to Hines on water polo trips taken to California, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.
“Hartman, 23, is a recent graduate of UNCA with a degree in psychology. Employed by the Newfound School in its instructional and recreational program, she played on Asheville teams that won several AAU and YMCA national titles and represented the Eastern U.S. in the World Women’s Water Polo Club Championships at Quebec City, Canada.
“Baker and Hartman will kick-off the season with a practice in the Y pool on June 5.”
From that moment on, over the next 22 years, from 1978 through 2000, we played five-per-side recreational water polo at the Asheville YMCA. Probably 200 men and women and boys and girls participated “for fun, fitness, and fellowship” over this two-decade period. We were no longer winning national titles, but we were doing what the YMCA does best, which is bringing people together in an atmosphere of harmony. Well, it wasn’t always completely harmonious in the pool. Because many of our All-Americans and national champions of the 1970s kept on playing, our “recreational games” could be Tough with a capital T.
With Rob and Karen helping out for a year or two in the late ‘70s, I turned my attention back to the YMCA’s youth swim squad and to a new activity – whitewater kayaking.
Our swimmers still were winning most of their meets, defeating Hickory, 220-to-150, at home and Spartanburg, 282-to-238, and Erwin, Tennessee, 223-to-110, with both victories coming on the road. Water poloists Tricia Derrough, Nina VanderRee, and Beth Williams and swimmer Jenny Lyon were our best older performers in the girls’ races. The top younger competitors were Missy Balleu, Jenny and Jill Beaman, Heather Blount, Sidney Bradfield, Chris Burns, Becky Covington, Lisa and Loren Cunningham, Deanna Davis, Dove Feinberg, Brian Finney, Mike Grant, Dave Habel, Allison Hathaway, Heather Hines, Kristi Hyder, Christina and Mark Jockwig, Amy Kittner, Nancy Martin, Michelle McCaskill, Karen Miller, Adam Mills, Sarah Noth, Carolyn Roberts, Tim Robinson, Suzanne Saunders, Kai Schmall, Maura Smith, Millicent Stepp, Beth Wetzel, and Leanne Winner.
In 1979, we entered the AAU’s Southeast Novice Championships at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This was a meet designed for ‘B’ and ‘C’ swimmers like ours, who weren’t training year ‘round. We won a dozen events and finished first in the overall girls’ scoring. Our 13- and 14-year-old quartet of Karen Miller, Heidi Jones, Sidney Bradfield, and Heather Hines won the 200-yard medley and 200-yard freestyle relay races.
My daughter Heather, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Erwin Middle School, turned in a report that earned a grade of ‘A’ for her. Entitled “Swimming and Water Polo,” here’s what she wrote: “SWIMMING. Everyone should want to improve his or her swimming and diving skills. Both sports are lots of fun and provide very good exercise. There is another reason: safety. It’s your responsibility to learn to swim well. If you ever have to swim a long way, you should be able to switch from one stroke to another so you will not tire so quickly.
“The crawl-stroke is the fastest way to swim. All good crawl-stroke swimmers have certain things in common. They roll easily from side to side to breathe, they have a strong arm pull, and they have a flexible flutter kick. There are three parts to the arm stroke. First is the catch. This is where you begin to pull back underwater from in front of your body. It is important to cup your hand and get a good grasp of the water. Second is the pull. This is the part of the stroke when the arm is moving backwards through the water, thus moving the body forward. The pull takes strength. Third is the recovery. This is when the arm is lifted out of the water and placed forward. The arm muscles should be relaxed in the recovery.
“When kicking, the legs should be moved up and down. Having flexible ankles is an advantage. There should be six kicks for every two arm strokes. Most beginning swimmers learn the arm stroke and flutter kick without much difficulty, but learning to turn the head and breathe correctly takes more practice.
“The butterfly is my favorite stroke. It is a racing stroke. The arms are thrown forward at the same time and pulled backwards together. The legs are moved up and down together like the tail of a dolphin. Doing the butterfly takes strength and coordination.
“The backstroke is similar to the crawl-stroke except that it’s done on the back. The arm stroke is less powerful, and the swimmers must rely more on the leg kick.
“The breaststroke is completely different from the other strokes. The arm stroke is done completely in the water, even the recovery. The legs, instead of moving up and down, are moved in sort of a frog kick. Champion breaststroke swimmers often cannot do the other strokes well.
“The hardest event of all in swimming competition is the individual medley, called the IM. It includes all of the strokes, starting with butterfly, followed by backstroke, breaststroke, and the crawl-stroke. The best IM swimmers at the YMCA are Kai Schmall (boys) and Heidi Jones and Sidney Bradfield (girls). Heidi, Sidney, Karen Miller, and I recently won the relay races at the Southeast Championships at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
“Swimming is one of the best sports because it can be done indoors and outdoors, by young and old, as a recreational activity or as a competitive sport. Good swimmers can also participate in other sports such as water polo, water ballet, scuba diving, and boating.
“WATER POLO. The sport of men’s water polo has been played in the Olympic Games since 1900. The U.S. has won first place only once, in 1904, but has finished as high as third in 1932 and 1972. Right now in the U.S., our men’s water polo team is ranked No. 1 in the world, and it is too bad we will not have a chance to win the Olympic gold medal this summer because of the boycott called by President Jimmy Carter.
“Water polo is played by teams of seven swimmers each. One player on each team is the goalie, whose job is to defend the goal and keep the other team from scoring. I play the goalie position on the YMCA’s current junior girls team. We’ll be playing at the Greenville YMCA on June 7 in a Junior Olympic tournament. We have 11 girls on our team, and we’ve been practicing on Monday and Wednesday afternoons for the past three months.
“While the goalie guards the goal, the other six players on the team swim up and down the pool and try to shoot the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Passing the ball is very important and very difficult because a player may handle the ball with one hand only. Furthermore, when a player is touching the ball to pass it or catch it or shoot it, she can be grabbed or tackled by an opposing player.
“The players must swim continuously up and down the pool for four quarters. This means 28 minutes of swimming, so a great deal of stamina is necessary. Whenever a player is too rough, she can be put out of the game for one minute by the referee, who walks up and down the side of the pool and controls the game.
“Some of the shots that can be learned are the power shot, the lob shot, the bounce shout, the backhand shot, the sweep shot, the push shop, and the tip shot. As a goalie, I must be ready to block all of these shots.
