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MOUNT DESERT — Swimming is an individual event.
Mount Desert Island’s legendary swim coach Lenny DeMuro made it a team sport and more.
He made it a community sport.
Lenny’s legacy was the focus of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, which hosted a gathering June 6 at the Somesville firehouse to explore Lenny’s effect on Mount Desert Island.
The swimming program on Mount Desert Island is the largest continual youth sport on the island. The MDI YMCA Sharks formally came into being in 1974. Since then the Sharks have practiced virtually year round, taking roughly a month off in the spring. The program now boasts nearly a hundred athletes, one of the largest such programs in the state from one of the smallest population draws of all of Maine’s competitive swimming programs.
The high school swim team at Mount Desert Island High School also has seen its share of achievement. The resounding success of the swim program is due to the efforts of Lenny.
The girls’ team won the state Class B championships in 1982 and 1989, with several Penobscot Valley Conference (PVC) championships as well. The Trojan boys’ high school swim team won six straight Class B state championships from 2004 to 2009, with numerous PVC championships as well. Many other successes, including the Olympic Trial performance of Sharks Bruce Crock, are feathers in the cap of MDI swimming.
A panel of swimmers from various time frames of the 30-plus years of Lenny’s involvement with the sport, including his son and current MDI High School swim coach Tony DeMuro, convened to discuss what he did to make the sport so special and how he managed to draw so many stellar performances from his athletes.
Before his athletes got a chance to speak their pieces, Lenny outlined his personal history before his involvement with swimming. With his usual panache, he took the crowd through his youth on MDI, including how he first became involved with the MDI YMCA by getting repeatedly kicked out because he didn’t have a membership.
He ended up getting a scholarship for a membership. “It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Lenny said.
Lenny ended up getting a scholarship to play football at Bowdoin College. “At some point in the college career I discovered that there was a swimming requirement to graduate from Bowdoin College. “I tried to swim to a float where we lived on the farm in northern Maine, and if it weren’t for some brave soul, a friend of my sister, saving me, I wouldn’t be here today.”
After six weeks of swim lessons from Bowdoin swim coach and basketball buddy Charlie Butt, Lenny learned to swim and passed the requirement.
The sport called Lenny in once again through his daughter, Debbie, who wanted to join the MDI YMCA swim squad because a friend of hers was on the team. This got Lenny involved with the YMCA as a volunteer, which in turn led to him becoming the executive director of the Y. “Because I was the only one who knew how to turn the lights on,” Lenny recalled.
After Harlow Cameron left his job as the MDI YMCA swim coach, Lenny tried to find a replacement but it ended up in his lap.
Bribery, something Lenny refers to as the “carrot,” was crucial in getting kids out for the swim team. After he and MDI High School swim coach Mac Dow came up with the name Sharks, Lenny had T-shirts made and went recruiting at Emerson School in Bar Harbor. “I went in and said, ‘If you come out and try swimming and swim for a month, I will give you one of these T-shirts.’ Apparently T-shirts were big back in 1974 because 84 kids showed up,” Lenny said. “At the end of the season there were 80 of the 84 kids on the team. And the rest is history.”
The pairing of Lenny with swimming proved to be successful almost immediately. “Amy Allen, Ginny Kozak, Suzy Chaplin, Nora Holloway, and Jessica Moore broke or tied five state record in the first four months of my coaching career,” Lenny said. “So I thought, ‘I am pretty good at this.’”
Lenny didn’t know much about the sport of swimming but a gift from swim parent Lucy MacQuinn turned out to be the key that opened the door to the future. The book was “The Science of Swimming” by Indiana University swim coach James “Doc” Counsilman. It cost Ms. MacQuinn a quarter at a yard sale. “I made a pledge that every night before I went to bed, I would read something about swimming,” said Lenny. “Either a swim magazine or in that book.”
Amy Allen was one of the initial wave of swimmers to go through the swimming program under Lenny’ guidance. One of the first things she mentioned during Sunday’s talk was a thanks to Lenny’s children Debbie, Steven, and Tony, for sharing their father with not only her, but also hundreds of other kids.
Lenny was loud. “When he yelled you kind of felt like he was hugging you at the same time. Every one of those 80 kids mattered to Lenny.”
