Coach Harold Baker is having a very successful 2019.
In his role as the swim coach at Lafayette High School, he saw the Rams finish the season undefeated, and scored his 400th high school win.
At the Williamsburg Aquatic Club, where he’s worked as a coach since it began in 1979, he’s overseeing the club’s 40th anniversary.
If you ask him though, the best part is the same as it’s always been: watching what the kids he coaches achieve both in and out of the water.
“I see a lot of these kids swim in high school, a lot of those go on to swim in college, others just do this for fun,” said Baker. “The goal has always been to help these kids, whether they become great swimmers or not, you do what you can for every one of them.”
According to Baker, the biggest change over the past four decades at WAC has been the scale and keeping up with it.
“Originally, it was just designed to give kids a chance to swim year round, that first year, there (were) just six kids, and we met at a pool at William and Mary that was built in 1906,” said Baker. “By the next year, there were 90, then the community center got built, and now we average around 150 kids each year.”
That growth has been a pattern that has been part of the challenge of also coaching at Lafayette High School.
“We don’t usually have as many swimmers as Jamestown and Warhill usually do, but this year, we made up for it with having some very strong swimmers,” said Baker. “Good leadership too, our team captains both got college scholarships, at William and Mary, one at Cornell.”
One of those team captains, Lafayette senior Christopher Kostelni, is quick to return any credit back to Baker.
“Coach gives us the practices and exercises we need to do, he has a good eye for our strengths and our weaknesses, and making sure we work on both,” said Kostelni. “We’ve had a real milestone year at Lafayette, I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Kostelni also has been a swimmer at WAC for 10 years, following in his older sister’s footsteps.
“My sister and I always tried to do the same sports, she loved to swim, so we both joined WAC,” said Kostelni. “I did really well, and I stuck with it, and I’ve been swimming ever since.”
Kostelni has been offered a swimming scholarship to Cornell University, where he plans to study engineering. It’s a future that began with swim lessons from Coach Baker at the community center pool.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this organization,” said Kostelni. “The coach, the swim team, they’ve played such a big role in my life, and I’m so grateful.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Julian Montes Martinez, a senior at Jamestown High School, who has been a swimmer at WAC for 13 years.
“It’s been a lot of fun, because of the club, I’ve been swimming for most of my life, it gave me a real love of the sport,” said Martinez. “The guys and the coach, I’ve known a lot of them for years, they’ve become like family.”
The bonds forged in WAC have had staying power, Martinez said. When his mother died last year, coming from what he describes as a single mother home, he says the club offered him the support he needed.
“It’s been hard, working out college plans and scholarships, getting rides to school and to meets, but the club has been there for me, and Harold, the coach, he’s been there for me,” said Martinez. “He’s been very helpful and understanding, he talks with me a lot about how I’ve been doing.”
Martinez plans to study mechanical engineering in college once he has decided upon a school, but whatever comes next, he will continue to love swimming.
“It’s part of who I am,” said Martinez.
Passing on that love of swimming, and having a lasting impact on so many lives is one of the best parts of the job, according to Baker.
“I’ve been doing this 40 years, and ever since those first few groups of kids, the goal has always been to do what you can for each kid that comes through the door,” said Baker. “Now some of those first few kids, I’ve coached some of their kids now, and its still the best part of the job.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.