Hutton: No explanation, just excuses for demise of Gary’s swimming program
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or firstname.lastname@example.org February 9, 2013 11:26PM
Athletic director Branden Wesby locks the door to the pool where it is drained and empty at Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy in Gary, Ind. Wednesday February 6, 2013. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 11, 2013 6:55AM
Five-thousand words of notes and at least a dozen interviews later, I have no good answers for Jaelan Collins.
In this sense, I feel like I’ve failed him, too.
Trust me. I wanted to find a plausible reason why swimming mysteriously left the Gary school system. I could’ve told Jaelan exactly why. Then, he would know. Then he wouldn’t feel so guilty. But I couldn’t.
There are false reasons why swimming died. They were perpetuated by ignorance. They are worth repeating and refuting.
The costs to fix the pools were astronomical. (We don’t know what the costs were. No one is saying, but the cost to fix Roosevelt’s pool was around $40,000. That doesn’t seem like too much. One source said the pool that is closest to being up to standard is the pool at Wirt. That it’s easily fixable.)
The schools didn’t have a pool to swim in. (They did. The Boys & Girls Club in Gary was willing to let them use its pool again. It wasn’t ideal but it would’ve worked for another year.)
Transportation was a problem. (Perhaps, but I believe that could’ve been worked out.)
They didn’t have a coach. (Howard Anderson was a willing and able coach. He was the most reliable, competent modern-day swim coach from Gary. He’s helped teach kids and coached them for 19 years. He saw it as a vocation.)
There was no interest from the kids. (Yes, there was. Plenty of interest. Kids are leaving Gary because they can’t swim there.)
Where does that leave us?
Swimming was killed in Gary because of indifference from the top. It wasn’t about dried-up, broken-down pools. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about getting the kids to the pool.
Those are excuses.
It was about thoughtlessness. It was about snuffing out the voices and dreams of young people. It was about failing to be creative and resourceful in a time and place where those qualities are essential for survival in a school system that is besieged with problems. It was about not listening to the kids.
Howard Anderson Jr. knows what it feels like to get beaten down by the system. He coached at West Side with his father for one season — in 2009. He quit when he didn’t get paid. He told everybody he knew — School Board members, friends and school administrators — about the injustice. He even talked to an attorney. The board members promised they’d look into it. They never did.
It was never about the money — he can’t even remember exactly how much it was he was owed. It was just about doing the right thing. He let go of it because it wasn’t worth the aggravation. But it still festers inside of him, like a latent sore that turns into a volcano of emotions when he speaks of the dysfunctional leadership that turned swimming into a memory.
“He did not receive a check that year,” his father, Howard Anderson Sr., said. “It was not right. Someone from downtown told him that he got paid. I am not going to bite my tongue on that one. I paid him out of my own pocket. I feel the school system is responsible for that.”
Nobody cared more about swimming in Gary than the Andersons. Anderson Jr. coached the Gary Hammerheads, a once-thriving age-group program — the only one in Gary — until he had to leave last year. He did it for free. His kids, like Anton Strange and Jaequae Ellison, were competing with the suburban schools without fancy pools and sleek swimming suits. They were energetic and hopeful, some very talented. Anderson Jr. was there to help them get better. He loved it. The kids who swam loved it.
“I just wanted to make sure these kids had a shot,” he said. “That was my focus and my dream. I wanted them to compete at a high level and I was very proud of them.”
Anderson Jr. left last year for another job in Kansas City. He had coached at Gary for seven years. He didn’t get paid a dime. He needed to take care of his family. The Hammerheads died when he left. He didn’t want it to end that way but he couldn’t find anyone to take over for him.
He is heartbroken by the loss. Anderson Jr. swam for his father at Wirt, graduating in the late ’90s — back in the day when swimming still mattered to a whole lot of people.
He is afraid it will slip away permanently if somebody doesn’t start caring again.
“It’s just a lack of knowledge and passion for the sport that black people just don’t look at,” he said. “People have this stereotype about football and basketball. That was the whole purpose of the Hammerheads. It was to bring light to the sport in the city.”
Anderson hasn’t given up. He wants to come back someday and open a swimming facility in the city to work with the kids again.
And Charles Walker, the last coach at Lew Wallace, said he’d return in a second to coach the kids again. These people love the sport, they love the city and they want what is right for the kids.
There is hope, if the right people start listening, if the right person can say, “Yes, this is important and we will figure it out.”
Who is that going to be? Time is wasting. Don’t, as Collins says, “deplete” the dreams of future generations of kids from Gary, like Collins, who want nothing more than a pool and a team that is their own.