“There’s a lot of strategy involved, especially when a player on one team has been kicked out, giving the other team a one-player advantage.
“The ball cannot be taken underwater. It must be kept on the surface. Teams are allowed four substitutes and one timeout each half. The uniform of each team consists of a cap and a swimming suit. One team wears dark-colored caps, and the other team wears white caps.
“Water polo was once thought to be too difficult for women and girls to play, but this is no longer true. The Asheville YMCA women’s team won the U.S. indoor championship in 1976 and competed in the world competition in 1977. My father is the coach. Five Asheville players have been chosen as Senior All-Americans. They are Margaret, Connie, Karen, Elizabeth, and Molly.
“It would be nice if our junior team at the YMCA could win a championship, but even if we don’t, water polo is a lot of fun to play, although it takes a great deal of practice. Maybe when the Erwin Hills outdoor pool is opened near our school, we will have swimming and water polo teams. I hope so.”
In 1980, the whole process in the AAU’s Southeast Novice Swimming Championships at Oak Ridge was repeated from the preceding year. Asheville won a dozen races, and our girls brought home the team trophy. Our 13- and 14-year-olds copped the 200-yard medley and 200-yard freestyle relay races. It was Karen and Sidney and Heather again, with Mary Walton replacing Heidi in our lineup.
But that was the end of it for youth competitive swimming at the Asheville YMCA, at least for the next dozen years. The Citizen-Times ran a lengthy article entitled “Team is All Trained, but Competition is Missing.” Writer Carole Currie asked, “Where have all the swimmers gone? Over the past two years, interest in swimming has dropped considerably in this part of the country. Many YMCAs against which Asheville used to swim no longer field teams, and the local Y is having difficulty finding meets.
“Soccer and other new sports now being offered by the schools, thanks to the enforcement of Title IX, are drawing away prospective swimmers. What keeps the loyal Asheville YMCA youngsters coming back to the pool? Coach Chuck Hines says it’s the valuing part of the Y’s program. He brings all team members together once weekly to talk on a human relations subject such as thoughtfulness, togetherness, or religious issues. He also keeps interest up with special projects such as a swim-a-thon and a simulated English Channel Swim, with participants marking off laps they’ve swum to equal the distance of the English Channel.”
But it was all for naught, as the Blue Ridge Swim League folded and Ys began doing a lot of programming in other areas. For us, it was whitewater kayaking. After receiving a letter asking if I could “design a physical education program that appeals to the adventurous nature of youth, preferably one that can be done outdoors,” I did indeed develop a program in whitewater kayaking, which in 1982 was officially sanctioned as a brand-new national YMCA activity. Along the way, I and many of those to whom we taught kayaking at the Asheville Y became involved with whitewater racing. We constructed and maintained our own slalom course on the French Broad River, which flows through downtown Asheville.
I won two Southeast Masters Championships in kayak slalom racing in 1979, and more importantly, the YMCA kaYak kids I was coaching began winning Southeast races and kept on improving, year after year. In 1983 and 1985, three of our Y kayakers – two teenaged boys and one girl – won Junior National Championships on the nearby Nantahala River. We were recognized one year for having “the best junior paddling program in the country.”
In 1986, these three young champions plus one other Asheville YMCA youngster competed in Europe for the U.S. at the Junior Worlds in slalom and downriver racing. The teenaged girl in this group eventually became one of our Y instructors and went on to win a Gold medal in World women’s freestyle kayak competition in the early 1990s.
Author’s Note: The young lady who won the Gold in World kayaking was Becky Weis, who for awhile lived at our house, sharing a room with our daughter Heather. Let me exercise a father’s prerogative and sing a song of praise for Heather. She was not only a good competitive swimmer and water polo player but also became a winning kayak racer and a certified scuba diver. She assisted me in the Y pool as a lifeguard and served as a learn-to-swim instructor. In addition, as a student at Erwin High School, she made the Carolinas All-State Chorale as a singer, following in the footsteps of her mother, my wife Lee, whose hobby was singing with the Sweet Adelines, an award-winning women’s barbershop chorus. I was (am) extremely proud of these ladies, who made my life complete.
Kayaking was important to me for half-a-dozen years, giving me the “breather” I needed from water polo, and I received whitewater racing’s Meritorious Service Award. Furthermore, I came to appreciate more fully that “variety is the spice of life,” as the familiar saying goes. Swimmers can and should learn from water poloists, who in turn can and should learn from kayakers, who in turn can and should learn from swimmers. There are common threads that run through all sports, but each activity has its own special and unique qualities, and from each one we can learn something new and useful.
Along with the creation of our new whitewater kayaking program, there were changes in Asheville YMCA competitive swimming. As already mentioned, it had become impossible for us to find dual swim meets for the youngsters, and with the collapse of the Blue Ridge Swim League, we had to make an important decision. We were now operating four or five afterschool-care sites around town, and the parents of these children were clamoring for swimming instruction. We could either use our small four-lane, 25-yard pool for the 33 youngsters on the swim squad, hoping we could find enough competition to keep them interested, or we could terminate the team and use those same late afternoon hours for teaching basic swimming and water safety skills to the 240 children enrolled in our afterschool-care program. Not much of a choice, was it?
We replaced our youth swim team with an expanded Masters swimming program. We’d been one of the first YMCAs anywhere to promote Masters competition – dare I say we were pioneers? – thanks to the prodding of my friend John Spannuth of the American Swimming Coaches Association. John was definitely one of the founders of Masters Swimming nationally and internationally.
In 1972 and again in 1973, we hosted the Southeast Masters Swimming Championships in our small pool. Both of those years, about 40 swimmers from five states attended. On April 12, 1973, an article in the Citizen-Times reported that “outstanding adult swimmers from Asheville, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Fort Bragg, Gastonia, Greenville, Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Oak Ridge will be competing Saturday in the second Southeast Masters swim meet at the Asheville YMCA pool. Races will start at 1:00 p.m. for the swimmers, who range in ages from 26 to 63.
“Asheville YMCA, the defending champions, with eight entries, and Oak Ridge, with six swimmers, are expected to battle for the team title. Representing Asheville will be Polly Durfee, Dr. Don Gerdes, Chuck Hines, Irv Hoffman, Betty Hoffman, Ruth Kemic, John Newhouse, and Dr. Bill Powell.
