Passages: Charlie Schlegel, Former National Swimming Coach of the Year, Dies at 89

charlie-schlegel
Photo Courtesy: Thomas F. Liotti

Charlie Schlegel, the legendary high school swim coach, died on June 30, 2019 as a result of complications from open heart surgery. He was 89.

Coach Schlegel, during his 25 years at Plainview Old Bethpage High School from 1960-1985, built his teams into a mecca of competitive swimming excellence in New York and throughout the nation.

He had a career record of 395-28 as Plainview boys’ swim coach. This included 15 undefeated seasons, 23 league championships, 21 Nassau County championships, 15 New York State championships and 1 Eastern Interscholastic championship.

During his time at Plainview he coached 54 High School All-Americans, 126 State champions.  He had an 88 meet undefeated streak that spanned eight seasons. He won the Long Island Swimming Coach of the Year 25 times and the Nassau County Swimming Coach of the Year 23 times. In 1981 he won the National Swimming Coach of the Year from the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association. In 2001, Schlegel was inducted into the Metropolitan Swimming Hall of Fame.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s California was a hot bed for competitive swimming. Lyn Burke from the Flushing YMCA went to Santa Clara to train under the tutelage of the famed coach, George Haines. She won two gold medals at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Later George Haines developed Don Schollander who won four gold medals in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and later Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich games as well as a few before that in 1968 in Mexico City.

Charlie Schlegel implemented the California System in New York including circle swimming where you put 6-10 swimmers in a lane to do interval training on a pace clock. Charlie built his own pace clock before they were invented or marketed.    California had the advantage of a warm climate but Charlie brought an unparalleled enthusiasm for the sport.  Charlie developed year round programs and double workouts in the early morning beginning at 6:00 a.m. and in the afternoon where his swimmers swam three to four miles in a workout.

Competitive swimming was evolving. In 1967 Dr. James E. Councilman wrote the book the Science of Swimming, focusing on stroke mechanics and training methods. But still New York did not have enough pools, or coaches who knew the sport.  Since competitive swimmers were all amateur athletes there was no future in professional sports and careers usually ended after college.  But still competitive swimmers competed for college Scholarships. Charlie not only gave middle class kids from Long Island a chance to win scholarships but to see themselves as champions on a national stage.  He, by example, taught his athletes about excellence, self-discipline and the courage that it takes to compete at the highest levels of any sport.  He was a leader in every sense of the word.

Charlie Schlegel attended Ohio State University on a full athletic scholarship later earning his teaching certificate at Long Island University. He became the Athletic Director of Plainview Old Bethpage High School and the Assistant Principal. He competed in the 1952 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and later in life set many national and worldwide records in Masters’ competitions. During the Korean conflict he served as a Ranger in the U.S. Army.  While stationed in Germany he made 28 jumps.

Thomas F. Liotti, now an attorney and Village Justice on Long Island and former coach of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and a State record holder under Coach Schlegel stated:

“Charlie was a larger than life figure. He was a hero in life who inspired many to pursue excellence through hard work. You wanted to please him. He made you feel special. I can still remember the pride I felt when Charlie programmed me to swim against two State record holders from West Islip, our arch rival, in back to back events.”

Robert Kahl, Ph.D., another high school All-American and State record holder, who swam for Coach Schlegel in the 1960’s said: “He was a great man, an icon in high school competitive swimming circles. He was our Vince Lombardi.  We loved him because he pushed us to achieve and we did.  He was a friend throughout my life.”

Mike Sinkinson, an NCAA All-American at Bucknell University who was also a member of an All-American high school relay team under Coach Schlegel commented: “We were not into drugs, alcohol or gangs. We were purists and that’s what Charlie expected of us. We never thought of disappointing him or letting the team down.”

Randy Schlegel, one of Charlie’s sons, said of his dad: “I was always in awe of him. He was just a tremendous role model.  He treated all of his swimmers like members of our family.  He was one of a kind.”

Michael Golub, an All-American sprinter from Plainview and later the University of Maryland, stated: “The short answer is that we just loved him. In our lifetimes we seldom have the experience of being around that kind of cool. I could have played tennis, but you wanted to be on a winning team.  But for Charlie I would never have known what it is to be a champion. He made a big difference in my life and so many others.”

Coach Schlegel is survived by his wife, Alma, of 68 years and his son Randy of North Carolina. Two other sons predeceased him, Christian and Bruce. He is being cremated.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his honor and memory to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Halifax Hospice in Port Orange, Florida or Halifax Humane Society in Daytona Beach, Florida.

