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The History of Chapel Hill Youth Swimming – Part 2

The Chapel Hill Swim Club
by George Steel, with George Coxhead, Jr and Peter Barnes

The Chapel Hill Swim Club 50+ Anniversary

When was the Chapel Hill Swim Club formed? Photographs show the Chapel Hill Swim Club team as early as 1953.

Chapel Hill Swim Club - June 16, 1953
The Chapel Hill Swim Club, June 16, 1953.
Roland Giduz photographic collection, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

Chapel Hill Swim Club, August 9, 1959
The Chapel Hill Swim Club, August 9, 1955
Roland Giduz photographic collection, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

1961 – Chapel Hill Swim Club Re-organized, Re-energized Under New Leadership

In 1961 the parents of Chapel Hill re-organized and re-energized the Chapel Hill Swim Club under the leadership of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Clark of Chapel Hill, parents of 3 children on the team, Laura, Toolie, and Anne.

Dr. Clark was the board leader for most of those early years after the team was re-organized, although others also served. A key contributor was Martha McKee, whose son, Ken, and daughter, Kathy, were on the team. Ken was a high school All-American at Pine Crest (FL) and a college all-American at the University of Washington. Ken was probably the best swimmer to come out of the Chapel Hill Swim Club in the early years. Kathy has coached for 30 years -- most recently, in Charlotte.

The Chapel Hill YMCA Swim Club (CHYSC) traces its history to the CHSC. The CHYSC web site states that the CHYSC was originally formed in 1961 as the Chapel Hill Swim Club, “in coordination with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of an effort to provide a competitive swimming opportunity for young people in the greater Chapel Hill area.” On the back of the new CHYSC t-shirts is printed “Celebrating 50 Years of Swimming in Chapel Hill.”

Chapel Hill YMCA Swim Club Logo
Courtesy CHYST

For many Chapel Hill kids, the CHSC was a major part of their lives - indeed, perhaps the most important part of their lives! -- during the 1960s.

Making the Team

In the 1950s and into the mid1960s, the University provided free swim lessons to the boys and girls of Chapel Hill. Advanced swimmers were invited to CHSC try-outs conducted by UNC swim Coach Pat Earey in April and May. Then the big day came and you might start swimming with the CHSC “Junior team.”

I (GS) made the Junior team when I was 10 (1960). Occasionally, the Junior team practiced in a lake or swimming hole located outside of town. George Coxhead thinks it may have been the lake at Camp New Hope, the Presbyterian Church campground about 5 miles out on old highway 86. The Junior team would meet at the Woollen and then car pool out to the lake. The object was to build up our endurance. The challenge to the young swimmers was to swim all the way across the lake and back. Well, believing I one of the few who hadn’t accomplished this feat yet, one day when we were about to get out of the water and go home for the day, I decided that now was the time for me to take off and swim across that lake. The coach sent a couple of boys to pull me in, but I was determined to keep going. The coach called the boys back when he saw that I would almost rather drown than quit.

Chapel Hill Swim Club - Junior Team - 1960
The Chapel Hill Swim Club (Junior team), August 8, 1960
Front row, left: Max Scroggs. 2nd row, 3rd from right: Jimmy Blaine, George Steel, coach Charlie Jones
Roland Giduz photographic collection, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

Pool Passes

The University provided the CHSC its Bowman Gray and Kessing (Navy) pools at Woollen Gym for practice. However, unlike the free swim lessons sponsored by the University in the 1950s and 1960s, you had to buy a pool pass. To be eligible for a pool pass, your parent had to work at UNC in some capacity. My Mother had a staff job in the Southern Historical Collection in UNC’s Wilson Library. If your parent did not have a permanent job at UNC, some parents worked temporary jobs, for instance, at Student Registration in Woollen Gym, and so were eligible to buy a pool pass. Each year we worried that the University was going to tighten up eligibility requirements for a pool pass.

At first, then, Chapel Hill Swim Club membership was limited to kids with a parent who worked for UNC. As there were no other pools, not to mention swim teams in Chapel Hill at the time, this seems a shame for kids who could not get passes. We who were able to participate feel very fortunate.

Later, in 1968, the CHSC began renting space at the Chapel Hill Tennis Club, and thereby opened up eligibility for membership. In 1978, the team began renting space at the new Chapel Hill YMCA. In 1986, the CHSC officially merged with the YMCA and became the Chapel Hill YMCA Swim Club.

