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William Penn's swimming program ended but left behind successful legacy

It's one of those moments that has stuck with him — even after 45 years. Bob Sahms can recall being a William Penn High School swimmer when it almost all fell apart.

His Bearcats actually trailed Manheim Township in a boys' swimming meet in the late 1960s.

It was just a dual meet, but understand the Bearcats didn't lose in swimming. Some years, no team in Pennsylvania could beat William Penn. And if the Bearcats did lose, it typically came at the hands of elite prep schools such as The Hill School (current annual tuition, room and board $53,500) and Mercersburg Academy (current annual tuition, room and board $52,700).

Sahms remembers Manheim Township supporters and swimmers taking notice of their lead. It had mighty William Penn down to the last race. It might just pull out the impossible and beat the Bearcats.

"What seemed like 50,000 people, all cheering," Sahms remembered.

And then it happened. Of course it happened. William Penn scored a come-from-behind victory to win the race and the meet.

"That silenced all of them," Sahms said. "It was something to watch: The change."

William Penn has been called a basketball school, with no other boys' team in the YAIAA topping its 12 district titles.

Yet, William Penn swimming is the unapproachable program. It remains the most decorated high school program in York County history, winning 31 district team titles, 16 state team titles and 63 state gold medals as individuals or relay teams. William Penn swimmers have been responsible for setting or tying 27 state records.

"We were the best," 1961 William Penn graduate Dick Fogle said.

Eventually it all ended.

The team folded.

The pool was drained.

And dust and tarnish now gather on all those trophies at William Penn, forgotten teams from a forgotten time.

• • •

The Bearcats formed their first swimming team in 1935, the year the PIAA sanctioned the sport. William Penn went on to win 19 consecutive District 3 championships. It won 11 of the state's first 24 state team titles.

Yet it had more than just team success.

William Penn swimmers won at least one gold medal at the state championships every single season from 1938 through 1948 and again from 1950 through 1969. By 1950, William Penn swimmers owned four state records in the seven events.

A five-time state champion, Bill Schmidt swam at the Olympic Trials; Bob Sohl, who transferred to Mercersburg Academy after his sophomore season at William Penn, won a bronze medal at the 1948 Olympics.

And a question always creeps up: Why did all this success happen in York?

"There was a gentleman by the name of John deBarbadillo," Fogle said. "He was the reason we were so good, yet he never coached at the high school."

William Penn benefitted from a close relationship with the York YMCA and specifically the involvement of deBarbadillo, who started a Learn to Swim Drive at the Y in 1929. Thousands learned how to swim under deBarbadillo during a 45-year career as an instructor at the York YMCA. He retired from the YMCA in 1974, but he remained active in the swimming community until his death at age 91 on Thanksgiving in 2000.

After learning how to swim, youngsters who joined the age-group program would be placed on balanced teams that changed every year. So swimmers competed with and against each other for years — sometimes for a decade.

"First of all it was year-round swimming, and at that time it was the only team, the only pool around," Central York swimming coach and 1966 William Penn graduate Jim Gingerich said. "And in the summer time, it was a common practice for us to have three workouts a day. It was just something we all did. Our parents would come and socialize."

If swimmers stayed with the program, they swam for the Bearcats.

"It was a great program and a great social environment," said former York YMCA swimmer Bill Barber, who went on to play basketball at Stanford University. "The Y was a focal point in the community."

It was a feeder program unlike any other. After swimmers advanced through the program, they would often return as adults to coach.

"It was like a religion," Fogle said.

Still, someone had to recruit the next generation. For that, deBarbadillo was the man.

• • •

It's a memory. More than half a century old.

DeBarbadillo entered an elementary school classroom to talk to children about learning how to swim. At the end of the talk, one of the children asked a question.

Ronn Jenkins doesn't remember what he asked. He doesn't remember the answer. He just remembers the feeling ... of being welcomed.

"He seemed so engaging, so cordial, so warm," Jenkins said.

DeBarbadillo seemed to start it all.

He was a high school dropout. A student who left William Penn after his junior year. Still, he had taught himself how to swim in the Codorus Creek. As an adult, he was unparalleled in his success as a swim coach. He could teach dozens of children at different levels all at the same time at the York YMCA pool located at the corner of Philadelphia and Newberry streets.