More high school coverage here.

8 comments

  1. avatar
    Tim Ryan

    I am unbelievably lucky to have swam under Charlie. He was an inspiration that went beyond the pool. What a tremendous human being to have an impact upon everyone he coached throughout the years. He was one of a kind, to say the least. “When your body says no Charlie says GO!”

    • avatar
      kevin tully

      Yes Tim we were lucky to have Coach Charles Schlegel come into our lives , May he Rest in Peace, he will always be with me and many others

  2. avatar
    RMDocLudemann

    If there is a service. I hope to attend
    RM Doc Ludemann/Univ of B/port

  3. avatar
    Doug Barlow

    Charlie made you reach your potential…and then he made you find another level. I remember Paul Fitzpatrick shaving almost 20 seconds off his best time in the 500.. Charlie was the best…

  4. avatar
    James Tiffany (NSB HS swim)

    Charlie was a great coach he pushed us to limits I didn’t think was possible. He always treated the team with utmost respect. Great man outside of the pool as well.

  5. avatar
    Michael Fischer

    Mr. Schlegel was like no other coach. I was one of the captains of his 1985 high school team. (His last year at Plainview HS). First off, he was a rarity in that he coached high school AND AAU. You were with him year-round. .
    I started with him outside, when I was about 11, at the freezing cold Plainview pool. We swam 50m long course in the summers. The leaks in the pool, caused them to add water daily, with water from the fire hydrant. It was cold. But you dealt with it. As a little kid, you looked up to him. The ‘older’ swimmers were what you emulated. He always spoke fondly of the swimmers that came before you…from the 60’s to the 80’s. He created a family.
    The Plainview High School (Gulls) swimming alumni would get together/swim/congregate after workouts, yearly, during Thanksgiving break. It was so great to see Mr Schlegel smile, talk, and laugh, as everyone came back to see him. He took such pride in what his swimmers had become in life. And they took pride in being part of this great powerhouse he created.
    By 9th grade I spent ALL my free time with him at the HS pool. He would coach you in the water. We didn’t call it practice. We called it workouts. During the height /mid-season of workouts, we swam twice a day. At 13 years of age!!!!!! He was so great as a coach. If you were willing, he pushed you beyond your limits, stretching you like a rubber band, but never breaking you. Then, at taper time, he increased the speed work, decreased the yardage….. and your times dropped at the perfect point in the season.
    He was also great at making line-up combinations. Not only would Mr. Schlegel make our line-up in multiple combinations (every possible line-up), he would also make the competing team’s line-up in multiple combinations. He knew the other swimmers too. The actual meets were like a chess match to him. Just like we prepared in the water, we saw him prepare too. Losing was not an option, and it rubbed off on us.
    When I was not swimming in the pool, I hung around it, and him, and we talked. It usually centered around swimming,…….or at least it started that way, and that is what I remember. However, the topics could be anything. He was always teaching. He was tough, and he made you strong. “I make you THINK it is a Democracy, but it is really a dictatorship.” That is one thing that he said to me once, maybe twice. But I remember it and SOOO much more. As we talked, I just absorbed what he said.
    Mr. Schlegel not only motivated you. Being around him, taught you to motivate yourself….. Push yourself. That is what I will carry around, from his coaching, his teaching, his being….. for the rest of my life. I can speak and write about him for pages and pages.
    When I graduated HS in 1985, he retired from Plainview and soon moved to Florida. Unfortunately, I never stayed in touch with him. It truly pains me and saddens me immensely to learn of his passing. He taught me so much about life. Although I haven’t spoke to him in over 30 years, I will carry his life lessons forever. I will never forget Mr. Schlegel

  6. avatar
    Jeff Rothman

    I had the honor of swimming for coach Schlegel in 1983 & 1984 . As I became a P.E teacher & coach myself , I realized all the lessons coach taught me would be so important for my career and life . I learned that to get the most out of people , you don’t have to treat everyone equal !! Just be fair ! He was fair & I wanted to win so bad for him ! For the first time in my life I wanted to win for someone besides myself ! A true legend who will be missed ! Goodbye Coach rest in peace . Jeff Rothman P.E teacher and coach at POB middle school.

  7. avatar

    I met Charles at the Daytona State college swimming pool few years ago and i will remember him all my life. Great man, great swimmer. I wished having this great coach when i was younger. I will always see him on my mind when i will swim backstroke. Thanks Charles for the fun we have swimming together.