Coach Pat Earey

Coach Pat Earey - Chapel Hill Swim Team

Coach Earey was the UNC men’s swimming team coach for 17 years from 1957-1974. He was instrumental in the success of the Chapel Hill Swim Club. He was a key supporter of the team and helped in every way. Coach Earey arranged for some parents to work temp jobs at UNC Student Registration in Woollen Gym so that their children could be eligible for pool passes.

Coach Earey often coached the early morning practice, or he would bring in an assistant coach from the UNC swim team. There was Pepper Tice in 1960-1961, Bob Bilbro who coached in 1962-1963 (Lou Perlmutt called him Bill Bobro), and Mike Lawler in 1964. Other coaches were Chuck Wrye, Mike Koontz in 1967, and Frank Comfort in 1968.

Coach Earey's sons, Mike and Tom, swam when they were young, before turning to other sports. Mike was one of the team's best swimmers at ages 8-10 and 11-12, primarily as a backstroker. Mike later played basketball for Coach Dean Smith at UNC.

As far back as Junior team days, my (GS) strongest stroke was backstroke. And even though I was a year older than Mike, I never could beat him, whether in practice or in a meet. He was my chief rival on the team. I tried and tried; but I always came in second to Mike. When I turned 13 and moved into the 13-14 age group, Mike was 12 and in the 11-12 age group, and so I didn't have to compete against him that year. I knew though, that when he turned 13, I would go back to being second best. I was secretly relieved (forgive me, Lord) that he took up basketball instead.

UNC Swim Teams of the mid-1960s

UNC had powerful swim teams then. Under Coach Pat Earey, UNC won ACC titles in 1963 and 1964 with swimmers like Thompson Mann, 1964 Tokyo Olympics Gold Medalist and World Record Holder; Harrison Merrill, three-time All-America and seven individual ACC titles; Phil Riker, 1964 Olympic team member, six-time All-America and1966 NCAA winner of the 100-yard butterfly; and Pete Worthen, 1963 All-America. Beginning in 1965, Coach Earey permitted the best of the older CHSC swimmers to train with the UNC swimmers who stayed in Chapel Hill during the summer. All-America Jim Edwards -- who missed the 1964 Olympic team by 0.1 seconds in the 200 meter freestyle -- came to Chapel Hill in summer 1965 and was the best swimmer in the pool. For the young CHSC swimmers, it was magical to practice with Jim and the other UNC stars. I was thrilled when Thompson Mann showed me his backstroke technique and backstroke flip-turns.

Thompson Mann - UNC Swimmer Phil Riker - UNC Swimmer Harrison Merrill - UNC Swimmer
Thompson Mann Phil Riker Harrison Merrill

Peter Barnes remembers that Coach Earey coordinated a "swim show" in the Navy (outdoor) pool as part of the UNC graduation each year. There was a reception around the deck of the pool, and many of us on the swimming team would "perform" silly strokes, such as swimming one armed freestyle. This was a small way for us to say thank you back to Coach Earey, as well as to have fun.

From Peter and all of us, the CHSC could never thank Coach Earey enough; his kindness and the countless thousands of hours he contributed were vital to the team. Coach Earey continued to provide tremendous support even though his own sons moved on to other activities.

That voice you heard for so many years over the public address system announcing UNC football and basketball games was Coach Earey’s.

Coach Earey died in January, 2005 at age 82. 

AAU Swimmers

CHSC team members were card-carrying Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swimmers. Your AAU membership and card may have cost you $0.50 annually. We carried our AAU card in our wallet until it wore out. Now, USA Swimming is the governing body of the sport. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 removed the AAU from any governance role, and enabled the chartering of a national governing body for each sport, such as USA Swimming, or the United States Figure Skating Association.


With about 50 swimmers, the CHSC practiced in the Navy pool mornings at 6am or 8am, depending on what else might be going on. In the summer of 1964, we practiced after the Olympic hopefuls. The Navy pool was not heated. Everyone shivered in the early morning chill.

After morning practice, some of us rushed off to teach in the University-sponsored free swim lesson program. Or, we might go for something to eat at the Pine Room and be back for the “12-to-1” free swim. The team practiced again around 6pm.