“Hines, 40, a nationally-ranked swimmer last year in the backstroke, has the fastest time in the country this season for the 50-yard butterfly in the 40-to-44 age group, just one second off the national record. Dr. Powell also was nationally-ranked a year ago. Hoffman is a former Georgia Tech swimmer, while Newhouse swam for Tennessee.”
I cannot remember the exact results of all the Masters races I swam during the 1970s, but for what it’s worth, I won at least a few of ‘em in both backstroke and butterfly. I recall returning one January night from a meet at the Johnston Memorial YMCA in Charlotte and having my car stall while coming up Old Fort Mountain. It was raining, then sleeting, then snowing, and I had to call a wrecker to rescue me. At midnight. Long before we had cell phones. It was a wet and wild hassle out in the middle of nowhere.
The last Masters meet I swam was the Southeast Championships held at Oak Ridge in 1979. Two other Ashevilleans who competed were Dr. Lary Schulhof, a former Olympian and local neurosurgeon, who won the 50-yard butterfly in his age group, and attorney Steve Barden, who secured second place in the 200-yard breaststroke in his age category.
This was the same year I won two Southeast Masters championships in kayak slalom racing. I was 46, and it was the last time I trained seriously for competition in swimming or kayaking. I continued to kayak for fun – taking trips from Canada to Colorado, from West Virginia to Wyoming – to ride the rapids on various rivers – until surgery for prostate cancer at the age of 60 chased me out of my boat. As for swimming, I’m still churning out 40 to 50 laps of s-l-o-w backstroke every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the Asheville YMCA pool. I have a good group of “pool pals.” I’m also tossing around a water polo ball occasionally with my grandson. Not bad for a 77-year-old.
We had many excellent Masters swimmers at the Asheville YMCA over the years. A good article appeared in the Citizen-Times on August 18, 1982. It was headlined “National Champions: Robinson and Lawrance Triumph in Masters.” Written by Jim Hamer, the article said, “Debbie Robinson and John Lawrance were celebrities around the Asheville YMCA on Tuesday, accepting congratulations from their fellow Y members following their championship performances last weekend at the National Masters Sports Festival in Philadelphia.
“The Ashevilleans helped make history by performing with hundreds of other U.S. athletes ranging in ages from 25 to 90 in cycling, diving, judo, powerlifting, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, regatta, swimming, synchronized swimming, track and field, triathlon, weightlifting, and wrestling competition.
“Robinson, 28, won the Masters triathlon not only in her 25-to-29 age group but was first overall among all women in nine different age groups, while Lawrance, 36, won four gold medals and two silvers in his 35-to-39 age group.
“The Masters triathlon consisted of three events spread over a three-day period, a variation of the more conventional triathlons when events are simultaneous. The field competed in a 1½ mile swim on Friday, a 10 kilometer cycling event on Saturday, and a 10 kilometer run on Sunday. Robinson, who works full-time at Matthews Ford, is a graduate of Asheville High School and the University of Arizona. She was a YMCA swimmer and water polo player during her younger days and still trains at the Y.
“Returning to Philadelphia was a homecoming for Lawrance, who grew up there before enrolling at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he was a member of the varsity swimming team. This past weekend he won gold medals in the 200-yard butterfly, 200-yard individual medley, 400-yard individual medley, and 500-yard freestyle, while posting second places in the 200-yard backstroke and 200-yard freestyle.
“After moving to Asheville several years ago, Lawrance enrolled his eight-year-old daughter Carter in swimming classes at the YMCA, where he met Chuck Hines, director of aquatics. He said he hadn’t been in the water for several years until talked into it by Hines, who coaches the Masters swimmers at the Y. He credited Hines for developing national-level water polo, swimming, and kayaking programs here, a sentiment echoed by Robinson.
“The two adult athletes agree that they stayed active in Masters competition because of the exercise and health benefits of their respective sports.”
In addition to John and Debbie, who was a Masters titlist in swimming as well as triathlon, we had two other national champion Masters swimmers during the 1980s – Judith Katterman and Mike Witaszek – and four others who were national runners-up. Judith was an interesting case. She started out on our YMCA youth swimming squad when she was 10, 11, 12, winning many races. Her sister Amy and brothers Dave and Robbie also were on the Y swim team. In 1972, when Judith was 12, she went to Nebraska as the only substitute on our girls water polo team that brought home the Gold medal from the Junior Olympics, in which she played a few minutes in each game.
Judith was better at swimming than water polo, so thereafter she competed for Betsy Montgomery and the Asheville Aquatic Club, continuing her winning ways. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at UCLA in California, where she became a Collegiate All-American and co-captained the Bruin women’s swim squad. In the mid 1980s, she returned to Asheville one summer, trained here, and won several freestyle events in the 25-to-29 age group at the National Masters Championships, held that year at Raleigh, North Carolina.
Triathlon was a relatively new sport in those days, and along with Debbie Robinson’s victory at the Masters Sports Festival in Philly, we had a YMCA trio comprised of swimmer Jay Sly, runner Dave Culp, and canoeist Rob Harkness that won the men’s relay race at the National Outdoorsmen’s Triathlon Championships.
Kayaking. Masters Swimming. Triathlon. The new era had dawned. Yet we were still enjoying adult recreational water polo one night weekly, playing for “fun, fitness, and fellowship.” In 1980, neighboring Greenville hosted a regional Junior Olympic competition. As in the past, there was a 15-and-under category. To support my friends Ken McGartlin and Mike Burdges and others at the Greenville YMCA, I somewhat reluctantly entered a girls team from Asheville. This was the last year of our youth swim squad, and I had our youngsters tossing around a ball in the pool and shooting at our goals twice weekly – see the school report written by my daughter Heather a few pages ago. We went to the JO Regionals and decisively defeated Greenville and the one other entry from Tennessee. Heather, 14, played goalie. We’d now qualified for the National Junior Olympic Championships being held that summer, if I remember correctly, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I let our girls vote on it, telling them that if they decided to go, we’d have to do twice-daily practices for six weeks before heading out. The majority, eight of the 11, were not interested. So we stayed home. It appeared that water polo was no longer a Big sport at the Asheville YMCA.
In 1983, we in Asheville were asked to host the JO Regionals. I was hesitant. “We have only our small YMCA pool,” I said, “and we’d have to play five-per-side.” That’s okay. We were approved and went out of our way to make this a successful event. I reserved our pool for a weekend in May. I ordered the appropriate gold, silver, and bronze regional medals. I arranged for a certified referee to come and officiate. I sent out entry forms to swim clubs and YMCAs throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. I lined up a bunch of our Y teenagers to train, which wasn’t easy because we no longer had a youth swim squad.