Ms. Allen told a story about one meet in which some thrown goggles caused three disqualifications, nearly costing the Sharks their ranking. Lenny was, in his inimitable way, scolding the athletes involved when a parent from the opposing team hollered at Lenny, “Stop yelling at those kids.” At that point one of the kids getting yelled at said back, “ He can yell at us any time he wants to.”
Lenny’s intensity was infectious. “I think we were terrifying for the teachers. “We came in to school with hair frozen or sticking straight up in the air with bloodshot eyes after morning practice,” Ms. Allen said.
The travel was a big “carrot” factor for the swimmers. The swim team went to places that no other teams got to go. The Sharks went to Harvard University; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Providence, R.I.; with trips to Portland, Bath, Augusta, and other southern Maine cities being commonplace. “From this little town in Maine, he made the world so much smaller for us. We were so fortunate to get those opportunities.” Ms. Allen said.
Lenny always looked for the most economical way to get things accomplished. “We didn’t have any money so we went by hook or by crook. We would swim at the Portland Y and sleep in their gym and swim Bath the next day. We slept in people’s backyards,” said Ms. Allen. “We would sleep in hotels sometimes. There would be four to a room when we checked in. After that we would pile a bunch more people in.”
A swimmer from the next generation, J.J. Smith, was transfixed from the beginning.
“There was no escaping Lenny’s voice. There was something magnetic about it. Whenever you heard that voice you knew something exciting was going to happen,” Ms. Smith said. “So I couldn’t wait to get on the swim team. Right in the beginning I was hooked on the fun.”
It was never all about swimming, according to Ms. Smith. “It was about the experiences we all had together. There were always movies, waterslides, or something else really fun,” she said.
The experiences went even deeper. “For me the life lessons, there were so many,” Ms. Smith said. “The important things I took away from Lenny was how to be a better person, how to interact with others, and how to behave.”
Lenny always held the swimmers to a high standard of conduct.
“There were kids that would finish their race with a bad time and slap the water. There wasn’t going to be any of that on our team,” Ms. Smith said. “If you did that on our team, bad things would happen. We didn’t even think of bad sportsmanship. We were always taught to be gracious and humble. It was all about doing the best we could.”
Another swimmer along Lenny’s timeline was David Blaney. The sport was unforgiving but the coach was not.
“It was a pretty tough learning curve at first,” Mr. Blaney said. “Lenny didn’t seem to care that I didn’t put my face in the water.”
Lenny’s son Tony has taken up the coaching torch for the family. He stated that it was as much what Lenny did outside the pool as much as what he did in the pool that inspired three decades of swimming success.
“It was about the fundamental things in life. Work hard, be dedicated and have fun doing what you are doing. A lot of the reason we have had the success we have had is that our kids work harder than most other kids,” Tony said. “Why did our kids work harder? If we went to morning swim we could go to Florida. We got to go to New England’s at Brown. It was all so fun.”
Swimming for Lenny helped build confidence in Sharks members. “We were always good sports, but we had a swagger. We knew that we were having more fun than other teams. When we walked into a place people would check us out because we were hanging out with dad and he was like that,” said Tony. “He was the one making us sing ‘Born to be Wild’ the whole way down to the meet. We would get off the bus singing, swinging our bags around, goofing around, go in kick their butts, say thank you and leave. Other teams were like, ‘Who are these people?’”
After the meet, the team would get right back to the dry land fun. “We would get to the first red light and we would do a Chinese fire drill with 44 kids running around a school bus,” Tony said. “You just can’t do that stuff anymore.”
These types of shenanigans are just the kind of thing kids are drawn to. “That stuff is contagious. It is even more fun when you are swimming fast,” said Tony. “It makes you hungry. You look forward to it. It is not a fun sport. It is hard work. But that is not where the fun is. It was at the waterslides.”
Lenny still seems somewhat miffed as to how the success story began.
“I was a never a champion anything. It is kind of strange that all of these kids thought “Oh wow, when you were a great young athlete.’ I was never a great young athlete,” Lenny said. I was never really very good at anything. But I had great empathy.”
“People want to relate my coaching swimming to my success. Truthfully, the way I relate to swimming is that it is a no-cut sport. As long as they tried, they would make the team,” Lenny said. “Kids that couldn’t walk and chew gum became stars after a few years with tons of hard work. For me that was what it was all about.”
Jeff Walls swam for Lenny Demuro as a youngster.