Big noise from Winnetka

A high school coach dedicated to order and discipline has the top swim team in the U.S.
April 03, 1961

The three boys were only 9 years old, but their tanned bodies looked strong and muscular as they crashed through 25 yards of the difficult butterfly stroke, arms flailing, red suits glistening. Hardly anyone in the crowded pool took notice of the unusual swimming ability of the little boys, however, for it was Wednesday night in Winnetka, Ill., and that means family night in the New Trier high school's huge, brightly lighted pool. It is a time to swim, not watch.

The time for watching would be later, when and if the boys earn places on the New Trier varsity swimming team. They will be worth watching, too, for New Trier not only has the best high school swimming team in America, it has the best high school swimming team in history. It is so good, in fact, that there are currently only three college teams in the entire country—the Olympic-seasoned squads from Indiana, Southern California and Michigan—capable of beating the high schoolers in a dual meet. Five New Trier seniors have posted times that would have placed them either first or second in last year's national collegiate championships. It is easy to understand why 24 college coaches, athletic scholarships in hand, attended a recent dual meet at New Trier.

Located among the meticulously landscaped homes of Winnetka, New Trier is a township high school supported by five villages along suburban Chicago's wealthy north shore. It elicits a collegelike loyalty from its alumni, who return year after year to the imposing red-brick school building which is itself like a compact college campus, having a separate wing for music, a separate wing for art, a completely equipped FM radio station which broadcasts seven hours a day to the Winnetka area, a plush new auditorium, an indoor track the same size as the one in Madison Square Garden and, of course, the swimming pool. Naturally, it is the biggest indoor pool in any high school in the country. Eight separate aquatic programs, of which the varsity is only one, keep the water rippling year round. The programs are coordinated by 35-year-old Dave Robertson, a swimming coach who abhors being called coach, preferring instead the title: Director of Swimming, New Trier Swimming Organization.

Peering through the large window that separates his tiny, pale-green office from the wide, spotless decks of the pool (it is absolutely forbidden for anyone wearing shoes to set foot on the deck), Robertson regards his aqueous world with the restless satisfaction of a man who has reached his goal early in life. His New Trier teams have won 10 state championships in his 15 years as coach. Speaking softly—he has to, because his voice is usually hoarse from teaching and coaching all day—he says: "I wanted this job when I was in high school. I've always known what I wanted. I want to run a program that's so good it'll infect the whole community."

To handle the huge teaching load for the high school and grammar school swimming programs, Robertson has an honor corps of 57 carefully chosen students called The New Trier Guard, which includes 25 girls. "They are fantastic teachers," says Robertson. "They come in here as sophs and juniors, and by golly if they don't turn out to be the top kids in their classes. Last year five of our senior girls had the five highest offices that girls can hold in the school." Honor notwithstanding, the fact that the girls who are Guards have the best chance to date the varsity swimmers does not hurt the program's desirability. "Oh, yes," acknowledges Robertson quickly, "the swimmers are the elite at New Trier, and the girls who are Guards get first chance to date them. They're assured of a successful social program."

Triangle factory

Robertson's remarkably efficient mass teaching techniques also provide a broad base of talent from which to choose his teams. He calls it "building a big triangle." (Rival coaches call it "a factory.") At the top of that triangle is his current team, the cream of the staggering total of 482 boys who tried out last fall. Robertson and his husky, crew-cut assistant, Ray Essick, keep 120 swimmers after the final cut. Four squads—freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity—are formed, and every boy competes in from eight to 20 meets per season. Like all Robertson operations, the team practices are masterpieces of organization. All administrative announcements are mimeographed and posted daily in a glass bulletin board outside the pool. A swimmer is about as likely to forget his own name as to forget to read that board.

Once the competitive season has started, Robertson spends little time on individual technique. "The main thing is condition," he says. "We just do basic things that we teach them way down at the beginning level. The rest is hard work and discipline."

And psychology. Robertson has been known to step to the microphone during an important meet and announce that so-and-so from New Trier would attempt to break a national record by swimming at such-and-such a pace. "That's just to add spectator interest," he says. Doesn't it also tend to unnerve an opponent? "Well, if it does, I can't help that. I'm not in this to inflate opponents." Every season starts with a big intra-squad meet, which unfailingly draws a capacity crowd of 1,800—as does every meet during the winterlong interscholastic season. Every swimmer competes in three races in the intra-squad meet, and that night a father-and-son banquet is held, where "I tell every parent what must be done to make his boy a swimmer." Twice a year, after dual meets, a "cocoa hour" is held at school, attended by at least 450 swimmers, parents and girl friends, and the season is climaxed by a huge banquet.

This year's New Trier team is clearly the best ever. It includes five seniors who have broken over half of the listed national high school records. Robertson attributes this team's particular success to the presence of one boy, Dale Kiefer, whose father Adolph was the Olympic backstroke champion in 1936. "Dale came to us as a completely polished swimmer," Robertson relates, "and his influence on the other boys was immediate. He was already a veteran who knew the value of things like summer training, and he was best of the group in every stroke. The result was that everyone on that freshman team set out to beat Dale in at least one event." Today the quiet, blond Kiefer is still the best all-round swimmer at New Trier, having just broken his own national record in the individual medley, that odd race which includes all four strokes—butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. But in the other events, the individual strokes, there is now someone else, someone who has succeeded in beating Dale Kiefer. Fred Schmidt has swum the 100-yard butterfly faster than the national collegiate record set by 1960 Olympic Champion Mike Troy. Roger Goettsche is a fraction shy of the NCAA backstroke mark. Dave Lyons has swum the freestyle sprints faster than last year's NCAA championship times. And Terry Townsend is currently just three-tenths of a second away from becoming the first high school swimmer to break four minutes in the 400-yard freestyle.

Man of distinction

Many people wonder why Robertson doesn't become a college coach. The answer is not complicated. "With all the swimming programs I run, plus my teaching salary, I earn more than some Big Ten football coaches." And he enjoys being recognized as a civic leader, a man of importance in the community.

Last month he was so besieged with ticket requests during the week the state high school swimming championships were held at New Trier that the school switchboard operator had to tactfully ward off ticket seekers. The meet was broadcast but enthusiasts not content to hear it on the radio appeared outside the pool offering as much as $10 for one ticket. There were no takers. Inside, a small pep band played Dixieland, banners waved, cheers resounded, and the New Trier swimmers came through like bona fide champions to win the meet with a record point total. Their performance was so impressive that 14 of them are traveling to New Haven this weekend for a head-on meeting with the big boys in the AAU championships at Yale.

Even as they exulted in victory, the nation's best high school swimmers paid attention to their coach and assembled in their locker room to hear a prayer of thanks. Then the swimmers headed home as Dave Robertson manfully tried to overlook a shoe-scuff mark that had somehow violated the pool deck. He leaned forward against his desk, gazed through his big window at the shimmering water and slowly shook his head from side to side. "I love to win," he said softly.