Nevertheless I put together two YMCA boys teams and two YMCA girls teams. We practiced … sort of … and when the time came, we were ready. Bring it on! Unfortunately no other 15-and-under teams signed up or showed up. None. Nada. Zero. Zip. It appeared that water polo was no longer a Big sport anywhere in our region.
But with my whitewater kayaking efforts having resulted in a new national YMCA program, which was officially sanctioned at a meeting in Chicago that I attended in 1982, and having had the “breather” I needed from so much serious water polo in the past, I was now ready to return to the sport. We had two dozen youngsters to whom I’d just taught the basics, and we still had some adults playing rec polo. So I decided to conduct a summer co-ed water polo tournament as part of Asheville’s annual Bele Chere Festival. We lined up a sponsor, and in June we began practicing two nights weekly with 25, then 30, and finally 40 men and women and boys and girls participating. This included Burt Peake, Jr., our first Asheville prep All-American in 1971. Now age 30, he could still play with great proficiency. So could many others from the past. This was rock ‘em and sock ‘em polo, and only outstanding officiating (ahem) kept things under control.
In late July, on the weekend of the Bele Chere Festival, we had our tourney with three adult co-ed teams and three junior co-ed teams. It was very successful. The winning adult team in the five-per-side competition was comprised of Kaye Cox, Tricia Derrough, Keith Jackson, Bill McGhee, goalie Kathy Oates, Burt Peake, Debbie Robinson, and Gus Walton. Others who participated – I can recall just a few – were Sidney Bradfield, Scott and Melisa Crawford, Bill Demer, Harold Moore, Page Pless, Jay Sly, Becky and Monique Wiegman, and Beth Williams. Some of the junior players were Tommy and Jeff Anders, Jenny and Jill Beaman, DeeDee Chernomas, Mike Grant, Christina and Mark Jockwig, Rob Powell, and George Wiegman.
Hmmm. Maybe water polo was still a Big sport at the Asheville YMCA, after all. We played again the next summer, and because this was an Olympic year with the Summer Games being held in Los Angeles, there was continued interest here.
Author’s Note: I remember Bob Helmick calling and saying he had free tickets for me for a day or two of the Olympic water polo competition in LA. But I didn’t go. Our daughter Heather had just graduated from high school, and because she’d worked hard and made the Carolinas All-State Chorale, we sent her with the group on a 15-day trip to Europe as her graduation gift. The Chorale sang in England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and France … at the Cathedral in Paris in front of a packed house. Our family budget that year didn’t allow for any more trips, to LA or elsewhere. No regrets.
Four of our YMCA members carried the Olympic Torch as it came through Asheville and Western North Carolina. One was our versatile swimmer/poloist/triathlete, Debbie Robinson. Through the Torch Relay, the foursome raised $10,000 for Y activities, and my assistant aquatic director, Ed Mullis, suggested that we use part of this windfall to host an Olympic Development Water Polo Clinic.
Ed had been a strong swimmer for us as a youngster, winning numerous butterfly races. But he never played water polo. His mom thought we were spending too much time on water polo and not enough time on swimming. She told me so. But Ed seemed to enjoy his participation and kept in touch with me even when he went away to High Point University. However, I confess I was startled when he called me one day and said, “Hi, Chuck, this is Ed Mullis. I’ve just graduated from High Point. Do you have a job for me at the YMCA? You know the Y meant a lot to me when I was growing up. I’m now considering a professional career with the Y.”
Wow. I hired Ed on a 30-hour-per-week basis for one year, and he performed extremely well. He even jumped into the water and started playing rec water polo. “I wish I’d done this before,” he smiled. When he pushed for us to conduct an Olympic Development Clinic, I turned the entire project over to him. He contacted Ralph Hale, the new President of U.S. Water Polo from Hawaii who was suddenly reaching out to the rest of the country, and before I knew it, everything was being arranged. After the Olympics ended in LA, our event was on tap. Joe Vargas, a star player on the U.S. silver medal men’s team, flew in and conducted a two-day clinic.
Joe was great. He scowled when he walked into our pool and saw how small it was, but he did the best he could with oodles of enthusiasm. We had over 30 Ashevilleans, young and older, who registered and participated, plus another dozen who came from Greenville, Greensboro, and Hendersonville. We concluded the clinic with a four-quarter game, and there in the water, in the midst of all the action and having a ball, was Ed Mullis, who left Asheville and went to the YMCA in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he continued to promote polo.
In November of 1984, I received an unexpected award. A formal letter arrived, saying, “Dear Chuck, on behalf of the Physical Education Society of the YMCA of the USA, it is with a great deal of pleasure that we present you with the Distinguished Director of Physical Education Award.
“This award is presented to persons who have met certain standards of professionalism and, in addition, have committed a great deal of time and creativity to the development of administrative and program models that can be used by their peers. Since the first award was presented in 1930, only 137 other YMCA professionals have earned this award. You join this list of distinguished leaders. Congratulations.”
I was being recognized for some of my work in the past plus the creation of two new program models. One was the whitewater kayaking curriculum that had been adopted nationally. The other was a 10-page dissertation I’d recently written entitled “A Program Model for Water Polo Instruction, Fitness through Water Polo, A Water Polo Decathlon, and Water Polo Competition.” I’d distributed this to several dozen Ys in the South in an attempt to revitalize the sport. A nice photo appeared in the Citizen-Times of me receiving the award – a framed certificate, actually – from YMCA exec Bill Fesperman and YMCA board president Ron Woodbery, whose daughter Rachel just happened to have been on our swimming and water polo teams a few years previously.
Through it all, the teaching of swimming to children remained our underlying focus in the YMCA aquatic department. As much as I liked coaching water polo, the learn-to-swim instruction was our rationale for existence. Every afternoon Monday through Friday during the school year, upon conclusion of our swim team practices and/or other “special interest” activities, and on almost every Saturday morning from 8:30 until noon, I donned my swim suit and jumped into the water to teach children in the Tadpole, Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish, Shark, and Porpoise classes. I enjoyed doing it and, if I may say so, was very good at it.