Jenkins, a 1961 graduate, recalled that deBarbadillo positioned new swimmers in the shallow end. Intermediate swimmers were grouped along the sides, and the more advanced swimmers went in the deep end under the diving boards. DeBarbadillo shouted directions from the pool deck at all three groups.

"Now that I think back, I don't know how he did it," said Jenkins, who has coached diving at Bucknell and West Chester universities.

"He had the keen eye of recognition, he could look at you and tell not only whether you were a swimmer or diver but also what strokes you could swim," Jenkins said.

DeBarbadillo's involvement at the Y directly affected William Penn, because the school and the York YMCA were linked from the start. When the Bearcats — or Blue and Orange as they were called in newspapers in the 1930s — started a swimming program, all home meets were held at the York YMCA pool. It remained that way for more than 20 years, until the team switched to the YWCA pool.

After losing the state championship to William Penn in 1939, Allentown filed a protest. It noted William Penn swimmers competed before the PIAA season as York YMCA swimmers. Not illegal under PIAA rules, the Bearcats kept their state title, and William Penn and the Y remained linked. Decades before club swimming became commonplace, William Penn already had a connection to year-round training.

In terms of coaching, the connection with the YMCA was also key, because deBarbadillo offered technical help for young swimmers while the high school coaching staff offered cutting-edge training.

"John became somewhat of a unique swimming coach because he began looking at strokes and mechanics before most," said Tom Schaeberle, a state champion in record time in the 100-yard breaststroke for the 1969 William Penn team.

Bill Schmidt is a name numerous swimmers from the '50s and '60s mention as a guiding force or mentor. A 1942 graduate of William Penn, he broke and then re-established the nation's fastest high school time in the 100-yard breaststroke in consecutive seasons. He left high school with five state gold medals, including swimming the anchor leg on a pair of state-winning relay teams that also posted the nation's fastest times. He returned as an assistant coach to his alma mater in 1955 and was named head coach for the 1963-64 season. Moreover, he was hands on. Sahms can remember Schmidt donning a diver's mask so he could observe Sahms swim from an underwater angle, allowing him to surface and offer tips on correcting a stroke.

"Bill Schmidt brought a lot more science to our training," Schaeberle said. "That's the perfect storm, technique and training.

"When I went to Maryland in 1969 we were one of best teams in the ACC and one of the best teams in country, but what was disappointing is we didn't get the same training that we did at York High."

• • •

Leave it to an outsider to explain what made York special.

Even now, more than 50 years after Dick Guyer first witnessed all that greatness on a pool deck in the 1960s, the retired York Suburban swim coach can rattle off half a dozen names of otherwise long-forgotten York swimmers.

He can recall their names, their events ... even their form.

"Bill Groft had a flutter kick like an Evinrude outboard motor, I can still see it," Guyer said about the six-time state champion who graduated from William Penn in 1963. "It was like a huge fan behind his feet."

Looking at York from afar, he thought he had found swimming nirvana.

"I was a YMCA swimmer, and I used to go to the YMCA state championships," said Guyer, who grew up in Huntingdon County. "As a kid I just marveled at all those swimmers from York.

"I can remember telling my dad if I ever get a chance to go to York, that's where I want to be. York was the swimming capital of the world. ... The reason why I came to York was that very reputation."

Guyer made it happen, accepting his first teaching job at York Suburban in 1968, where he built a winning program of his own. His Trojans won three consecutive state titles, and his squads also finished second in the state four times. His program stood out.

Still, what he and Suburban accomplished pales in comparison to what William Penn did. Few programs in the state, or even the nation, could match the success of William Penn High School.

Yet it no longer exists.

• • •

The pool is an oversized storage shed now. The old home of the most storied high school sports program in York County sits as a reminder of what can happen. All those state titles. All those swimmers who went on to Division I college careers.

Just dust now.

Ladders, chairs and boxes sit scattered around William Penn's empty pool.

The school didn't have a state champion after two individual winners and one relay team won gold in 1969. Girls' swimming arrived at the state level in 1973, but at William Penn it never reached the heights of the boys' team. William Penn hosted the District 3 championships at its six-lane pool in 1979. What would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, happened: William Penn didn't crown a single champion.

