By Jon Baker, Woonsocket Call Writer
North Providence, R.I. – As a youngster representing the formerly-renowned Little Rhody Aquatic Club, which used to be housed at Brown University's old Smith Swimming Center, Paul Phillips found what he called a fascinating way to pass the time while waiting for him mom to pick him up from practice.
He'd climb the stairs from the pool deck to the main foyer and would read the biographies of the many distinguished members of the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame.
"I used to study the plaques, and I found all of that information so interesting," he said. "The swimmers, the coaches, the lifeguards, their achievements were amazing. I was, like, 10-13 at the time, but those people were my heroes."
It never dawned on Phillips that he someday would become an inductee, but that's just what will happen when HOF officials conduct their annual banquet/fete on Saturday, May 9 at Quindenessett Country Club in North Kingstown.
The former All-Stater from North Providence and current Clark University men's and women's swimming coach will join five others as the Class of 2015. Phillips, 41, remains floored by the honor.
"My old coach at North Providence, Barry Fontaine, called me a couple of months ago to tell me," he said. "About two years ago Vic Bevilacqua had brought up the subject and I scoffed at it. I told him about how I used to read those plaques and said, 'Vic, no way! I don't deserve it. I don't see myself at that level. No. 1, I know someone who is more deserving."
Not surprisingly, it was one of his first coaches, Beverly Bloomer of the Boys & Girls Club of Cumberland/Lincoln Penguins. "Bev wasn't in the Hall of Fame up to that point, but I know she deserved it."
"I told Vic I wanted to nominate her. After all, here was a woman who had taught thousands of kids how to swim, and she was the main reason behind the Penguins success (in youth leagues). "Then again, there were others like Bruce Calvert (former Cumberland High Aquatic Director); Marie Walsh (who mentored dozens of swimmers while at Sher-Le-Mon); Glenn Ginish and Tom DiIorio (ex-BGCCL coaches). The list goes on.
"When Barry called me, he left me a message (about the induction) because I wasn't there (at Clark)," he said. "I received the news and called him back, saying, 'I don't know about this.' But our conversation made me realize this would be an opportunity to express my gratitude to all the people who supported me as a swimmer and also thank the hundreds of kids who swam their hearts out for me when I was coaching them."
If that's not humility, what is?
He finally acquiesced, he laughed, when Fontaine told him the laurel was already given.
"I just feel people in life aren't often given a platform to thank all of the folks who contributed to their success, become the person they are, and I'm embracing this," he said solemnly. "For me, my mom (JoAnn) is No. 1 because she is the one who drove us all around New England to various meets in the winter when I was young. She didn't have to do it, but did it anyway. As a coach, I've realized what a commitment it was to work all week, then spend your free time driving all over the place," he continued. "She had to sit in the stands in 90-degree heat and watch her kids swim.
"We didn't have a lot of money back then, so Mom would prepare all of our food for us kids beforehand. I can't imagine why she'd do all that, but I appreciate it now."
Truth be told, Phillips became a coach more or less on whim, but it started when his mom introduced him to competitive swimming as a tiny eight-year-old.
She brought him to the MacColl Field YMCA – then merely a summer camp – to represent the Fuller Pool Stingrays, then under the tutelage of Kevin Salisbury, during the summer of 1981.
Not long after, she registered him to swim for the then-Cumberland/Lincoln Boys Club during the winter and early spring months.
He competed for the Stingrays until he reached 16, yet – in the interim – he had moved from the Penguins to Little Rhody; there he trained under such famed are mentors (and HOF inductees) John O'Neill of Cumberland; Ken Reall of Lincoln (for decades East Providence High coach); and Fontaine.
Once Phillips, quickly making a name for himself as a premier age-group butterflyer/freestyler, became a student at North Providence High, he also swam for the East Providence High Boys Club under – who else? – Salisbury.
What happened then had historical significance in his hometown; in 1988, officials built a beautiful-designed six lane, 25-meter pool t the site of the old hockey rink.
"That happened right before my freshman year; I had been at PCD for the seventh and eighth grades before that," he recalled. "Barry Fontaine had become the aquatic director, and that gave me and my family the opportunity to try to get a swim team going at the high school.
"We petitioned the town, my mom and other parents; until that pool was built, there was no swimming in North Providence. Kids had to go to other towns, but once it opened, Barry begn swim lessons for youngsters, and we eventually got the OK to start a team.
As (NPHS) students, it was mandatory for us to have gym classes at the pool for a quarter, and Barry and I would see some them swim, so we started plucking them out of the water," he added. "We'd say, 'Hey, you're pretty good! You should join our swim team!' They came from all corners of the school, all facets of the student population."
While a Cougar, Phillips starred, but he spent as much time working with less-experienced teammates as he did training. He became sort of a swimmer/assistant coach under Fontaine, just as the ;atter had requested.
As a senior, Phillips earned All-State honors after recording the state's fastest 100-yard butterfly time (55.85) at the 1991 Rhode Island Championship trials. He nevertheless disappointed himself during the finals, mustering second.
"I swam a rotten race," he laughed. You know, to this day, I coach kids saying,'Here's not what to do when you're competing,' and I bring up that race."
Upon graduation, Phillips furthered his academic and swimming careers at Brandeis University, and excelled at both.
Competing in the 100- and 200-yard butterflies, he became one of the school's supreme aquamen, eventually setting school records in a pair of relays during his four-year stint. He also became a team captain as a senior and also played varsity baseball for the Judges.