In the summertime, an average of 180 day camp kids – divided into three groups of 60 each – poured into the YMCA pool every weekday afternoon for swimming instruction. It was crowded, hectic, noisy, but definitely worthwhile. With the classes we were conducting at the Y plus those we offered at other pools around town, it was a rare year we didn’t teach swimming lessons to at least 750 or 800 girls and boys. Usually it was more than that. My main helpers were Jane Craig and Sue Trollinger in the 1970s and Betsy Dolan in the 1980s, without whom this programming could not have succeeded. A Duke enthusiast, Betsy was one of numerous aquatic volunteers we had at the YMCA. In every activity and program we conducted, it was strictly a Team effort from beginning to end.
While the YMCA pool was my home away from home, so to speak, there were times when I needed to get away from it all. What with doing the budgeting, guiding our international outreach, working on the Y’s membership drive and the United Way campaign, handling the pool maintenance – I did a twice-daily adjustment on the chlorine and pool temperature and backwashed and vacuumed the pool bottom every weekend, often on Sunday mornings before going to church – and everything else, which included the youth learn-to-swim classes, lifeguarding, kayaking and scuba diving, and now keeping water polo going as a recreational activity, I seldom worked less than 50 hours per week. This was my calling, my vocation, my profession. I enjoyed doing it, but it was exhausting.
During the 1960s and 1970s, I used almost all of my vacation-time to attend AAU conventions and take Y water polo teams to various tournaments. As I’ve said previously, I was a bit burned-out, so by the 1980s, I needed to escape as often as possible to the ocean, to my underwater refuge. Ever since my wife Lee and I spent the summer of 1959 in Honolulu at the urging of my Army buddy Ollie Davis, we’d been avid skin- and scuba-divers. I came back to Minneapolis after our Hawaiian adventure and helped develop the YMCA’s national scuba program, becoming a certified scuba instructor myself. But we always preferred simple skin-diving, done with only a face-mask, snorkel, and fins.
For Lee and me, many of our best vacations involved visiting various underwater locales, with our daughter Heather, a certified scuba diver, joining us as she grew older. We went to Maui once and to the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and most often to the Caribbean, enjoying well over 100 ‘dives’ at 33 different sites. I was able to skin-dive (without scuba) to a depth of 80 feet when I was younger and could still reach 50 feet when I was 60 years old. Lee couldn’t dive as deeply, but her endurance while snorkeling on the surface sometimes surpassed mine. She was a superb diving partner.
You name it and we saw it on our oceanic adventures, from dozens of beautiful coral reefs to turtles and squid and octopi and dolphins and stingrays and sharks and everything in-between. Perhaps most impressive was the record-breaking six-foot-long barracuda with inch-long teeth we encountered off Nassau in the Bahamas, of which I took some verifying photos. These trips, which we enjoyed once yearly on average, provided us with a brief but wonderful respite from the rigors of the workaday world.
Back home, we had a very good skin- and scuba-diving program at the Asheville YMCA, taught by several highly-skilled instructors, and in 1981, we hosted the YMCA’s Southeast Scuba Institute, with Y diving experts coming from six states, for which we received a nice letter of commendation.
Over the years, the Citizen-Times, as usual, gave us good publicity, including the following article that was printed on August 6, 1985: “Skin- and scuba-diving action in the Asheville area is centered around the YMCA, which has been teaching the sport since the early 1970s. The YMCA’s head scuba instructor, Pete Savage, enjoyed his first submersion at Key West, Florida, in the mid 1960s. He takes his Y students on training trips to Florida twice yearly and usually plans a trip to Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean once each year.
“YMCA director of aquatics Chuck Hines and his wife Lee recently returned from a diving trip to St. Croix Island in the Caribbean…”
There was much more to the article, but that’s the gist of it. I was so enamored with our skin-diving adventures over a period of three decades that I wrote a poem expressing my feelings:
There is a mystic world I know, where silent shadows come and go,
In 1986, I moved from being the Asheville YMCA’s director of aquatics to being the director of community services. I was no longer situated downtown where, interestingly, we were building a second, warm-water pool to be used primarily for therapeutic activities and family swims. My office was now in the branch building on Beaverdam Road in north Asheville. From there, I supervised a variety of community activities, the most significant of which were youth soccer, afterschool-care programming for several hundred young children, summer day camping at four or five sites around town, juvenile justice for at-risk teens, and outdoor adventure activities. In the latter, we earned the No. 2 ranking among all Ys in the country, behind only the Frost Valley YMCA of upstate New York.
But the YMCA’s aquatic activities were doing poorly in my absence, so I was brought back downtown by the newest exec, Bill Kantonen. That was fine with me. We were continuing to play recreational water polo which, by the late 1980s, had become a seasonal sport. We played one or two nights weekly during the autumn months, from September to mid-December. As in the recent past, it was five-per-side, with some of the participants being our ex-national champions – Larry Peake, Scott Crawford, Corey Sims, Rob Baker, Phil Cocke – plus Hap Endler, Keith Jackson, Mike Miller, Jack Stewart, and Allan Tarleton, all of them very good – plus former Junior All-Americans Tricia Derrough and Lisa Graham – plus half-a-dozen others. This was actually a Masters Team that could have done exceedingly well nationally had there been anything resembling Masters water polo competition in the country at that time. There wasn’t. So we had fun playing amongst ourselves. We’d set up the goals at each end of the pool and joke and laugh while passing and shooting for awhile. Then I’d toss out the caps, select pick-up teams, and officiate from the deck. The guys – plus a few gals – would go at it hard for an hour. It was still Tough with a capital T.
Each year we picked up a few newcomers, both younger and older. One of our new players was Rob Powell. He’d learned to swim at the Y in our Special Olympics program, and then, in 1987, at the age of 17, he’d won a Gold medal in swimming at the Special Olympics World Games, held at Notre Dame University. We were all very proud of him. He wasn’t bad at water polo, although his reactions were a bit slow. Our veterans always encouraged Rob and backed off when guarding him. I’ll not forget the night Rob scored six goals in one of our lengthy scrimmages. He was glowing with satisfaction afterwards, and our guys were still patting him on the back as they left the facility later on. This was truly the YMCA at its best. At the Y, everyone plays. I should add that Rob Powell still comes to the YMCA, 20 years later, to swim and exercise, and he and I enjoy chatting.
