Dedicated Kingsley coach pushes swimmers in and out of the pool - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "Dedicated Kingsley coach pushes swimmers in and out of the pool"
By Ellen Mitchell
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The waters of the Kingsley Community Center pool churn as more than 32 young swimmers race back and forth.
Standing at the edge of the pool, head coach Hosea Holder draws on his 45 years of experience molding young athletes into champions.
Dressed in a green polo shirt and hovering along the edges of the pool deck at the East Liberty community center, Holder, 74, bombards his swimmers with an endless stream of critiques: "Keep your body straight." "Come off the blocks harder." "Don't be afraid to put your face in the water."
Behind him, a dry-erase board bears three words and a question: "Participant, Competitor, Champion. Which one are you?"
"They all write their names under champion, but almost all should move their names to participant," Holder said about his swimmers, an indication of his high standards.
As the head coach of the Kingsley Stingrays, he trains boys and girls from the community, ages 6 to 18, making sure they live up to their highest potential -- in and out of the pool. His former swimmers have become nurses, teachers, lawyers and managers, and he takes pride in them all.
Chinnie Gregory, the mother of three boys who have swam under Holder for the last five years, said they have improved in school since working with Holder, and their attitudes have vastly changed.
"They believe they can overcome anything now," Gregory said. "Their mental development is beyond anything I could have imagined."
Gregory's sons, Norman, 13, Isaiah, 11, and Kilani, 8, all ranked in the top 10 in their events at a swim meet in North Carolina last month, where more than 800 swimmers competed.
"It's a no-brainer that we all love swimming with Coach Holder," Isaiah Gregory said. "Even though he's hard on us, he wants us to get it done and do it correctly."
Now in his 45th year as a coach, and sixth year with the Kingsley Stingrays, Holder is a full-time coach and is paid by the swimmers' parents.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1936, Holder moved with his family to Homewood in 1945. Taking up swimming in junior then in senior high school, he swam the breaststroke and individual medley at Westinghouse High School. After graduation in 1954, Holder enlisted in the Army.
From 1958 to 1960, Holder was based in Schweinfurt, Germany. While his fellow soldiers were happy to simply girl-watch at the city's Olympic-sized pool, Holder stole every moment he could to swim laps, sometimes for hours on end.
In the beginning
After returning home to Pittsburgh, he worked first as a janitor at the University of Pittsburgh, then as a part-time lifeguard at the Oliver Bath House in South Side in 1964. It was there that he began his coaching career in 1965, when a black swim coach was a rarity.
In March 1965, the Oliver Bath House director asked Holder to get some swimmers together to compete in the city's annual St. Patrick's Day meet. After Holder saw how well the other teams were put together, he decided to improve the program at the bath house and the team that later became the Three River Aquatics.
Holder started out slowly.
"If you had 15 kids come try out, you were lucky if more than three stayed," Holder said.
Though fees to swim on the team were modest, Holder said he had to pay for many kids out of his own pocket, covering their 75-cent memberships for the Amateur Athletic Union and the 25-cent fee to enter each child in a competitive event.
By 1968, his swimmers had become formidable competitors, one of whom in the 10-and-under category even broke two junior Olympic records in one week.
Holder said he endured a cold shoulder or two at meets because of his race. Once, when he went up to accept an award at a swim meet in Ohio in the 1970s, the woman passing out the trophies told him to give the award to the head swim coach. After he told her he was head of the team, she looked at him in disbelief.
At another event, two of Holder's 12-year-old boys kept pace with their 18-year-old competitors until the last 25 meters in an event usually swam by college students. He said the rumor was that he gave his swimmers pep pills, which was not true.
Other teams made racist remarks to his swimmers, he said, and there was snickering and laughter at their lack of nicer swimsuits.
"The opposing force has to accept that you won whether they like it or not," Holder said. "If you think I'm not as good, when my swimmers out swim yours, you have to accept it. It nullifies perceptions of races, of color."
His team -- once all-black -- today is about evenly divided between whites and blacks.
In the fall of 2000, the city pulled the pool permit from Three River Aquatics at the Oliver Bath House. Holder moved the team to the Kingsley Community Center in 2004, changing the name to the Kingsley Stingrays.
With all the technological distractions youths now face, Holder said the number of truly dedicated swimmers is dwindling.
"There is a different breed of swimmers today than there were in the 1960s," Holder said. "Swimmers then were dedicated and committed to swimming only. Now, kids have much more to distract them and other sports that take away from their focus. There's only a select few that'll be committed and dedicated completely."
Costs seem to be a major blow to his swim team, with a fee of $1.75 per person per event, and $60 for a Amateur Athletic Union card. Pool fees of $6,500 for 10 1/2 months indoors and $1,700 for eight weeks spent outdoors in the summer are split among team members. No companies sponsor the team, but Holder said he is always looking.
"The fees are low to make it more affordable, but many low-income families still complain," Holder said.
A swimmer under Holder for 18 years, Cheryl Washington, the aquatics manager at the Kingsley Center, said Holder was like a second dad to her.
"He's brought a lot to the team as far as values," Washington said. "He's helped turn a lot of lives around."
Though he has received offers over the years to coach other teams, Holder has refused to leave the Kingsley Community Center.
"By staying, I give people of low income an opportunity to swim under a great program," Holder said. "I do this for the love of the sport and the love of the kids. It's hard to pass the baton off."