Gazette Article by Susan Crowe Whitcomb
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2011
New Trier High School has long been powerful in the pool. Both the girls’ and boys’ teams won the Illinois state swimming and diving championship this past season, giving both teams more state titles than any other high school. Celebrating 100 years of swimming and diving in 2011-2012, New Trier has one of the oldest and most successful high school swimming programs, not only in Illinois, but in the nation.
New Trier’s aquatic history mirrors the development of swimming and diving as organized competitive sports in the United States. Swimming races in Chicago started in athletic clubs and YMCAs that held early competitions on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Chicago’s first indoor pools—or “tanks” as they were known at the time—were built during the 1890s; the first Olympic swimming competition was held at the 1896 Games in Athens. New pools opened at The University of Chicago in 1904 and Northwestern University in 1910. New Trier unveiled the first indoor high school pool in America in 1913. The pool was twenty yards long and four lanes wide, with a maximum depth of only eight feet—making diving a treacherous event.
Coach Chauncey Hyatt led the first New Trier team. Male swimmers practiced twice weekly and swam in four competitions each year. Entertainment for spectators included potato-diving races that pitted Irish against Germans, and the duck chase. In that event, two ducks were set loose in the pool and twenty swimmers joined in the chase, taking as long as thirty minutes to capture them.
Diving in the early part of the 20th century was called “fancy diving” and utilized stationary platforms. Competitive swimming events were different than today: sidestroke, breaststroke, Australian crawl and “the plunge.” In the plunge event, swimmers dove in and glided twenty yards to the opposite wall without stroking or kicking. In 1917 New Trier freshman George Schaefer, the youngest of 18 children who had learned to swim the previous summer, became a champion plunger with a national interscholastic record of 24 seconds. Coach Hyatt left New Trier after the 1917-18 season with a record of 20 meet wins and 1 loss.
Coach Edgar B. Jackson took the helm of New Trier aquatics for the next 34 seasons, keeping New Trier at the top of Illinois high school swimming. Starting in 1932 when swimming had expanded to more Illinois high schools, the State Championship meet became the highest level of competition. Jackson led New Trier to seven state championships which included many national records.
Jackson’s greatest feat was getting a new pool built during the depths of the Depression. The natatorium still in use on the Winnetka campus opened in 1937. At the time, it was truly a state-of-the-art facility: 25 yards long, 10 ½ feet deep, an unbelievable eight lanes wide with room for 1200 spectators. Called “Lake New Trier” by locals, the pool was the site of both the Illinois State Championship and the Big Ten Collegiate Championship in its first year and for many years afterward.
The new pool was a critical component of Jackson’s strategy to expand swimming beyond boys’ competition. The New Trier Guard, still in existence today, was formed in 1936 as a service organization staffed by high school students who taught and supervised community swim programs to develop a love of swimming among children and families. Jackson also added swimming to the physical education curriculum for high school boys and girls.
Jackson’s legacy is best exemplified by New Trier’s next coach: Dave Robertson. A New Trier graduate and champion backstroker under Jackson, Robertson wrote his high school junior theme on “Occupations” where he predicted he would become a New Trier swimming coach. After several years as an assistant coach, Robertson took over as head coach in 1952. Winnetka resident John Snyder, Sr. swam for New Trier when Jackson and Robertson were a coaching team: “Coach Jackson was really focused on motivation. He painted his own signs with inspirational words and hung them around the pool, but I never saw him get wet. Robertson really emphasized stroke technique and training.”
In 1954 British runner Roger Bannister became the first person to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. More unbelievable than the record was that Bannister, a medical student who worked many hours, trained only 30-45 minutes each day. Robertson was intrigued by this and learned that Bannister rarely trained a mile at a time; he trained in quarter miles where he tried to run like he was in competition. Said Robertson, “The idea was more intense workouts with almost perfect form. You swim three good lengths as opposed to thirty lousy ones and then rest. I remember yelling myself hoarse over proper technique.” Today, the method is known as “interval training” and is the regimen in many sports.
Interval training brought unprecedented success to New Trier. Robertson’s teams won nine state championships and four national championships in his 24 years as head coach. By the numbers, the 1961 team was the greatest of all. A Sports Illustrated article featured the team, its coach and the professionalism of the New Trier Swimming Organization in April of that year: “New Trier not only has the best high school swimming team in America, it has the best high school team in history. It is so good, in fact, that there are currently only three college teams in the entire county – the Olympic-seasoned squads from Indiana, USC and Michigan – capable of beating the high schoolers in a dual meet.” Two 1961 superstars were Dale Kiefer (whose father had won a gold medal in the backstroke at the 1936 Olympics) and Fred Schmidt. Kiefer would go on to be an All-American breaststroker at Yale. Fred Schmidt would swim at Indiana and win two medals at the 1964 Olympics: a gold in the 4×100 meter medley relay, and a bronze in the 200 meter butterfly. Robertson left New Trier in 1976 and was later inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, only the second high school coach to receive that honor.
What were female swimmers and divers doing during the first three quarters of the 20th century? Although women started Olympic swimming and diving competition as early as 1912, girls’ aquatic opportunities in Illinois were confined to athletic clubs and summer country club competitions until 1975. In that year the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) was finally forced, under the now-famous federal Title IX legislation, to sanction girls’ sports in competition. New Trier East and New Trier West organized their first swim teams in 1977 and quickly rose to the top. East won the state title in 1979, and when the two schools re-united in 1981 under Coach Bruce Woodbury, the girls’ team won the state championship seven years in a row, an achievement not repeated by any team since. Coach Woodbury would leave and return to the girls’ head coaching job two more times after his first departure in 1987. He led the girls to three more state championships in 2000, 2001 and most recently in 2010. Last year the Illinois Swimming Association created a new award for outstanding coaching of girls’ high school swimming called “The Bruce Woodbury Hall of Fame Award.”
By the 1970s, the training and organizational methods that had been unique to New Trier were now standard at many high schools and the boys’ competition was formidable. Hinsdale took the New Trier model a step further with the McDonald’s Hinsdale Swim Club. Practicing all year round, the swim club members competed nationally with funds for travel and equipment provided by McDonald’s Corporation. Increased training and competition paid off; Hinsdale Central won the state championship twelve years in a row between 1967 and 1978 with New Trier often in second place. New Trier East Class of 1977 swimmer Duff Peterson recalls, “The opening of New Trier West in the mid-60s resulted in swimming talent being divided between the two schools, and neither school won a state championship again until the two New Triers re-consolidated. People have speculated that if New Trier hadn’t been split, the team might have continued to win state championships into the 70’s, but it’s hard to say. The Hinsdale high schools also split into Central and South at around the same time.”
Hinsdale-caliber swim clubs came into existence on the North Shore in the early 1980s. Today, most New Trier varsity swimmers grow up in the swim clubs and “feed” the high school teams. The largest is New Trier Swim Club which has 400 swimmers from ages 6 to 18. High school age swimmers spend nine months of the year training and competing with the swim club and three months with the high school team. Year-round training has contributed greatly to the depth and competency of the high school teams.
Mark Onstott has been head coach of the boys team since 1994 and has helped propel the team to five Illinois championships, making it 21 in all. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, the boys’ team was named national champions by the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association. The combined boys and girls team also ranked number one in the nation in 2011.
Coaches Onstott and Woodbury will preside over the New Trier Swimming and Diving organization’s 100-year birthday celebration that took place on January 21, 2012.