I was also teaching water polo at the YMCA’s famed Blue Ridge Leaders School in Black Mountain. I’d done this in the 1970s, and after a hiatus of about 10 years, I was again devoting a week each summer to water polo at the Leaders School. I wrote an article for Water Polo Scoreboard magazine in which I said, “Twice in its illustrious history, the YMCA of the USA has promoted the sport of water polo, the first time from 1916 to 1926 and the second time from 1958 to 1978. During the second era, there were more than 80 Ys across the country actively playing, and the Y sponsored yearly national tournaments that drew teams from coast to coast.
“While no longer promoting water polo nationally, the YMCA does offer teenagers an opportunity to learn the sport at its Blue Ridge Leaders School, held each summer in Western North Carolina. The school annually attracts 600+ teenagers, who select from a variety of physical education and athletic activities. This year we had 66 boys and girls representing 10 states who received water polo instruction. Two semi-official games were played with the East team defeating the South squad by scores of 10-to-9 and 7-to-4. The daily practices and the two games were held in Blue Ridge Assembly’s beautiful 25-meter outdoor pool, using fancy floating goals plus balls, caps, and officiating flags supplied by the neighboring Asheville YMCA.
“The best male player was Mohammad Otham of Durham, North Carolina. The finest female player was Rita Tucker of Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Other standouts came from Montgomery and Selma, Alabama; Brandon and Clearwater, Florida; Metairie, Louisiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Asheville and Hendersonville, North Carolina.
“One of the daily spectators was Jack Geyer, the exec at the Cleveland, Tennessee, YMCA, who played water polo as a youngster growing up in Buffalo, New York. On one occasion, Jack jumped into the pool and participated in a scrimmage. He said he wished the YMCA would revive water polo as a national sport, a sentiment echoed by almost all the teen poloists at Blue Ridge Leaders School.”
In a way, life was goin’ good. But changes were taking place in the YMCA, both locally and nationally, some positive and some negative. I decided to take early retirement as of December 31, 1990. I’d been working for the Y since 1956: part-time at St. Paul Midway, full-time at Minneapolis, a year of volunteerism and then full-time at Des Moines, full-time at Canton, and full-time at Asheville. It added up to nearly 35 years altogether. My decision was made easier when exec Bill Kantonen asked me to stay on board as the Asheville YMCA’s part-time director of international programming, which I did through mid-summer of 1996. With my pension from the Y’s Retirement Fund plus my salary for working part-time, usually 10 to 15 hours weekly, I managed to keep my head above water financially.
While we were doing so much skin-diving in the Caribbean in the 1980s, my wife Lee and I also initiated an international exchange project between the Asheville YMCA and the YWCA on the small island of Montserrat. We later expanded our efforts to include work with two other island organizations, the Pacesetters Sports Club and The National Trust. The importance of this endeavor was heightened when Montserrat was decimated by Hurricane Hugo in September of 1989. The islanders needed assistance, and we were eager to help.
For eight years in a row, using our vacation-time and our money, Lee and I flew annually to Montserrat, taking a variety of YMCA coaches, swim instructors, and day camp counselors from Asheville with us.
Then we’d bring islanders back with us from Montserrat for training here. This was a wonderful, Wonderful, WONDERFUL undertaking, which remains a highlight of our lives. And then a supposedly-dormant volcano on Montserrat erupted, just as the islanders were fully recovering from Hugo. Hadn’t they suffered enough? We could no longer visit the island, but even now, as I write this, we remain in touch with many of our Montserrat friends who still come to visit us in Asheville from time to time.
Asheville YMCA's international outreach included Y staff members
teaching swim lessons on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.
Here in Asheville, while working part-time at the YMCA from 1991 to mid-1996, I provided a lot of international education for youngsters enrolled in the Y’s afterschool-care and summer day camp programs. We also worked with YMCA visitors who came to town from a number of countries, including the director of aquatics at the Jerusalem Y, who spent a week here. I represented the local Y on the Western North Carolina Chapter of the United Nations Association, advancing to the position of vice-president, and I attended YMCA international meetings at Blue Ridge Assembly and in Atlanta and Miami.
Author’s Note: While doing the international work, I received a nice letter from John Casey, Secretary-General of the World Alliance of YMCAs, which is located in Geneva, Switzerland. He wrote: “Dear Chuck, it is very encouraging and stimulating to see all the international activities in which you are involved, but even more importantly, I was moved by your thoughtful and consistent references to the Christian basis for our YMCA work. I know it is not always popular in our increasingly secularized society, but your forthrightness is not only refreshing but also an inspiration to others. Your message of solidarity is appreciated.”
The YMCA of the USA recognized Asheville as being an International Program Center, which was gratifying. At the same time, I became more involved through our church, West Asheville Presbyterian, with inner-city children and their problems. Would you believe this included water polo? On January 29, 1992, the Citizen-Times’ Susan Gambrell wrote, “On an icy, cold night last week, a group of inner-city kids plunged into a tepid indoor swimming pool, kicking and splashing as if it were summer. Most of the youngsters, ages eight to 16 years old, are shuttled to the YMCA on Woodfin Street by staff members and volunteers from West Asheville Presbyterian Church.
“It is one man’s vision to turn these non-swimmers, some of whom even fear water, into a first-rate water polo team. His name is Chuck Hines. He is the former YMCA aquatic specialist who in the 1970s led his Y water polo teams to 10 national tournament triumphs. In addition to this impressive record, Hines’ athletes won individual national titles in swimming, whitewater kayaking, and triathlon. Now nearing 60, with the strong swimmer’s build of a man half his age, he has retired from his full-time YMCA aquatic duties, although he continues to do international programming on a part-time basis. He still loves the water, but says winning championships is no longer what it’s about. What he is doing now is volunteering in a program jointly sponsored by the YMCA and West Asheville Presbyterian Church.
“It brings boys and girls who’ve never had a swimming lesson into the pool to learn water polo, a game that combines the skills of basketball, soccer, even football. Raising his voice over the energetic group that’s thrashing and splashing around in the water, Hines says it’s hard to get kids from the inner-city to take swimming lessons. But if you put a sport with it, such as water polo, he believes they’ll become more enthused. Paddling after a loose ball, Hines said, will develop arm and leg motions. So far, he observed, as he watched the kids and their rudimentary but effective swim styles, this sly way of learning to swim is working.
