WILLIAMSTOWN — When recent Williams College Head Swim Coach Steve Kuster returns home from coaching in the 2016 Rio Olympics, he’ll likely be greeted early on by a man who helped pave the way for Kuster and recent graduate Faye Sultan to travel to Brazil.
With a recent move to Sweetwood Retirement Living Community in Williamstown, legendary Ephs coach Carl Samuelson has remained in the vicinity of the school at which he forged a women’s swimming program. A program that Olympic 50-meter swimmer Sultan has called her academic and collegiate swimming home the last four years. A program that Kuster took over from a retiring Samuelson in 1999.
Sitting in the living room of Sweetwood, overlooking the magnificently green mountain view out the back window, “Coach Sam” remembers how that program came about.
When Williams College went co-ed in 1970, Samuelson was already a successful men’s swim coach, having taken over a few years prior from longtime coach Bob Muir. When a trio of young women who swam in high school approached him at the pool one practice and asked if there was a women’s program or any way they could compete, Sam was honest in his response.
“They asked what Williams had to offer,” said Samuel. “And I said, you know, I’ll have to look into it, because I didn’t know. The department, as well as the college itself, there was no dictating of a plan. Everything came from an expression of interest.”
Those women, including near-Olympic qualifier Leslie Teal (from Kansas City), swam as a part of the men’s JV program that first year, and did so with some success.
Samuelson had met a distraught Teal, who thought she may never swim again, one day in the stands after he finished teaching an intro swimming lesson. Upon hearing her story; that she finished just a couple hundredths of a second shy of qualifying for the Olympics in butterfly, he presented the option of joining the men’s JV program. It was the opportunity to not just swim towards an end, but to have fun doing so.
At season’s end, they weren’t ready to just have things end abruptly. So, once again, their new coach had to do some research.
“They came to me and asked if there was a New England Championships for women like there was for men. I had to tell them again, I don’t know, but I’ll look into it,” said Coach Sam, candidly.
As it turned out, there was. Samuelson got in touch with the league president and asked if his trio might compete. The initial answer was no due to them swimming against men all season.
“I said, ‘I can’t go to these three and tell them that. Do me a favor and have the league vote on it. If they vote us out, that is something I can tell them’,” said Samuelson. “To her surprise, the coaches voted us in and to the glee of these three gals; we were going to the New England Championships.”
So, Coach Sam and his three swimmers piled into a station wagon and drove the 355 miles to the University of Maine in Orono, and a brand new pool, for their first experience at the New England Women’s Swimming Championships.
Samuelson brought his team to the pool and had them try to feel the vibes of it. His new motivation tactic worked, as the three swam well and placed around 13th out of 38 schools. The small Williams crew caused a stir among the perennials at the meet, with many wondering where they came from.
The trek out felt like it took a week and a half according to Samuelson. The trip back, could’ve been as quick as a half hour.
A few short years later, and Women’s Swimming became a full team varsity sport at Williams and the Lady Ephs went on to dominate that New England competition year after year. Under Samuelson, the team won National titles in 1982 and 1983.
Coach Sam’s style was one that kept the fun in swimming, while letting the program’s talent speak for itself. There was never any outward recruiting, and swimmers like Teal knew that while they might win titles and have great success, their swimming would reach farther than the end of the pool.
“Viewing swimming as not just an end in itself, but that you come to compete and train. I tried to relate to people on both teams, to recognize that these are experiences that relate very clearly to whatever you are trying to do in your life pursuits or your career,” said Samuelson. “I wanted them to look back and say I had an interesting experience that related to a lot of other things through swimming.”
The program continued to rise as Kuster transitioned in, and has yet to lose a NESCAC (New England Small Colleges Athletic Conference) championship since the event began being contested in 2001.
“Steve started in 1999, which was my last year with the college,” said Samuelson. “I still support the program and he’s a very good coach. Traditionally, Williams has done very well. ”
After competing in the 2012 Olympic Games as a member of Team Kuwait in London, Sultan began her Ephs career that fall. This summer, she became the program’s first Olympic competitor. Swimming under the Olympic banner, as Kuwait was not allowed to be represented at the games, she swam a personal best 26.86 in the 50 freestyle, good for 52nd place.
Coach Sam’s work in creating something from nothing shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. As a young high schooler in Middletown, Connecticut, he found himself in a similar position as those new female Williams College students did in the ‘70s. There was no high school swimming team, as the school didn’t have a pool. However, Samuelson and some friends brought their will to compete to the attention of administrators, and helped get the local YMCA pool to host races.
From Middlebrook, Samuelson attended Springfield College and eventually became a freshman swim coach at the school. While coaching the Pride, he got to know Muir during swim meets between the two schools. Fast-forward to 2000, and the Williams College swimming facility was renamed the Samuelson-Muir Pool.
“When I coached at Springfield we were in the same league,” said Samuelson. “Bob had been here 30 years, and we became very good friends once I moved out here.”
The pool that bears his name is now just a few miles from where Samuelson hangs his hat at Sweetwood. The Williamstown independent retirement community allows Coach Sam to continue supporting the program and keep abreast of its happenings from a perch on Cold Spring Road.
“Steve. being her coach in college, had the opportunity to go with her and coach her,” said Samuelson of Sultan’s situation. “Steve’s back in the states at the Beach Club on Long Island. He’ll be back here after Labor Day, so I’m looking forward to hearing those stories.”