ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gary Grey’s swim lessons at the St. Paul Tennis Club were a master class in how to teach.
He knew every child in the pool by name. He found a common interest with them. He gave each a nickname. He learned what motivated them. He stayed in touch. He cared.
And his “kids,” as he calls them, knew it.
During a recent swim lesson, Grey, dressed in a white T-shirt and swim trunks and immersed in water to his waist, taught the freestyle stroke to a group of young swimmers kneeling on kickboards on the pool deck. “All the way back, over the top, catch up,” said Grey, moving his right arm to match his words. “Got it? Ja, ja, or no, no?”
“You’ve got to keep it simple,” Grey said after the lesson. “As soon as you start getting too complicated, then you start losing them … they shut off everything. It took me a long time to learn that, and I still have difficulty with that sometimes. … You’ve got to be very specific about what you want done, and you’ve got to make corrections, and take it little tiny steps at a time.”
But after 61 years of teaching kids to swim, Grey has decided it’s time to quit. The longtime swim coach and club manager at SPTC is retiring this fall. He taught his last lesson last week; the pool closes on Labor Day.
“I’ve been forcing myself not to think about it,” Grey said. “One of the reasons I enjoyed being here so much was that I got to see the kids when they were young, and, in many cases, I have them hanging around here until they graduate and go on to real life. I can see how they change.”
Many of Grey’s former students became his employees. Grey taught Catherine, Liz, Edward and Mike Gadient how to swim and then coached them and hired them to be lifeguards at the club, the Pioneer Press reported.
Grey instilled a work ethic in all of his “kids,” said Catherine Gadient, 37, of St. Paul, whom Grey dubbed “Catherine the Great.”
“At the end-of-season swim banquet, Gary made sure it wasn’t just the fastest kids who were recognized,” she said. “Everybody got some sort of recognition for what were, maybe, even idiosyncratic parts of their personalities. Gary made us feel seen. He made us feel valued. He made us feel appreciated for what was different about us — what stood out. It’s taught me a lot about what it means to be a member of community: You value people for the things that they bring, and he made sure that that is celebrated. Gary taught me to be a better person. I see those qualities in my siblings as well. I see Gary in them.”
Grey treated his young swimmers and employees “like his family. … For a lot of them, this was their first job, and he was their first boss,” said Peter Nicholson, 25, of St. Paul. “He was the person who taught them professional responsibility and how to take pride in their work — how to be present and show up and be on time and hold down a job. I think that the importance of that cannot be overstated.”
Grey, 77, grew up in Rockford, Illinois and swam for Rockford East High School. After graduating from East in 1961, he was offered a swimming scholarship at the University of Iowa. His specialty was the individual medley, a race that includes butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
“I never was a great swimmer, but I was versatile,” he said. “If they needed someone to swim the 200 back, I could do it. I could do the butterfly. I could do freestyle.”
After graduating, he taught and coached at Clinton, Iowa, and Deerfield, Illinois High School before joining the staff at Eisenhower High School in Hopkins in 1971. As swim coach at Eisenhower until the school closed in 1982, Grey led the school to four Minnesota state championships from 1974 to 1977, four Lake Conference titles and three Region 6 titles and coached 22 All-American swimmers. He taught in the Hopkins School District until 2002.
Grey credits a number of mentors with helping him learn his craft, including the late David Robertson, the longtime aquatics director and head boys swim coach at New Trier, Illinois High School.
Robertson’s philosophy “was that kids are always in the process of becoming who they are going to be, and you have a chance to influence that,” Grey said. “After a while, you begin to realize and see the mistakes that kids are capable of making, and quite often, you can intervene and prevent it from happening. It’s really true: they are an unfinished product. That process is always ongoing, and it applies to everybody. I am not the same person I was 30 years ago. I am changing. Good, bad or ugly, everybody is impacted by who they meet and what they do.”
Another lesson learned from Robertson was the importance of “consistency from year to year to year,” Grey said. “The language we’re talking with the kids is always the same. That’s critical. That also applies to coaching — consistency in what you’re doing and your approach to things is critically important. When the kids are hearing the same message year after year, it makes the process simple.”
