Reflections in a pool: A swim coach looks back before being honored

Published 12:10 am Sunday, April 2, 2023

SALISBURY — A great coach’s influence can spread out far and wide and Phyllis Steimel is no exception to the rippling effect on people’s lives as a swim coach in Rowan County.

On April 15, Steimel will be honored at a ceremony at the Salisbury Country Club commemorating her years of mentorship. Her love for swimming and coaching goes back to when she was little and it has only grown since.

Steimel was born in Rochester, New York. Growing up, she lived a quarter of a mile from Lake Ontario. She would spend summers swimming there and the rest of the time her parents would drive her to the pool to swim by herself. In high school, she would often take the bus to the YWCA to swim.

“Because there was no active swimming program for girls. I just loved it. I loved being in the water,” Steimel said.

Steimel attended Syracuse University, but wasn’t able to be on the swim team due to her gender. She was still able to take part in Red Cross programs and water safety instructor courses, but there were limitations on what she could do.

“Unfortunately, I was born before Title IX. So, my high school had a swim team and Syracuse had a swim team for men, but I never had the opportunity to be on the swim team,” Steimel said.

Steimel was going to make sure as many kids as possible had the chance she never got.

Because her husband was in the Navy, Steimel traveled all over the country after she graduated from college. When her family was living in Maryland and her daughter was 6, Steimel signed her up for the neighborhood swim team. Since she majored in art at Syracuse, the coach there asked her to draw pictures of strokes for him so he could show people what they were supposed to do while swimming.

“I would work with him everyday about head position, hand position, arm position, body position, kick, everything and little did I know then that I was going to be a coach down the road,” Steimel said.

Her family eventually found themselves at Camp Lejeune military base. The swim coaches there would have a high turnover rate because of deployments or reassignments, and after she was made director of the base team, she would take over whenever they needed someone to fill the position. Steimel would soon be named the full-time coach for three years.

After her husband retired, Steimel moved to Salisbury where she discovered they did not have a swim team. Her youngest daughter was still in high school, so they decided to start their own at the YMCA.

“It was basically starting from scratch,” Steimel said. “It was great having an opportunity to come back to swimming through my daughter. If it hadn’t been for her I probably would never have gotten into this.”

The team started out in 1983 as the Salisbury Sharks, then they moved to a bigger pool at Catawba College and became the Rowan Aquatic Club. Steimel looks back at what drives her as a coach and the rewards she receives by seeing the accomplishments her swimmers achieve. Even when she battled cancer, the people in her life made her keep going. One of the swimmers she coached was Todd DeSorbo, a 2020 U.S. Olympic swim coach and two-time NCAA national champion at the University of Virginia.

“The kids that go into swimming are very special kids. It takes a lot of dedication to go every day to practice and look at a black line at the bottom of the pool. So you have to make it interesting for them,” Steimel said. “The joy was watching them improve over time. I just thrived on that and to see so much talent coming out of Salisbury. It’s here, somebody just needs to grab it and develop it.”

In 1991, Steimel retired from coaching but what she has done to give Rowan County such a swimming presence goes beyond laps in a pool. Several swimmers from the county have set state records and received college scholarships. 

“To me, having the opportunity to be a swim coach is extraordinary. It’s marvelous job, I loved it. I cried when I retired, I really did. You get to know the kids, you see what they’re capable of doing and it’s so rewarding,” Steimel said.

Steimel has stayed in swimming and coaching’s orbit since retirement. Olympic gold medalist Mary T. Meagher asked her to be on the coaching staff at her summer swim camps for three years. She hasn’t stopped swimming, but is focused now on utilizing her art degree to paint and teach at Waterworks Visual Art Center. Steimel is proud of all the work she has done to make swimming what it is today in Rowan County and to all the people who have stepped up to maintain her legacy. 

“It didn’t end with me. It’s continued on,” Steimel said.