IN THE SWIM: Coaching powerhouse Frank Keefe at Villanova University’s Pavilion Swim Center.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TESSA MARIE IMAGES
CATBIRD SEAT: Even as a volunteer, Frank Keefe enjoys iconic status in collegiate swimming circles
Swimmers from all over came to compete at Suburban. Tim McKee won medals in the ’72 Munich games and in Montréal in ’76. Julie Woodcock swam on the first U.S. World Championship meet team. Brenda Borgh qualified for the 1976 Olympics. “The kids training there thought they belonged at the Olympic trials and national championships,” says Keefe.
While Keefe was leading Saint Joe’s and Suburban, he developed relationships with many of the other coaches in the area, including Temple’s Joe Verdeur, who won gold at the 1948 games in the 200 breaststroke and was called by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice “the greatest swimmer of the first half-century.” La Salle University’s Joe Kirk and Swarthmore College’s Jimmy McAdoo were part of the group, too.
The men would convene at the Five Points Bar in Philadelphia and discuss all swimming matters, great and small. At first, Keefe was something of a mascot, since he was younger than the other coaches. But he quickly gained their favor and learned a lot from them. “I was at Villanova, and those guys would come and pick me up, and I would sit at the bar and drink a Coke while they would keep Budweiser in business,” recalls Keefe. “I would listen to them and learn. They were the guys who formulated my way of thinking. They gave me a basis.”
After 10 years of coaching at Suburban and spending his own money traveling to events all over the world, Keefe received a warning from his accountant that financial catastrophe was near if he didn’t cut it out. In 1978, he took the job at Yale, never truly intending to stay there long. He was so sure the campus was merely a way station that he continued to live with his wife, Kathleen, and four children in Drexel Hill. He drove to New Haven on Monday morning and came home after practice on Saturday. Thirty-two years later, he finally ended his “temporary” relationship with the school and returned home full time. In addition to coaching Ivy League champions while in New Haven, Keefe was an assistant coach on the 1984 Olympic team and the headman of the 1988 unit.
At Yale, he developed a reputation for handling his swimmers with a tough mind and an encouraging hand. His practices were legendary in their difficulty, although current Yale coach Tim Wise— who assisted Keefe for 12 years—says perception outstripped reality. “They have memories of impossible workouts, but he would only do it once a month or once a year,” Wise says. “[The swimmers] are still traumatized.”
Mostly, Keefe provided a firm direction for the program. He was able to relate to the athletes and help them reach their potentials. “He is very scientific, so his knowledge and understanding of the biomechanics and physiology of the sport were always great,” says Wise. “At the same time, he was very good at motivating people with his sharp tongue. The underlying thing that the kids appreciated about Frank was that he was honest with them. They knew where they stood. While he was tearing you down, he was also building you up. It was unique.”
Keefe retired from Yale in 2010 and headed back to Drexel Hill to care for Kathleen, who passed away in mid-2014. She and Keefe were married for 54 years. He contacted Simpson in 2013 about helping the Villanova Wildcats, and he was welcomed aboard as a volunteer last season. One of the first things Keefe did was “call all my former assistants and apologize for the way I treated them,” he says, laughing.
Keefe enjoys learning about his former swimmers’ lives and careers. He was happy that one of them had started dental school and was able to schedule him in early 2015 for some much-needed bridge work. Mostly, though, he cherishes the opportunity to keep young swimmers churning through the water. “I hope I was able to help them see that swimming is fun—and that they learned some discipline and lessons of life,” he says.