Howard Judd taught and coached swimming in Clinton, Iowa, prior to Grey; Grey worked with him for a year before Judd retired.
“Howard was not your ‘typical’ coach. He was a psychologist, and he was just fantastic with kids. They would kill for him. One lesson I learned from him: I don’t care if you’re in athletics or sports or teaching or learning, kids are kids, and they have needs,” Grey said.
After four years in Clinton and three years in Deerfield, Grey returned to the University of Iowa in 1971 to get his master’s degree in physical education. “The job market had collapsed entirely, and the only position I was offered was in Australia,” he said. “I had no clue how I could afford to go to Australia.”
A canceled Friday class at the Iowa Field House changed everything. “There was a note on the door saying it was canceled,” he said. “I hadn’t seen my old swim coach all year, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to run down and see if Bob Allen is here.’ He happened to be there, and we sat down and had a cup of coffee. I told him I was looking for a job. He said, ‘Just a minute,’ and he reached into the wastebasket and pulled out a balled-up piece of paper filled with coffee grounds and cigarette butts. He spread it out, and he said, ‘Have you ever heard of Hopkins, Minnesota?’
“It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” Grey said.
At Hopkins, Grey taught physical education, coached boys swimming, coached AAU swimming and helped institute the school district’s Drownproofing Program, an aquatic-safety program for third-grade students. “We had every third-grader in Hopkins — public and private schools — come through our pool, and we would test them,” he said. “We knew who the swimmers were, and we also knew who the kids who needed help were.”
Free Saturday-morning swim lessons were offered to anyone who needed them.
Grey, who lives in Plymouth, took the job at SPTC in 1984 after stumbling upon a want ad for a “swimming coach and club manager.”
“I thought, ‘Whoa, what a crazy combination,’ ” he said. “It was just a very refreshing change from what I was doing in Hopkins. This pool is a gem. I’ve worked an awful lot of pools and a lot of different places — some bigger, but I tell you, it is a gem. It is one of the better pools in the five-state area. It’s a keeper.”
In the pool, Grey doesn’t hesitate to bribe the kids. After each lesson, each kid gets to pick out a treat from his candy jar. Members of the swim team get to compete in a “bagel relay” — boys versus girls — a couple of times each summer; the winners get bagels and cream cheese, but, more importantly, bragging rights.
“The kids look forward to it,” Grey said. “It’s cheap entertainment. It’s just another way to connect. So much of teaching is connecting.”
When a little girl once refused to tell Grey her name at a swim lesson, Grey dubbed her “George,” and she stayed “George” throughout her time at SPTC, he said. “But then, we had that connection. If you don’t have a connection, I don’t care what you’re teaching, you’re beating a dead horse. It just doesn’t work.”
Grey “truly cares about the kids, and you can tell that they love him and respect him right back,” said Jhoelle Hite, the mother of three of Grey’s swimmers. “He has them work hard, but he also makes it fun. He has built a real community of kids who look out for one another and who cheer each other on.”
Grey, who is married and has two children and four grandchildren, regularly attends SPTC swimmers’ college, high school and club swim meets in the fall and winter. “It means a lot that he comes and cheers me on,” said Emily Hite, 21, a senior at the University of St. Thomas who swims the 100- and 200-meter butterfly. When meets were closed to spectators because of COVID-19, Grey watched her swim online and then texted her to check on times and splits.
Although much has changed about teaching during the past 61 years, Grey said the one constant has been the kids. “Kids are kids,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve had kids with green hair, orange hair, red hair, no hair, long hair, whatever it happens to be, you know what? They’re all still kids. They still have the same needs. To me, they are fascinating.”
In 2019, SPTC underwent a $1.7 million renovation and built a new pool. It is named the “Gary Grey Pool.”
“It was a total surprise, and I’m really hard to surprise,” Grey said. “I’ve told many friends that I became a bit nervous because some of my swimming friends who’d had pools named after them were already dead. I wondered if people knew something I didn’t. Truthfully, I’m very honored and humbled. It’s a heckuva deal.”