A Q&A With Westchester Aquatic Club Head Coach Carle Fierro

Carle Fierro

In the May issue of Swimming World Magazine, longtime contributor Michael Stott chatted with Carle Fierro of the Westchester Aquatic Club.

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A lifelong New Yorker, Westchester Aquatic Club owner and head coach Carle Fierro has taught future Olympians and is one of the country’s most respected age group coaches.

Carle Fierro
Owner/Head Coach
Westchester Aquatic Club
New Rochelle, New York

• Iona College, B.S., computer science, 1983
• Owner/head coach, Westchester Aquatic Club, 2010-present
• Head coach, Rye High School, 1984-2010; 7x coach of the year
• Age group coach, Badger Swim Club, 1987-2010
• Age group coach, New Rochelle Aquatic Club, 1984-87
• Age group swimmer ranked in world’s top 100 (2016, 2017, 2020)
• Named 2008-09, 2013-14, 2015-16 Metropolitan Swimming Age Group Coach of the Year
• ASCA National Age Group Coach of the Year finalist (2010, 2016, 2020)
• One of 13 in U.S. invited to the USA Swimming Women’s Leadership and National Team Coaches Summit
• ASCA Level 5 coach

Fierro has coached her swimmers to seven NAG records and 110 Metropolitan Swimming age group records. Her kids have also earned 100+ NAG rankings, including 16 No. 1 performances from 2015-20.

Q. SWIMMING WORLD: Swimming runs in your family. How did you get started as a swimmer and then a coach?

A: COACH CARLE FIERRO: My mother loved swimming, and both my parents were extremely athletic, had exceptional grit and work ethics. We had limited resources as a family, but John, Ruth and Jack Collins accepted me and my three brothers at Badger Swim Club. In college, I swam at the University of South Florida and then Iona College. I began coaching at Rye High School and served there from 1984-2010. I also coached age groupers—Olympian Cristina Teuscher was in my first pre-team group—with my brother, Kip, at New Rochelle Aquatic Club.

John Collins asked Kip to merge his team with Badger, and I went along. I owned and operated the 10-and-under programs, Kip the 11-14 group, and then sent his kids to John. We were three different entities competing under the Badger name, a system that enjoyed success for decades.

SW: What kept you in it as a career?

CF: My passion for the sport and the flexibility to spend time with my children.

SW: Any particular influences or mentors along the way?

CF: Too many to count. Kip was the most influential, and my father had a huge impact. When I started my own team, I reached out to Coach Lou Manganiello at South Florida Aquatic Club. I also connected with Josh Davis. His BREAKOUT! Swim Clinics with numerous Olympians (Ian Crocker, Kristy Kowal, Kim Vandenberg, et al.) were crucial to my program’s development.

Rachel Stratton-Mills and Kara Lynn Joyce showed me the ropes of attending the bigger meets and designing senior practices. Mitch Dalton, the national junior team director, also provided invaluable insight to help me develop as a coach. Dave and Jennifer Gibson at Swim Fort Lauderdale gave me a folder of resources that I turn to weekly when writing my workouts and dealing with team issues.

Locally, Don Wagner, Michael Gavrilchin, Zac Hojnacki, Rob Ortof, Nick Cavataro and Sue Byrne have been instrumental in helping me create my team’s culture, where swimmers get support, encouragement and find a fun and safe place to be.

SW: What was your experience like with Russell Mark at the Olympic Training Center?

CF: I am a very visual and detail-oriented person when it comes to technique. Mark increased my understanding of how to get swimmers to move most efficiently. The conversations at OTC coaches’ clinic are priceless. At the National Select Camp, Ian Crocker told me about the FEATS philosophy with his swimmers: F – Focus, E – Effort, A – Attitude, T – Technique, S – Strategy for the race. USA Swimming offered me terrific educational opportunities to grow as a coach.

SW: Have you ever received an on-deck tidbit that was a coaching epiphany?

CF: YES! I was in the elevator with Kate Douglass, and Bruce Gemmell got in. He looked at us and said, “It’s only another meet, girls; it’s only another meet.” About bad swims, Bobby Hackett told me, “You can be disappointed, but you cannot be disrespectful!” If I see a coach with swimmers who excel in an area, I ask them about what’s helped them develop that stroke or event.

SW: Having been instrumental in the age group development of swimmers such as Kate Douglass and Claire Weinstein, you still focus on age groupers. Why?

CF: Basically, I have had more opportunities to coach age groupers. Currently, I have an exciting senior team with whom to work, and I look forward to continuing their development. Local senior programs send the message via parent relationships that I am good with age groupers, but swimmers need to go to a large senior team to develop further. Some local teams offer performance-based scholarships that lure swimmers away. Some coaches take swimmers. I am proud to say that I make swimmers—and will continue to do so.

While I met Kate Douglass’ coaching needs, our team did not meet her social needs. She yearned to be on a team with more swimmers her level and age. While disappointed at first, I wanted Kate to be happy and continue to swim. Jamie Barone at Chelsea Piers is a good friend and excellent coach, and I knew she would be in good hands with him. Todd DeSorbo at UVA has done an incredible job with Kate—she’s swimming fast, and she’s so happy.

SW: One foundation of your teaching is helping kids find their center of gravity. Why so?

CF: Every person has different buoyancy in the water, so teaching swimmers to kick and swim with a snorkel assists them in developing their individual floating ability. I counsel them to let the water do the work and support their bodies.

SW: How does your visual approach to life help you as a coach?

CF: I try to teach the swimmers about life’s daily challenges. How they choose to approach and deal with them will determine their level of success and happiness. As swimmers get older, it’s harder to do a best time in every meet. Parents and swimmers have expectations. They see best time=good, not best time=bad.