Yet it was by accident that he ended up coaching his favorite sport and it started a few years after he earned his Bachelor's in Philosophy in 1995.
"At the time, I wanted a job in music because my parents were musicians, and I loved playing the bass," Phillips said of that summer day in 1998. "Anyway, a buddy and I were driving up Route 146 and his muffler fell off right near Breakneck Hill Road. We pulled into the MacColl Field Y parking lot because I used to swim there, and I knew I could use the phone.
"We went into the office and who did I see sitting there? Rob Pacitti, an old teammate," he continued. "All of sudden, he asked me if I had done any coaching and I told him I had a little with the New England Barracudas, and at Weston High School's pre-season camp. Pete Foley's the one who gave me that job. Rob took my number, called me a couple of days later, I interviewed for the job and became the next coach of my old team, the Fuller Stingrays."
Within the span of six months, he also landed the head coaching positons with the BGCCL Penguins and Lincoln High. With the former, he needed about three years to double the amount of age-group swimmers within the program, and coached them to four straight RIMA League crowns.
"I was able to coach them all because they were in different season with different practice times," he said. "I did them all for five years. I have to say, it was tough (financially); I made $400 a month at Cumberland/Lincoln, but, because the team grew, (current club Athletic Director) Craig Bloomer hired me as the assistant aquatic director."
He admitted he adored each job, but truly reveled in mentoring the LHS squads.
"Little did I know the kind of talent I was about to receive, and they all came up through the boys and girls club," he claimed. "There was all at once as freshmen – Daisy Maher, Emily Catallozzi, Caitlyn Coulombe, Liz Carlson and a great breasstroker named Angie Bonin.
"We also had a ton of depth," he added.
"Following them by two years was Laura Ginish, but I already had her brother Glenn, Tom Robertson, Jeremy and Jake Sullivan, Brandon Beauchemin. It was incredible."
Beginning in 2000, some of those Lions and more racked up enough points to earn the state Class B Co-Ed championship; and from 2001-03, the female contingent claimed three straight Rhode Island titles, in part to triumphant relays.
"In 2002, the boys won the 200-yard freestyle relay," he said. "It was the first time any team had ever beaten Hendricken in that event."
What he didn't mention was the male Lions held the position of the top R.I. public school contingent in that three-year span.
"I was just fortunate to have the chance to coach all of that talent," he indicated. "Still, I'd like to thank that it wasn't just their speed but the way we did things. I coached then the same way I do now. None of the philosophies I used when it comes to coaching have changed much from the first two years. It's all about the experience of representing a team, being part of a family, having fun. I was never much into over-distance training (where swimmers will log 15-18,000 yards per day, which adds up to between eight to 11 miles); I was always into quality-based training after the conditioning phase," he continued. "With me, it was all about team-building, confidence-building.
"It was the whole idea of embracing the team aspect; that is, valuing each other regardless of talent, caring about how their teammates did and having fun. That's what helps you swim faster. That's whay people like Barry, Craig Bloomer and Tom DiIorio taught me when I was swimming for the Penguins and at North Providence.
"Those were the folks instrumental in my career. They were 'people people,' if that makes any sense, more than anything. People come first, not times."
Because of his success at those levels, Phillips later found himself in line to take over the reins at Clark University in Worcester. But, again, it had more to do with his knack to not only challenge his swimmers, but also pull them together as one.
"The assistant athletic director, Karen Farrell, and I went to college together," he said softly. "I knew that when you hire for a college job, they're looking for collegiate experience, and I didn't have any. What I think helped is I had always been a head coach, never an assistant. We had that connection from Brandeis, and she told me she thought I knew how to lead. I don't know, but I got the job; that was in the summer of 2003."
Phillips remains there. During that time, his women's squad collected two program-best finishes at the New England Women's And Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) and he has mentored dozens of All-Conference swimmers and NCAA qualifiers.
For his coaching abilities, he was named the NEWMAC Men's Swimming Coach of the Year in 2011, a year after winning the women's version.
"I think another reason I ended up here was that Kevin Salisbury spent ten years at Clark," he joked. "When I graduated high school, he had left the EP Boys and Girls Club to come here, and he built a tremendous legacy here. When I took over, there were 12 people on the teams combined."
Like he had at North Providence, and again with the Cumberland/Lincoln Penguins, Phillips rebuilt the program. "I literally taught college women how to do the crawl stroke, but it was just so we could put a roster together; that would attract more swimmers," he said. "In 2009, the Clark women achieved its highest-ever finish at the NEWMACs (fifth) and the following year we were fifth again but scored 100 more points.
"Between 2009-12, we had sort of a renaissance here," he added. "We had a six-time (NCAA Division III) All-American diver but I didn't coach her, and Ryan Garr was a two-time All-American in the 100 and 200 backstrokes.
"Like I said, my coaching philosophy hasn't changed much. It's only to build a team of people who care about each other and value each other's contributions regardless of speed. When you have that, swimmers work harder as a group because they don't want to let their teammates down.
"It's overused in sports, but it is about building a family unit. Especially here at Clark, given it's a D-III atmosphere, all of these student-athletes are here because they want to be, but also because they're looking for something meaningful in their lives.
"They are not going to spend their valuable time doing something that means nothing to them. I want them to enjoy their time together in the pool and outside it, have swimming be meaningful in their lives forever. That's what I learned from all of my old coaches, all the way up to my coach at Brandeis, Jim Zotz. They're the people who meant the most to me.
"I hope, someday, these kids can say the same thing about me."