In the 1940s, a little squirt of a kid growing up in St. Paul developed a reputation as a pretty good swimmer. The boy did most of his swimming in lakes, and he could really move in the water. He wasn’t the most talented kid in St. Paul, but he wasn’t lacking in athletic skills. The kid’s life centered around sports and he played whatever sport was in season.
When he got to high school at St. Paul Central, some of his buddies suggested he go out for the swim team. And so he did.
That’s where the story begins. Where will it end? That’s a question for the ages, because that little kid who could really move in the water in the 1940s is still really moving as 2015 turns the corner into 2016. His name is Art Downey and he is in his 60th season as the only boys head swimming and diving coach Edina High School has ever had.
It’s quite a story.
“Everybody my age has been doing something for 60 years,” Downey said. “I’ve just happened to do it all in one spot.”
That’s true. In that one spot, his teams have won conference and state championships, and he has coached dozens of individual and relay state champions as well as more than 30 All-America swimmers. But 60 years? How is that even possible?
Downey remembers reading, years ago, an article in a coaching magazine about a fellow who was still coaching at 70. “I thought, ‘Good grief, what’s that guy doing?’ Now I know what he was doing and why he was doing it.”
Downey doesn’t talk about his age, but Edina assistant coach Scott Johnson said it’s not much of mathematical challenge to figure it out. The Edina job was Art’s first position after college and two years in the Army, so …
“He’s been here since 1956, he’s been coaching for 60 years, so you can kind of estimate his age,” said Johnson, who is only the third assistant Downey has had in those six decades.
“Art’s a classic,” Johnson said. “Everybody in the swimming world knows Art. He’s in just about every Hall of Fame imaginable, he’s won just about every award imaginable in our state and at the national level.”
Downey was inducted into the Minnesota Swimming Hall of Fame in 1991, the Edina High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999, the MSHSL Hall of Fame in 2000, the University of Minnesota Aquatics Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011.
For some perspective on his longevity, consider some other coaching giants in Minnesota high school sports: Bob McDonald coached boys basketball in Chisholm for 59 years before retiring in 2014. Ron Stolski continues to coach football in Brainerd; next season will be his 55th. Also in Brainerd, Lowell Scearcy has coached baseball for 46 years.
Downey earned his first varsity letter as a swimmer at the University of Minnesota in 1953. While in college he pondered what to do with his life. His love of sports made the decision to go into teaching and coaching pretty simple.
After graduating from college, Downey spent two years in the military as the Korean War was winding down. He never left U.S. soil and even spent one summer playing baseball in the Army. He was hired at Edina in the 1956-57 school year to teach physical education and start a boys swimming team.
He retired from teaching in 1990 – that was a quarter of a century ago – and never gave a thought to retiring from coaching. He’s not in it for success, unless you count the success of helping young men grow.
“Art is a man of high morals and high character,” Johnson said. “And he tends to put those qualities ahead of the athletes, even ahead of their ability level. To Art, the swimming and diving team is about being a gentleman 24 hours day, seven days week. The actual sport of swimming itself is the second-most important thing.”
Ask Downey about his career highlights, and it’s pretty clear that he simply doesn’t think along those lines.
“That would be tough,” he said. “My favorite team is always the one I’m coaching. That’s always true. The best part of my job is being with those kids every day. It’s the highlight of my day to spend a couple hours with them.
“I like to think accomplishments were never why I was in it. It was an opportunity to be a positive influence. That’s why I do it. People don’t usually think about it, but when two teams have a contest, three things can happen: one of the two teams can win or there’s a tie. I try to contribute to kids’ lives in either case.”
Before the Hornets’ season began with a Lake Conference meet at Edina last week, Downey took the microphone to address the crowd and the swimmers. He paid tribute to Elmer Luke, who began coaching the swim team at Hopkins the same year Downey began his career at Edina. Luke had died a few days earlier; Downey recounted some of Elmer’s accomplishments (“He was a true pioneer and a very good friend to many of us”) and asked the crowd to take part in a moment of silence.
The swim meet then began with the public-address announcer saying: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Art Downey Aquatic Center.”
Yes, the Edina pool is named after the coach. The facility was christened when it opened in 2006.
“That’s a terrific honor, that’s for sure,” Downey said. “I feel humbled by it.”
Edina activities director Troy Stein knows about long-serving coaches. Stein played high school basketball at Rocori under Bob Brink, who was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame this year. Brink coached for 50 years, the last 42 at Rocori before retiring in 2012.
“One thing that’s impressed me is Art is truly a guy who is constantly wanting to learn more about the sport, learn more about coaching, learn more about kids, learn more about what’s the best way to do things,” Stein said. “He is open to new technologies and it’s so impressive to get to know him and his passion to learn and grow.
“When we have our head coaches meetings, it’s fun to tap Art whenever we can to listen to his perspective on things that have happened in the past or things he’s seen. When Art speaks, coaches listen, because he has great, valuable insight to share.”
Downey remains busy with coaching, participating in coaching clinics and conventions, and assisting the swimming world however he can.
His first wife, Joanne, died 11 years ago. He remarried seven years ago, and he and his wife Carol have a flock of grandchildren. “They’re both wonderful ladies,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed in many, many ways.”
Downey’s four children all live in the metro area, and the grandkids enjoy hanging out at “Grandpa’s pool.”
Little has changed for Downey over these 60 years. When he was hired in 1956 he wore black eyeglasses and he still wears them today. He wears a polo shirt, shorts, white socks and white shoes at the pool, carrying a stopwatch and clipboard.
Downey indeed seems timeless. But he can tell that time marches on because his former swimmers and students are aging even if he isn’t. Members of his early teams are in their 70s now, and many of them went on to care for their coach as doctors, eye doctors, pharmacists, etc.
And what do you know? Some of them have retired.
“I’m starting to lose these people because of retirement,” Art said with a chuckle. “Doctors, eye doctors, you name it, they’re all because I either coached them or had them in class. It’s kind of a bummer when they retire. I think, ‘You can’t do this to me. What’s wrong with you?’ ”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 339
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,148
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn