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Rearview Mirror: Swimming and Diving and Drownproofing Part II

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The saga continues.

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Your 1950 SEC Championship Swim Team
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7584)

For part one, click here.


When Lanoue died, there was only one option to take his place. The fellow who had been his right-hand man for 17 seasons, Herb McAuley, was the consensus option in the line of succession. McAuley had been a swimming star at Georgia Tech, deciding on Tech after moving to Atlanta as a young boy. He intended to play football for coach William Alexander, but ankle injuries compelled him to the pool, a place he was very familiar with, having spent his childhood swimming often in the Piedmont Park lake, per the information distributed on his 90th birthday by GT Living History. As captain of the team in its 1942 SEC championship season, he had won the conference title in both the 220 yard Free and the 440 yard Free. He returned as captain in 1947, the gap occurring because he was off with the Army Signal Corps in the Second World War. When he graduated Tech that spring with either his Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering degree, depending on if you subscribe to the Living History or Athletics history biographic information, Lanoue hired his two time captain to be his assistant and the promptly rattled off those 1948-1950 championships.

Interestingly, Georgia Tech’s 1948 SEC title came without a single individual, diving, or relay taking first place in the whole meet. This just shows the power of depth when it comes to the sport. It is a personal philosophy that it’s better to score more of your entries than have one really talented superstar, but I digress. In 1949 and 1950, however, Tech’s depth yielded fruitful conference champions when Tommy Towles went back-to-back in the 200 Breaststroke. Interestingly, Towles is now the namesake of the current locker room. Meanwhile, his teammate and team captain John Hiles took the 440 Freestyle in 1949 and the splash and dash, the 50 Free, in 1950. Though 1950 remains Tech’s most recent conference crown, the Jackets’ Frank Strickland took the 200 Back in 1952 and the 100 Back in 1953, Bob Browne won the 100 Breast in 1957, and Larry Kaghan took the 200 Free in 1964, Tech’s last year in the conference.

It was unfortunate for McAuley that, by the time he acceded to the head coaching position, the Jackets were no longer in the SEC. Swimming is traditionally a sport dominated by its championship season (the athlete’s “taper” meet) rather than the meets of the regular season, which make it harder to pin down accolades like dual meet head to head record in context. He got just a handful of attempts at an ACC crown, all very late in his career. His 169-144-1 record weren’t bad, though, but it’s difficult to point to singular standouts of his legacy. However, much like Lanoue was purported to have taught upwards of 20,000 students drownproofing by the time he died, McAuley was one of the last few Tech instructors that truly made his presence known on a universal scale. The class was required for all able-bodied, non-athlete men, including non-swimmers. As the population of coeds on campus increased, so did their clamoring for the course to be mandated for women as well, just one of the many things women had to fight tooth and nail for in the early days of coeducation at Tech. On the route to six Physical Training classes, students had some leeway, but, by the end of the 1960s, Drownproofing was a must for nearly every student, men and women alike, further demonstrating McAuley’s influence. Whereas professors of a bygone era like, say, John Saylor Coon or D. M. Smith could be renowned for their sayings or mannerisms, it has become exceeding rare for a single man or woman to have an impact across the Institute that these professors and instructors did. McAuley was the last of a dying breed. Perhaps the only one left who could even come close to this are large core lecturers in subjects like math and physics, though even a prominent modern example, the “Four Horsemen” of undergraduate calculus, were lumped together as four notorious professors, and not for being all that nice to students. It’s hard to say. The point stands, though, that few people at Tech influenced as many as Herb McAuley.

In his time, he was given recognition by the Powers That Be. The Athletic Association named him to their Hall of Fame 1982, while he was still an active coach. Thirty years later, he was named to the Georgia Swimming Hall of Fame. When he retired from his position in 1987 after 40 years of coaching, it was decided that the team would not compete for the 1988 season, choosing instead to take the year to regroup, find a worthy successor, and come back rejuvenated. This is why, for those with keen eyes who were wondering, the team captain of the 1987-88 swim team is listed as George P. Burdell under the record boards in the natatorium. I think this is perhaps the most clear sign of legacy and impact one could have - literally, the program could not go on without him. In 2016, after lobbying for two years following his death, the 1996 Olympic facility was renamed in his honor.

When McAuley left Tech, so did drownproofing. It was pulled from the curriculum in a massive restructuring and downsizing of Tech’s physical education, athletics, and health programming. I think it is one of the more fascinating truisms about the Georgia Tech experience just how much our history and traditions captivate us, especially the long-gone ones. Be it the lingering SEC obsession that has seen so much metaphorical ink spilled in the past few months in this space, how we absolutely venerate the titanic figures who shaped the institute, or a course that hasn’t been taught in over three decades that, had it not been venerated as a massively successful training program used by three different branches of the US military, to this trained lifeguard seems mostly like its asking for some water-related trouble.

With Tech having approved the concept of “mini-mesters,” one-off classes of about eight to ten weeks in length, I think that drownproofing would be the ideal candidate for one of these classes, especially considering that was the length of the course at the time it was discontinued. There are several great opportunities to get students more involved in both physical education - Tech’s curriculum since the 1987-1988 curriculum revision in the physical health space has been sorely lacking - and traditions through courses like these, and it would be a shame to pass on the obvious opportunity to offer interested students courses on drownproofing, building a Wreck Parade float, or anything in the physical education space besides like yoga, swimming, and running.

Sidenote: I should flesh this out in a future editorial.

Part of the reason the varsity team dropped off the radar, and indeed out of existence for that year, was due to the condition of the Heisman Gym’s pool. Though the structure was condemned and demolished in 1995 - an article on the recent football locker room renovation cleverly notes that they clearly didn’t do a great job getting rid of the pool if it was still there to be found when they renovated the locker room - its continued existence was a definite safety concern. As are so often useful, the comments on the CRC history Rearview yielded a tidbit from jabbajacket that “Varsity swimmers had to sign a waiver to participate on the team, specifically due to the poor condition of the Heisman gym. Pieces of the ceiling regularly fell into the pool.” I think aspects like this underscore just how important facilities are to sports. Though this example is probably more than a little extreme, Tech’s varsity team was increasingly hard to recruit to, lasting in the Heisman Gym more than a decade past the opening of the Student Activity Center, possibly more, it is unclear.

However, even once the team got to the SAC, the pool was a 25 meters long, which is nonstandard for American swimming. With the outdoor pool being also not ideal, as it was long course, this move, made later by the provision that the SAC was built for students by their fees, so varsity sports were not allowed to use it, was barely even a step up for the program. Accordingly, McAuley’s successor, Brad Lehman, barely made it three years on the Flats before he left. In his time, though, Tim Halligan became Tech’s first All-ACC swimmer and its first participant in the NCAA Swimming and Diving National Championship Meet.

Bill Humber, coach from 1991-1997, was less successful on the Flats, amassing a 38-45 record in dual meets. However, he did see to Tech’s first ACC champion when Brandon Lumm won the 3-meter diving event. By the end of his tenure, Tech had, in the span of a decade, gone from swimming in a veritable death trap of a pool to one built for the Olympics, by way of an inadequate facility that the rather anti-athletic voices in the Institute administration had barred them from using in the first place.

Seth Baron then coached the Yellow Jackets to a rather successful run from 1997-2005. In the eight year span, the Jackets improved, and, halfway through, they added a women’s swimming and diving team to the program. In his final year at the helm, Tech cracked the top 3 in the ACC, and the women scored points at NCAAs just a few years after their team came into existence. After a few years of growth, Tech’s men’s team placed in the top 35 in five straight seasons under Baron. Meanwhile, the pool underwent its transition from the outside but covered superstadium of swimming that hosted the Olympics to the modern iteration that is now the McAuley Aquatic Center. While he was coach, he was named the head coach for the U.S. Maccabiah Games team three times, in 1997, 2001, and 2005, and when he stepped down in 2005 as head coach, it was to pursue other professional interests. These include both efforts to promote swimming and to serve fellow Jewish people.