I work on performance improvement and encourage swimmers to develop strategies to deal with the everyday disappointments, performance and otherwise, and be proud of themselves when they overcome them. One can achieve happiness and have accomplishments, but when overcoming life challenges, success should not be tied to only best swimming personal performances.

SW: You say anxiety and stress are great inhibitors. How do you enable your swimmers to overcome those emotions?

CF: Parents, while well meaning, create a tremendous amount of stress for the swimmers. I try to get my swimmers to find a calm place to be while at meets. Unknowingly, swimmers and parents can create stress among themselves. Sometimes children just want to vent, and they need their parents to just listen and not react, allowing them to just talk. When they are done venting, parents should ask their child, “What can I do to help?” This allows for a more cooperative interaction, presenting learning opportunities and paths to problem solving.

I also try to teach my swimmers to be prepared to do the swim correctly. I have them write down their goal times and goal splits on an index card or on their phones. I remind them to focus on achieving those splits while training. Connecting the training with their goal splits helps them to piece together the swim they want.

SW: You note there are always good parts to bad swims. How do you incorporate those positive elements into everyday practice?

CF: A swim is like a multi-section test. Swimmers can swim the race correctly, but be off on pacing. Connecting the split times and training sometimes helps them understand piecing together the swim they want.

SW: Teaching swimmers to be comfortable being uncomfortable can be dicey. How do you do that?

CF: I use Jon Urbanchek’s color system. Sometimes swimmers think they are working hard. Then they check their heart rate and realize maybe there’s more in the tank. I do creative and challenging sets, then give them about a minute rest and have them do a 50 or 100 for time. Most times they go pretty fast. Then I explain that they have to work hard while they are tired…not until they are tired.

SW: Your emphases seem to be on technique, DPS, heart rate and short rest. How does each figure into your daily workouts?

CF: Warm-up is aerobically based, isolating the different muscle groups. For a two-hour practice, I do a 45-minute drill-based aerobic warm-up. If the practice is two-and-a-half hours, I like to do a one-hour drill-based warm-up.

I also use coaching headsets, which have been a game changer for me. Being able to communicate to the swimmers while they swim has been extremely helpful. I try to write sets and intervals that replicate how they should swim a race. Then I educate the swimmers on the connection of training well and how it will relate to their performance in meets.

SW: What place does Bob Steele’s “Games Gimmicks and Challenges” have in your practices?

CF: This is a resource I refer to often. My favorite sections are the Olympic training sets—which I modify to my style of coaching—and the quotes.

SW: In 2010, you started your coach-owned team, Westchester Aquatic Club. What occasioned that? How has the growth of the Wolverine program been to date?

CF: Without getting into too much detail, the culture and structure of Badger was changing. My son, Billy, who was on the senior team, was injured and miserable. The three-tier structure that worked successfully for years was going to be replaced by the Collins family having full control over the team.

I am grateful for the almost four decades of opportunities the Collins family offered ours. However, to grow as a coach, it was time to go on my own. I believe swimmers can swim fast and not get injured by focusing more on technique and less on volume. In addition, I want them to have fun.

It wasn’t easy, and there were a lot of obstacles. My father supported me financially to get my team off the ground. I received a lot of support from my daughter, Tricia, who founded the swim school; my son, Chris, who initiated the stroke development programs; his friend, Eric Wiltse, who did strength training; and coaching associates Chris Driwinga, Jonah Montgomery, Kris Sweetman, Sue Byrne and Nicole and Cristian Torres.

My philosophy is “less is more” when developing younger swimmers (ages 6-12). My team these days has multi-levels for swimmer progress. All groups do stroke drills every day.

Kate Douglass at 12 swam about four to five practices per week, then five to six practices when she turned 13. I believe proper technique and teaching swimmers to train well is more important than yardage for 12-and-unders.

I don’t believe in early stroke specialization. Our club is continuing to develop swimmers. Currently, we have 261 swimmers: seven 14-16s have Futures cuts, a 15-year-old is an open water juniors qualifier, and a 14-year-old is a winter and summer juniors qualifier. Three of my recent swimmers have continued their academic and athletic careers at West Point.

SW: The family mantra is “never problems, only solutions.” How has that carried over to swim coaching?

CF: It wasn’t easy getting my team up and running. The problem-solving skills my parents taught me and the life challenges I have had to overcome put things in perspective. I am always looking for ways to improve myself, personally and professionally. What can I do better as a coach? I don’t presume to be always right. We can learn a lot from our mistakes. And at times, being successful is not always about performance.

I had a remarkable swimmer on my team. She was super smart, a supportive teammate and hard worker. While experiencing success as an age grouper, she didn’t grow much after puberty and remained about the same size as she was when she was 12—but her body changed. She struggled to achieve the times she had at 12.

She came to practice with the absolute best attitude, was the first one in the water and worked as hard as her body would allow. She would always motivate the swimmers on the team to do their best, congratulated them on their successes and supported them in their challenges. I recognized her efforts and character to the team, and she was happy.

I received a call from one of her parents saying she was switching teams in hopes she might perform better. I explained the daughter’s amazing attributes and asked them why that wasn’t enough! I said she was happy and, if she moved teams, she might quit the sport altogether. I worried that on the new team, focusing only on performance would destroy her love for the sport.

Shortly afterward, she quit the new team and swimming entirely. I was truly saddened. While our sport can be important, there is always life after swimming. My goal as a coach is to instill positive learning attitudes for life through swimming.

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” was published in June 2021, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and distributors worldwide.

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