Stephenson Stays Busy at the Pool

Article posted with permission from the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. Story by freelance writer Laurie Fry.

SALEM, ORE -- South Salem resident Al Stephenson spends most of his day at the Willamette University Sparks Center.

From pre-dawn practices for the Bearcats Swim Club to afternoon practices for Willamette's teams and evening practices for the younger club swimmers, Stephenson often has spent 15 hours per day immersed in the smell of chlorine.

During the past 30 years, Stephenson has coached nearly every swim organization in Salem.

From summer recreational league to the high school league to Salem Aquatic Club, followed by the Bearcats Swim Club, to Willamette University's swim teams, Stephenson has trained every level, from the youngest flailing swimmers to some of the nation's elite competitors.

South Salem's Dow family has been coached by Stephenson since older girls, Ellen, now a sophomore swimmer at Sprague, and Emma, an eighth-grade Bearcat from Crossler, started out as beginning swimmers at Illahe Hills Country Club nearly 10 years ago.

The youngest of four Dow siblings, 10-year-old Evette, is a pure product of Stephenson's coaching. "Al's always been my coach," says the fifth-grader from Queen of Peace. "Whenever I move up, he's always moved up, too."
"Al is just a coach that wants to cheer you on and wants you to have fun and be a good swimmer," she says. "So when you're older, you won't drown in the pool."

For Evette, who scored some of Oregon's fastest times in the state championship meet last month, drowning in the pool seems a remote possibility.

"Stature-wise, she's the smallest thing I've ever seen," says Stephenson, referring to Evette. "But she's all heart. When she gets into a race, she'll crush you if you're not careful, because she's competitive, and that's the way she's always been."

The Bearcats Swim Club is a developmental swim team sanctioned under USA Swimming, which is the national governing body of competitive swimming.

With five levels based on age and ability-level considerations, the Bearcats has more than a hundred swimmers in training, ranging from those in early elementary to high school.

Stephenson, who taught himself to swim, hails from Ohio where ball sports reigned.

"I started swimming relatively late in life," he says. "Where I grew up there weren't any organized (swim) teams, it was all about football or basketball or baseball. A PE teacher got some kids together and started us swimming. We were very successful."

Even though Stephenson stayed behind in the Midwest to finish high school, his family moved to Salem. "I used to spend summers out here," he says. "There wasn't anything, swimming-wise, in Salem to accommodate what I thought was a void."

"I got an athletic scholarship to go to Florida State, which was a dream come true for me," he says. "That's where I realized what a big deal swimming is. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to the ocean."

Stephenson became involved with the newly formed Salem Aquatic Club back in the 1970s, eventually bringing the concept under the umbrella of Willamette University.

"When I started the Bearcats, (the Willamette athletic director) wanted to build an entire aquatic program, from developmental through college through masters," says Stephenson. "We've tried to encompass that vision and make it grow.

"We have a lessons program in the summer, we have the age group teams, and the college teams, which need to grow a bit more, but it's also surprising how many people ask me about a masters program," he says.

Masters swim programs target swimmers over the age of 18 and include organized workouts and competitions for swimmers who are interested in competing or just swimming for fitness.

"It's definitely something the community needs and wants and is lacking," says Bearcats coach Kate Phifer. "I just think it would be so beneficial to everybody."

During the years, the admittedly introverted Stephenson has generated legions of fiercely loyal fans. Scott Kerr, a champion swimmer for South Salem High School, who is head coach of the Eugene City Swim Club, credits Stephenson for much of his own swimming success.

"I am coaching because of Al Stephenson and what I learned from him and his mentorship," says Kerr. "I even followed in his footsteps to Florida State.

"One of the things I took from Al is that every single individual is important," says Kerr. "There are coaches who only pay attention to the top swimmers, but Al is a big-picture kind of guy. He wants everyone to see their potential and tries to bring it out in them.

"In some clubs, if you don't have a good race, you don't want to go talk to the coach afterwards," says Kerr. "But Al will say, 'I need to do a better job teaching you this,' and you don't feel like it's all your fault."

Willamette athletes also benefit from Stephenson's philosophy, according to Kei Otawa, who is now helping coach the Bearcats club.

"He also pushes us to perform well in the classroom," says Otawa. "Al will always put academics as a first priority because he wants all of us as college student-athletes to graduate within four years."

"I like to think I'm an educator and a teacher" as well as a coach, says Stephenson. "What's unique about our sport is that you don't have to win the race or win a medal or a ribbon or even win your heat to get better.

"You don't have to be in the starting five, like for basketball, or the starting 11 for football. Everyone can see some level of success."

Head Swimming Coach Al Stephenson recently completed his 10th season leading the Willamette Bearcats.

Head Swimming Coach Al Stephenson recently completed his 10th season leading the Willamette Bearcats.