“Once weekly Hines and the church’s youth director, Diane Short, and several other volunteers load the kids into vans and bring them to the Y. About 30 boys and girls are enrolled in the new program so far, but Hines expects the numbers to rise when the weather improves. A somewhat similar program has begun in Atlanta, with 80 black children from the inner-city attending classes at the Martin Luther King, Jr., pool. Hines is hoping the Asheville and Atlanta youngsters can get together for a game sometime.”
Didn’t happen, unfortunately. Our inner-city polo program ran successfully through most of 1992 but took a dive after I had surgery for cancer of the prostate and was unable to fully function for three or four months thereafter. Then we revived the program and kept it going off and on for another year. I can recall as many as 60 inner-city youngsters showing up for one of our swimming and water polo sessions. Eventually we brought the best dozen inner-city boys into our adult recreational program, and for maybe six months they practiced and played one night weekly with our white men and women. Those who did the most to help me with this “special interest” activity were Rob Baker, Phil Cocke, Scott and Melisa Crawford, and Larry Peake. Yeah, they were still involved 20 years after being national champions. We encountered no problems except for some of our older Y members complaining that “those inner-city kids are taking over the place.” Hmmm.
The YMCA's water polo program for inner-city boys
in the 1990s attracted local and national attention.
U.S. Water Polo discovered what we were doing, and I received a phone call asking if I could attend their next annual meeting at which the possibility of promoting more inner-city polo around the country would be discussed. I declined the invitation, being involved too much at the time with the Asheville-Montserrat international exchange project. But it was cool that our efforts were being recognized locally and nationally.
One of the best boys in our inner-city program of the early 1990s was Bernard Stewart. He was a member of the Asheville High School swimming squad, and he captained our inner-city boys water polo team and was an effective passer, playmaker, and leader. After graduating, he went to live in New York State for quite awhile, and I lost track of him. Then just recently, I entered the pool at the Asheville Y to swim laps, and who should be sitting in the lifeguard’s chair but Bernard. Now 30, he was back in town and studying at our community college to become an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). He and I had a good time talking about the past, and he wanted to know what could be done to revive the YMCA’s polo program. As it turned out, we did in fact get recreational water polo going again.
On April 1, 1994, the phone rang at our house and someone asked, “Is this Chuck Hines?”
The caller identified himself and stated that he was representing the Western North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and that I was scheduled to be inducted a month later. We chatted awhile, and then he hung up. I turned to my wife, laughing. “Somebody just played an April Fool’s joke on me.” I told her about the phone conversation.
A week later, I received two more phone calls about being inducted, and suddenly I realized it wasn’t a joke at all. It was the real deal. I’d been selected because of my “coaching feats.” Over the years and through the auspices of the YMCA, I’d coached 10 national championship teams and 40 All-Americans in water polo, plus more than a dozen individual national titlists in swimming, kayaking, and triathlon. More than a few of these athletes had won gold, silver, and bronze medals in Olympic, Junior Olympic, Special Olympics, and World competition. I’d received National Coach of the Year awards from the YMCA of the USA (1969), American Swimming Coaches Association (1973), and Amateur Athletic Union (1975), all for my efforts in water polo, plus a Dixie Division Coach of the Year award from the American Canoe Association (1984) for my work with our YMCA kaYak kids.
On May 3 of 1994, I became the 50th person to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, whose selections date back to the 1940s and include a wide variety of pro and amateur athletes and coaches. The ceremony was conducted at the spacious and prestigious Grove Park Inn here in Asheville, with an attendance of about 450. The other inductee that year was race car driver Banjo Matthews, and I discovered that our local residents knew much more about him than they knew about me. This was rather humbling. The unsung hero of the evening was Jim Hamer, the sports editor of the Citizen-Times, who was the one giving us so much good publicity for our YMCA water polo (and other) activities. Jim also reported regularly on auto racing, which included Banjo Matthews’ successes. Without Jim Hamer’s writing, Banjo Matthews and I never would have come to the attention of the Hall of Fame Committee.
A week later, I received a letter from Adrian Moody, the South Field Executive of the YMCA of the USA. He wrote, “Congratulations on being named to the Western North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Of course, you have long been in the YMCA’s South Hall of Fame.”
Author’s Note: I was also nominated for the United States Water Polo Hall of Fame in the mid-1990s, but I rejected induction when I discovered there were NO women’s water polo players in the Hall. Not one. Hard to believe it was still a good ol’ boys club. Unacceptable to me. I worked diligently behind-the-scenes to alleviate this situation. It took nearly 10 years, but finally the first deserving women players were admitted in 2003. I received a letter from Charlie Schroeder, chairman of the USWP Hall of Fame Committee. He wrote, “Dear Chuck, just a quick note to fill you in as to the women involved in the USWP Hall of Fame. This year we finally made some decisions on how, who, and why. Those voted on will be the FIRST female players inducted. You will note that Kathy Horne from the 1970s has received the necessary votes to be honored.” I declined Charlie’s invitation to attend the induction ceremony but celebrated privately at the thought of our women – a few, at least – finally being acknowledged. Some of us had worked hard in the past to make this happen. Thanks to the leadership of Doc Hunkler, the former Slippery Rock University coach, there’s now a separate Hall of Honor for the Pioneer Coaches of Women’s Water Polo. I’m a member of this illustrious group. Furthermore, we coaches have recently established a separate Hall of Honor for the Pioneer Players of Women’s Water Polo. Working together, we selected the best 60 players from the 1960s and the best 70 players from the 1970s. More on this in the next chapter.
For the next two years, I became ultra busy with the 1996 Summer Olympic Games being hosted by Atlanta. I shan’t go into any specific details except to say that I volunteered my services here in Asheville and in Atlanta and over on the Ocoee River in east Tennessee, where the whitewater kayak and canoe races would be held. I even coached a young lady kayaker who competed in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. She didn’t make the team, but she came close.
A group of local athletes who were meeting at the Asheville YMCA wanted to nominate me for the Torch Relay. I declined. Then my daughter Heather came to me and said, “Dad, as your birthday present, I’ve nominated you for the Torch Relay.” Well, who can turn down a gift like that? Over 300 residents of Asheville and Western North Carolina were nominated, and 40 were selected as ‘community heroes’ to carry the Torch. I was one of them. On a sunny day in June of 1996, I became an Olympic Torchbearer.