Chapel Hill Swim Club Team 1963
The 1963 Chapel Hill Swim Club Team
(Left to right)
5th row: Ken Wilson, Robbie Hawkins, Cap Gentry, Ross Scroggs, Pete Sommerfeld, Louis Perlmutt, Bill Ritchie, George Adkins (Steel), Toolie Clark, Peter Barnes, Jack Spitznagel, Johnny Lindahl, Doug Wilson.
4th row: Chellie Martin, Jean Spitznagel, Anne Clark, Becky Fuller, Rebecca (Boo-ki) Whitaker, Linda Lindahl, Julianne Tenney, Laura Clark, Margaret Holman, Janet Kirkman, Kathy McKee, Anne Coxhead
3rd row: Henry Morrow, George Coxhead, Rob Ritchie, Bruce Calhoun, Eddie Barker, Cliff Kreps, Steve Bowden, Larry Lindahl, David Gentry, Dick Wilson
2nd row: Coach Bob Bilbro, (unkn), (unkn), (unkn), (unkn), (unkn), Peggy Spitznagel, Coach Chuck Wrye
1st row: Rick Parish, Dale Evert, (unkn), Arturo Reyes, Ken McKee, (unkn), David Kirkman, Fred Geer
Courtesy George Coxhead Jr.

The 1960s Swim Seasons

The Chapel Hill Swim Club was a summer team in those days; now most club teams are year-round. The first summer meet each year was the Raleigh Swim Association (RSA), short course yards meet.

Then followed the Eastern Invitational around the end of June at Lindley Park in Greensboro, hosted by the Greensboro Swimming Association (GSA). This was a huge meet, extending over 2 or 3 days. The meet attracted hundreds of swimmers from Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. In 2010, GSA hosted its 55th annual Eastern Regional.

Peter Barnes remembers that the finals of the Greensboro meet were televised beginning in the early 1960s, which was very novel. Pilot Life sponsored the meet and the TV broadcast. It was the first time most of us were on TV -- and people in Chapel Hill could see us, if they were not able to travel to Greensboro (and if Channel 2 reception was decent). The TV element made Greensboro even more special as a swim meet.

Then there was the Carolina AAU Swimming championship in High Point, NC, mid-July, in that big High Point pool.

We finished up with the Carolina Junior Olympics Long Course meet at Revolution Park pool in Charlotte, around the middle of August.

There were also meets in Shelby, Salisbury, Spartanburg, and even Columbia.
The CHSC had some great relays in those days, in all the age groups. Our boys team was usually battling for 1st, 2nd or 3rd at each meet with Johnston Memorial YMCA (JMY) of Charlotte, and Greensboro Swim Association (GSA). However, JMY was the State’s dominant team in the 1960s with Franke Ann Bell as Coach.

1962 Chapel Hill Weekly Newspaper Article on Swim Club
June, 1962 Chapel Hill Weekly newspaper article
Courtesy George Coxhead Jr.

Laura Clark

Laura Clark was one of the club's top athletes, as the above article relates. Laura won the Most Valuable Swimmer award in 1962, when she was 14.

The General Greene Motel

Below is an old-fashioned picture post card image of the General Greene Motel. The CHSC stayed overnight there in the mid-1960s during many of the Greensboro and High Point swim meets.

General Greene Motel, Greensboro NC
General Greene Motel, Greensboro, N.C.
On super highway U. S. 70 and 29 (3 miles southwest junction 220 and 421). 60 modern sound-proof air-conditioned rooms with free T.V. and phones. Combination tub and shower, wall-to-wall carpet. Conference room or apartment. Swimming pool. Howard Johnson's adjoins.

It was at the General Greene where my (GS) Mother, who was chaperoning one year, discovered me and a female team member (name withheld to protect the innocent) "in bed" one afternoon after trials. Actually, we were sitting on the bed together, against the backboard, while other swimmers were also in the room, watching TV. Boy, was she (my mother) fuming. Made us get up.

Chapel Hill Swim Club - 1966
The 1966 Chapel Hill Swim Club Team
(Left to right)
Back (5th) row: Doug Wilson, Peter Barnes, Cap Gentry, George Steel, Pete Sommerfeld, Johnny Lindahl, David Taylor, (unkn), Larry Lindahl, Dick Wilson, Henry Morrow
4th row: (unkn), Becky Fuller, Julianne Tenney, Kris Gentry, Marilyn Morris, Jean Spitznagel, Anne Geer, Peggy Spitznagel, Anne Coxhead, Margaret Warden.
3rd row: (unkn), George Coxhead, Tim Denny, (unkn), (unkn), Kathy McKee, Janet Kirkman, Linda Lindahl, (unkn), Fred Geer.
2nd row: Ken McKee, (unkn), Eddie Barker, David Kirkman, Dale Evert, David Gentry, Steve Bowden, Rick Parish, (unkn)
1st row: [younger] Bowden, (unkn), (unkn), (unkn), (unkn), (unkn), Janie Coxhead, [younger] Lindahl, (unkn)
Courtesy George Coxhead, Jr

