By John Murphy
Special to the Register Citizen
Editors Note: We are running this story because the Torrington Red Raiders boys swim team is having its Alumni meet Monday night.
Before there was a boys’ THS swim team, there were YMCA swim teams. And these teams already were producing state champions.
Back then, it began with the learn to swim campaigns at the Y, with badges for minnows, then fish, then flying fish, then sharks, then on to age group swimming, with swim meets in Willimantic, Waterbury, Naugatuck, New Haven – all around the state and even in Springfield.
Peter (now Bishop) Rosazza was a member of those early Y swim teams coached by Rennie Belli along Pete Basso and (would you believe?) Phil Kearney. As I remember, Henry Bianowicz did the 40 yard freestyle a couple of times. The Brothers Killiany – Johnny, Billy and Irwin – all swam on the YMCA teams. Johnny was a terrific swimmer who graduated (along with Bishop Peter and Phil) before there was a high school team, so none of them ever got a chance to swim for the high school. Billy Killiany, who I always raced against in my age group at the Y in the 40 yard freestyle, didn’t go to THS; instead, he went to Oliver Wolcott Technical School, and I got a big break here because I didn’t have to worry about always getting beat by him any more. Irwin was the youngest and the only Killiany who swam (and dived) for THS.
Parents of the swimmers would get us into their cars and drive us to our away meets. Clement Holbrook, the father of Tony Holbrook, (mother of Betsy in our THS class of ’54) and the head of the Torrington Board of Education was driving us to one of our swim meets when this song came over the radio: “She had a dark and a roving eye eye eye, and her hair hung down in ringalets…” The kids in the car knew all the words to the song and we began a singalong “She was a nice, girl, a proper girl, but, one of the rovin’ kind..” when Mr. Holbrook suddenly turned off the radio. “Obscene, disgusting,” he said. (Amazing what you remember.) And it was on some of those trips that I actually did learn the words to some ‘bawdy’ songs. I still remember the words to “I used to work in Chicago” and “There once was an Indian maid…” Ask me and I’ll whisper the remaining lyrics to you.
The Swim Team’s Beginnings
Steve Pinney (THS, Class of ’54) lived in Goshen across the street from the Barretts who lived above the par 3 11th hole of the Torrington Country Club. Before high school, Steve was a champion swimmer for the Boys’ Torrington YMCA swim team, and he was winning, even at ages 12, 13 and 14, in all the YMCA swim events he entered across the state. We as swimmers would go to the Payne Whitney pool for some of our YMCA state championships and open swim meets.
At the end of football season my junior year, I tried out for the basketball team. After one day of evaluating my ‘talent’ and seeing what I could do, Connie Donahue called me into his office “Do you belong to the Y?” he asked. I was the first one cut.
My father was superintendent of schools back then, and my mother was a former Olympic swimmer who coached the YMCA girls, and they both thought it would be a great idea to have a high school boy’s swim team. Here’s where it gets interesting. You know how you read nowadays about the 15 year old basketball prodigy transferring from a school in the inner city as he’s recruited by high school coaches looking for the next Michael Jordan? Well, (I didn’t learn about this until several years later) the same thing (sort of) happened way back in 1952 with Steve Pinney – only it wasn’t basketball, it was swimming. Being from Goshen, Steve began his high school career at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, HVRHS. My father, who knew how good Steve was and also knew Steve’s father from driving to all those YMCA swim meets across the state, contacted him and suggested that Steve might be interested in transferring from HVRHS to THS to become a member of what would be the very first – the first ever – Torrington High School boys’ swim team.
Steve transferred to THS, and the rest, as they say, is history.
My father hired Charlie Duggan as the football coach and, coming from perennial state champion Sacred Heart in Waterbury (I think that was where he came from) – he must have known something about swimming, right? Coach Duggan also was named head coach of the very first boys’ swim team. (So what if he didn’t know anything about swimming – he could learn. So what if he might not even know how to swim. Bob Kiputh at Yale the rumor was, didn’t know how to swim, either.) Coach Duggan’s wife Helen used to sit alongside the pool at the Y while my mother was coaching the girls, and she’d watch what my mother was doing, and then, the next day, Coach Duggan would have the same drills for us on the high school boy’s team.
The 1952-53 school year was when Torrington High School had its very first swim team. Dick Juralewicz was the only senior on the team, and he was elected the first captain. Lennie Schmidt in my class of 1954 was the only other junior on the team with Steve and me. Bullethead Lake, Dave Lizotte, Cheetah Koplar, Tommy Wall, Don Will, my brother Denis, my cousin Dave Ryan, Ray Ostrander, Billy Mills and Glen Gemelli all came later.
Steve Pinney was the star who could win any event he swam in. Seriously. The only reason we were not undefeated our first year when we were juniors (as well as when we were seniors) was because the rules said that no swimmer could swim in more than two events and a relay. If Steve swam every event we would have been undefeated. That’s how good he was. Sacred Heart had the longest undefeated win streak in the state – I think it was something like 55 consecutive swim meets – when we swam against them. With the limitation of only two events and a relay, Coach Duggan had to decide where he would ‘allocate’ Steve. Tommy Wall to this day, more than fifty years later, (Tommy can fill you in on the details) can recall event by event how we could have broken the Sacred Heart win streak if Coach Duggan had only listened to our manager Jack Pollock and used Steve Pinney differently.
Our senior year, Steve and I were elected co-captains. My biggest failure was against Crosby. If I beat their swimmer in the 200 yard freestyle – a guy named Fennimore – we’d win the meet. I didn’t and we didn’t, and it haunts me to this day (I was the co-captain who didn’t come through.) Steve should have been the sole captain, (without the “co-”) and in the real world he probably was, because I’ve always believed Coach Duggan fudged the votes – when he counted the votes I was ‘elected’ with some ol’ fashioned ballot stuffing box – out of gratitude to my father for letting him step into the job as the coach of a ready-made championship caliber swim team.
My buddy Gerry Alaimo went on to become the captain of the basketball team, and senior year during study hall, he used to get a hall pass to go down and shoot the breeze with Connie Donahue in his office overlooking the baskets with the metal nets. One day, when he had him in his office, Coach Donahue said to Gerry: “It’s pretty obvious: the only reason Ol’ Man Murphy ever started a swim team was because his kid couldn’t make the basketball team.” There might have been a little truth to this, but only a little – there always was Steve Pinney.