Because I was having some problems with a disintegrating disc in my back and suffering no small amount of pain, I was told I could walk with the Torch for one kilometer down Hendersonville Road in south Asheville. When the Torch, which was heavy, was handed to me, the escort runner, who was accompanying each Torchbearer along the route and providing guidance, turned to me and said, “Chuck, we’re running behind schedule. The mayor is supposed to receive the Torch in downtown Asheville in a few minutes, and we still have a long way to go. Your back may be hurting, but you’ve gotta suck it up and run.” I didn’t exactly run, but I jogged as swiftly as possible as family members and friends from church and the YMCA and a special guest, Rachel Collis from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, watched and cheered.
There was an excellent article in the Citizen-Times written by Robert Wooten following the Torch Relay which remains so meaningful to me that I’m going to print it here. Mr. Wooten said, “The Olympic Spirit I saw the day the Torch came to Asheville was a celebration of people from all over the world. I was moved to tears watching the big screen at City-County Plaza showing some of the 10,000 ‘community heroes’ who are relaying the Torch across the country to Atlanta. There were children and seniors, men and women, black, white, and a variety of ethnic groups. Some were slim, some were large. Some were physically fit. Some were handicapped. One boy carried the Torch in a wheelchair. A young girl had only one arm. The one thing in common was the joy, excitement, and personal satisfaction that radiated in each person’s face and manner as he or she received the Flame and carried it forward.
“As I watched, I felt connected to these people – people different from me in some ways and yet my brothers and sisters. They are my fellow human beings with the same range of hopes, struggles, and triumphs as I have. We are united in this Torch Relay and in the Olympic Spirit. And not just people in this country, but the people of the whole world are joined through this Olympic Spirit into one human community. I applaud the organizers of the Torch Relay for this great symbolic event involving so many people who truly represent the diversity of Humanity.
“Playing host to the Olympic Games in Atlanta is a privileged opportunity for us to meet our fellow world inhabitants. We should extend the person-to-person connection experienced in the Torch Relay to people around the world. They are all our sisters and brothers in this one world family. That is the Olympic Spirit I saw when the Torch Relay came to Asheville.”
When the 1996 Summer Games were over, I unexpectedly received a beautiful gold medallion and certificate from the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee in recognition of my volunteer work, which included raising money for the Olympic-UNICEF Children’s Fund plus various on-site activities over a two- to three-year period. I now had a Gold medal from coaching the Asheville YMCA water polo girls to the team title at the 1972 Junior Olympics and a Gold medallion for my volunteerism with the 1996 Summer Olympics. Who could ask for more?
Yet later that year, I received another big surprise: I was chosen as Western North Carolina’s Humanitarian of the Year. What a shock. This was mainly because of our international programming project with the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean and our inner-city efforts here at home, which included the water polo we were teaching and playing. It goes without saying that I didn’t do it alone. I had plenty of support from my family members and my friends and from many of you who’re reading this. It was, as always, a Total Team Effort. Thanks to everyone.
Over the next four years, I served as the volunteer president of the nearby Nantahala Whitewater Racing Club, which was a rewarding experience. I’d done “my thing” at the Asheville YMCA for many years, and now I needed to give the new, young aquatic personnel their turn. They needed room to function without having some old guy looking over their shoulders and saying, “But this is the way we did it in the past.”
Although no longer a paid Asheville YMCA staff member, either full-time or part-time, I remained a regular member, having been given a Life Membership to the organization by those in charge. Like thousands of others, I came to the Y pools – now being called the aquatic center – frequently to enjoy family swim sessions with my two young grandchildren, Crystal and Charlie. I used this time to teach them to swim. One year the Y had an underwater Easter egg hunt, just for fun. Crystal, who was eight, earned first place. At that age, she was able to swim 24 laps of the pool, or 600 yards, with a variety of strokes. Not to be outdone by his older sister, Charlie, when he turned eight, swam 40 laps, or 1,000 yards, with a slow but steady crawl-stroke.
Both youngsters eventually gravitated to the sport of taekwondo. They’ve been Southeast champions of the American Taekwondo Foundation and have advanced through the numerous belt categories – white, yellow, orange, green, grey, blue, red, purple, brown, black – to become First Degree Black Belts. Only 3% of those who start out in taekwondo ever reach this level of achievement, and Crystal and Charlie did it as teenagers. It’s been my good fortune in recent years to take them to most of their practices at the Asheville Academy of Taekwondo, where owner/operator/head coach Richard Tener and his instructors put them and the other youth and adult students through their paces. This has been an excellent program, based on the same Values that we’ve taught at the Y over the years.
The Asheville YMCA was still offering some occasional recreational water polo, but I was no longer directly involved, and frankly, it wasn’t going so well. Thus when director of aquatics Jim Richards asked me to conduct a one-day water polo clinic in June of 1998, I agreed to do so. We spent the morning in the classroom and the afternoon in the pool. Attendance wasn’t what we’d hoped, but there were about 20 adults and older teens who came and participated. Among them were Rob Baker and Dan Pierce, two members of our 1973 national championship boys team. Rob had now been involved with Y water polo for 30 years, from his first days of playing in 1969 as a high school freshman through his participation at this clinic. Over the years, he made the all-tournament team at the Y Nationals, helped me out as an assistant coach for our varsity girls and traveled with us to California and Hawaii and Pennsylvania, refereed numerous games locally, played on our Masters Team, and worked with our inner-city program. Did I mention he was selected as a YMCA All-American somewhere along the way?
As for Dan, he’s now a professor of history and chair of the history department at UNCA, our local university, having earned a Ph.D. He’s the author of two best-selling history books, one on the Great Smoky Mountains and the other on NASCAR. He and his wife Lydia and their four youngsters live just around the corner from Lee and me. Their oldest daughter has played on a state champion volleyball team.
Also attending the one-day clinic in 1998 were Tricia Derrough, one of our former female stars, and Nancy Oliver, the swim coach at Asheville High School. They reorganized the Y’s recreational water polo program and kept it going one night weekly for the next 18 months. I looked in from time to time and offered my advice. They had a dozen regular participants and half-a-dozen hangers-on. Then at the beginning of the brand-new millennium, I walked into the Y pools – okay, aquatic center – one day and saw that the water polo goals were missing. “Where are they?” I inquired. “We decided to toss ‘em out,” I was informed, “because they’re not being used much and were just getting in the way.” Ah, well. Once again water polo was no longer a Big sport at the Asheville YMCA.
Next Month – Chapter 8 – Water Polo in the New Millennium, 2000-2010.