Chapel Hill Swim Club - 1968
1968 Chapel Hill Swim Club Team
Courtesy George Coxhead, Jr

How It All Began

In the 1950s and 1960s, the University opened up its pools and facilities at Woollen Gym and provided free swim lessons to hundreds of Chapel Hill kids. There you find the beginning of what is now huge in Chapel Hill. In 1961, parents worked in cooperation with the University to re-organize the Chapel Hill Swim Club for the advanced boys and girls. Some great coaches became involved. The University let the CHSC use the Bowman Gray and Navy pools for practice at the cost of a pool pass.

Today, swimming facilities and programs are abundant in Chapel Hill. There are as many as 7 swim clubs. Swim lessons, lap swimming, water aerobics, competitive swimming, scuba training or just relaxation are all available.

And so, at a certain point in time, a great University and the parents and children of the town, came together and began a swim program that hundreds of kids enjoyed and benefitted from, and taught many of us a love of swimming that has lasted a lifetime.



Neal Furr      3:56 PM Wed 5/18/2011

George Coxhead was breaking state high school swimming records as a sophomore in 1967-68 - and was a good kid to boot!!

GLSteel      8:11 PM Thu 3/31/2011

Hi Karen - thanks for your comment. Yes, I still swim laps about 40 minutes 3 times a week. <br \>- George Steel <br \>

Karen Green      10:54 AM Fri 3/25/2011

Thanks so much for this article. I was not on the swim team, but learned to swim at the UNC pool like most other Chapel Hillians from my generation.<br \><br \>Do any of the authors of this piece still swim for exercise?

Logan Steel      6:19 PM Sun 3/20/2011

Hi, George.Great article. I attended<br \>UNC Chapel Hill in 1945 where I was a member of the U.S. Navy<br \>Pre-Flight School. It was there that I met your Mother. The Navy pool<br \>was constructed while I was there. After I was discharged from the Navy I returned to Chapel Hill to complete my college education <br \>I lived in Old East dorm at that time. I graduated from Chapel Hill in 1948. I worked in the Scuttlebut part time while I was there. I have fond memories of my days at Chapel Hill. Love, Dad.

Trish      1:56 PM Wed 3/16/2011

My mom thinks she paid $20 per child for the summer program.

Patricia Fields Neubert      1:47 PM Wed 3/16/2011

Oh, those swim lessons at five years old! Amazing that UNC allowed all the kids from town, taught by, as I recall, instructors who were, wait for it, big, full grown college students! From the locker room, you stepped through the foot-bath as you made your way into the indoor pool, which was divided in two sections by the &quot;trolls&#39; bridge.&quot; We started out on the street end, with kicking while seated (waiting for the latecomers), then hopped into the water and held on to the side, to kick some more while prone. Face in the water, gliding, kicking...the very height on my summer (except for Vacation Bible School at the University Baptist Church!) Then we were &quot;promoted&quot; to the deep end, and finally a jump off the one meter diving board. Then, we took lessons out in the outdoor pool! The smell, the wet towels, the flip-flops and after the lessons, the orange pop-ups or brown cow popsicles from the Scuttlebutt. To this day, I remember my spectacular slip while running on that poolside tile and my slide and crash right into the wall! I have been a lifelong swimmer, lifeguard, Arthritis Foundation pool instructor and I never, ever run poolside!

Griff Steel      12:41 PM Mon 3/14/2011

Great story on swimming. Memories of youth athletics last a lifetime, and sometime have an unexpected may of returning. Coming home from swimming at our local YMCA recently, my grandson cried reproachfully: &quot;PaPa, you&#39;ve been swimming! I can smell the pool!&quot; His acute nose picked up the smell of the chlorine. After a moment, I too could smell it faintly clinging to my clothes. That smell sent me back to Chapel Hill for a magic moment, and nearly to tears. Griff

Margaret Edwards      9:41 AM Mon 3/14/2011

I am fascinated by the two articles on Chapel Hill Youth Swimming. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana where the college swimming team was often ranked #1 in the nation, but I do not recall the university ever sponsoring any city-wide swimming programs for children. Were all children in Chapel Hill able to participate in this program, and what was the approximate cost to enroll a child? Finally is UNC still involved in any way in a Chapel Hill swimming program?

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