Among other important aquatics events from water polo to diving, swimming to, uh, more swimming, Tech got its first shot as an NCAA host in 2006, when it hosted the men’s meet. Two Tech swimmers got the opportunity to have a home pool advantage in the national championship, as Sam Morgan competed in the 500 Free, 1650 (mile) Free, and 400 IM, a grueling set of all the distance events, for the second year in a row, while he was joined by diver Evan Stowers in the 1 meter, 3 meter, and platform events, which he would qualify for again the following year. Morgan was the first Tech athlete to qualify for NCAAs in all four of his years at Tech, having swum the 500 and 1650 Free as a freshman and sophomore.

Following Baron’s departure, Stu Wilson took the reigns in 2005. All of these years, Tech was a threat on the conference level. After Baron sent four to the NCAA meet in 2002, including Shilo Ayalon, who would go on to be named to the 2013 class of the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame, Wilson’s 2009 squad featured Ilia Ayzenshtik in the 100 and 200 Back, Noah Copeland in the 50, 100, and 200 Free, Gal Nevo in the 200 and 400 IM and 200 Breast, and Nigel Plummer, Mauricio Sousa, Garrett Robberson, and Sullivan Lynch in the 50 Free. Nevo represented Israel in three Olympic games - Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Rio de Janeiro 2016 - during and after his time at Tech. He is joined in the pantheon of Tech Olympians by Jorge Oliver, Leonardo Salinas, and Onur Uras, who all represented Tech in Athens in 2004, while Uras made another trip in 2008. Andrew Chetcuti would join this group when he represented Malta in 2012 and 2016.

Interestingly, the Tech women, a much newer bunch, have also had several Olympians. However, unlike the men, two of the three of them were Olympians before they got to the Flats. Vesna Stojanovska represented Macedonia in 2000 and 2004, and didn’t come to Atlanta until after that 2004 Olympic run, while Iris Wang competed for China in London despite being a few years out from the start of her college career.

Though Wilson left after the 2009 season, it’s worth noting that, since the high-water mark in the 2000s, though the women haven’t done much on the national stage, Tech has had a handful of seasons on the men’s side since then that were solid. In particular, the Tech tankmen did manage to notch a 24th place finish in 2019, building on a 2018 where they sent Iris Wang to the women’s NCAAs and four to the men’s NCAAs, Christian Ferraro, Matt Casillas, Moises Loschi, and Caio Pumpuitis. Though his career isnt done quite yet, it is abundantly clear that Pumputis is one of the best to ever swim at Georgia Tech. He was a three-time All-American at the 2019 NCAAs, the first Tech athlete to earn that distinction, and joins Gal Nevo as the only other man to win multiple events at the same ACC championship meet. Honestly, the conversation for Tech’s greatest of all time probably starts and ends with Pumputis and Nevo, pending what Pumputis does in his senior year on the Flats.

Nowadays, swimming has a pretty good gig. They practice and compete in a facility that is, by all accounts, one of, if not the finest in the nation. In 2022, it will once again host the NCAA championships for the men and women, having done the same in 2016. That same issue, the one of student fees paying for facilities, kind of pays of for the varsity team, who has preferential use of the facility. Their coach’s salary is endowed, and, once AI 2020 is complete, so all the scholarships will be, too. Their pool is in high demand as a host facility. By all accounts, they are set up to be as bottom-line friendly to the Athletic Association as any swimming program could possibly be. Will they suffer from a brief bought of non-existence ever again? That’s not for me to know or speculate on. But, their setup is about as good as it could be, and in these uncertain times, that’s about all you can dream for as a non-revenue sport.

As for the average Tech student for the almost fifty year span that drownproofing owned the fears and consciousness of the robust and the new to the pool alike, Bill Brockman again put it best, reminiscing that “whenever anybody asks me about my time at Tech, I say the most memorable experience was this 3 hour a week one credit class I took winter quarter of my sophomore year. 39 years later I can still see some parts vividly, for what that’s worth.” I think that’s about the ideal in what you can ask for from an experience.

Far from its days as a stressor, it’s a weird kind of irony to be nostalgic, wishing for it to come back. It’s less strange to opine for the heady days of the SEC champion swim teams.

I’m sure Crankshaft Lanoue would approve of both.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.


If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here.