William Penn hosted the York-Adams championship league meet as recently as 2008, but the school folded its team after the 2011-12 season.

"The late 1960s was a heyday, but it started to tail off in the '70s until when we closed the pool," William Penn athletic director Joe Chiodi said. "We just didn't have many interested students, but that is what's going on today with every sport, it seems, except basketball. You just have trouble getting kids to come out for sports."

More and more schools in York County built swimming programs, so William Penn no longer attracted students that otherwise would have been Bearcats. And more and more swimmers began year-round training. Even though it had individuals place in the top three in the state, William Penn never again had a run of state champions. By the end of the 1970s, York Suburban had surpassed William Penn as the top program in the county.

In its final decade as a team, William Penn began a co-op with York Country Day and York Catholic to help bolster participation numbers. The program still lacked big numbers, but it attracted NCAA Division I-caliber swimmers such as Morgan Pfaff, who went on to swim at Red Lion for three seasons before starting a record-setting career at Rutgers.

Built in 1972, the William Penn pool began to have issues. It had a leak and needed water added on a weekly basis. Without the funds needed for repairs, the school closed the pool and shuttered the program.

"It would have cost $100,000 to $150,000 to repair it," Chiodi said about the 2011-12 status of the pool. "Right now, it would cost about $1 million."

To some, the demise of the William Penn swimming program is nothing more than just a case of black and white. Swimming at William Penn had been a sport with predominantly white participants. Through the years, the demographics at William Penn shifted from predominantly white students to predominantly minority students. The Pennsylvania School Performance Profile details William Penn's enrollment of 876 students in 2013-14 as comprised of just over 42 percent Hispanic students, just under 42 percent African American students and just under 14 percent white students.

Race, however, or an inner-city environment is not the problem, alumni said.

"Water is water," Jenkins said. "What they need is a commitment of coaches and mentors. I fell into a wealth of mentors. ... They were there for the passion of the sport."

Support would need to be there, from the community and from its coaching staff.

"I wouldn't see why they couldn't have a team, but in order to do that you need the pool," said Sahms, who coaches high school swimming in Rhode Island. "Then again, we were an inner-city team, and we didn't have a pool (at the school). More effort would be needed, but it can be done."

Jenkins grew up in a different York. He graduated three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and eight years before racial tension in York eventually escalated into a race riot in July 1969. He experienced racism in York and on the road with the team. He was jumped by a group of white people and told to stay away from the Y as a youth, and he was temporarily barred from a pool in Virginia because of the color of his skin. Both times coaches stepped in on his behalf, standing up for him or encouraging him to continue in the sport.

Despite the hardships, Jenkins succeeded, winning titles as a diver in college and becoming a nationally respected coach and judge in diving after his athletic career ended. He says William Penn could still field a team.

The program was led by a steady stream of dynamic coaches during its best years. In the later years of the program, William Penn no longer had a feeder connection with the Y. William Penn also lacked a dynamic personality at the top of the program. It found out how important it was to have a coach who was in the Pennsylvania State Swimming Hall of Fame.

"Yes, the demographics changed, but they did not get a Bill Schmidt ... or a Dick Guyer," Jenkins said.

And the team died.

It's not alone. During the last decade William Penn folded its teams for baseball, wrestling, soccer and several other athletic programs.

• • •

The swimming program collapsed, but in a way it still lives on. Not in record-breaking times and not at the high school where those swimmers earned their degrees, but it lives on in coaches around the region.

William Penn succeeded in part because its star swimmers would return to teach the next generation. That type of rebirth spread outside the walls of William Penn High School.

Donald "Irish" McCloskey (Class of 1945) won a pair of state titles in the backstroke at William Penn. After swimming at Oklahoma, he started the York Suburban program in 1958.

Gingerich (Class of 1966) returned to coach several programs in the area, including Central York where he remains the head coach.

Tom Schaeberle (Class of 1969) started the West York swimming program in the 1996-97 school year.

Other William Penn swimmers became high school coaches outside the state, still others coached at the youth level or college level. It's a contribution to the sport that's not forgotten.

"That was just an absolute shame (when William Penn's team folded), because I thought maybe there would be a chance for it to start up again," Guyer said, "but there just didn't seem to be an interest to continue the program. I'm just forever grateful they were the model."

Contact Jim Seip at 771-2025.