On The Record with Carroll Vaughan, Head Coach for Gulliver Prep and Miami Riptides Water Polo

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Carroll Vaughan and her Miami Riptides at the 2019 South Florida International Water Polo Tournament. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger / 3rd & Ocean

Editor’s Note: Swimming World was down in Coral Springs, Florida for the annual South Florida International Tournament. Offered by Michael Goldenberg, his daughter Elina and extensive coaching staff from the South Florida Water Polo Club, this annual age group tournament—started in 2003 by Istvan CsendesJim Shoemaker and Bruce Wigo—draws teams from all over the East Coast as well as from the Bahamas, Calgary, Chicago, Peru, Puerto Rico, Rome and other locations.

MIAMI, FL. The dean of Miami water polo is in perpetual motion on the day before her Gulliver School boys’ and girls’ teams begin play in local high school competition. Directing, deciding and delegating prior to an afternoon practice on a balmy Presidents’ Day holiday, Carroll Vaughan is absolutely in her element, leading one of South Florida’s best polo programs.

Since 2008 she’s coached at Gulliver Prep, as its known locally, a tony private school separated from its South Miami neighbors by an imposing palm tree-lined fence.  But the bronzed Vaughan is anything but pretentious, despite her surroundings. Her day job is as a waitress in a deli, a gig Vaughan says she’s held for over 40 years.

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Vaughan and her star player, Ashleigh Johnson. Photo Courtesy C. Vaughan

Nationally she’s known as Olympian Ashleigh Johnson’s coach, the astute talent evaluator who cultivated one of the most precocious polo athletes to grace Team USA Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s roster for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In her native element, Vaughan is a compassionate yet firm maestro who has orchestrated multiple programs to success. Since her arrival, the Gulliver Prep boys have captured state titles in 2012 and 2014, while the Raider girls won in 2013. Her Miami Riptides club team has been among Florida’s best in polo and swimming for almost two decades.

Following “Coach Carroll’s” lead, the Riptides are very much a family affair. Son Chase played at Palmetto Senior High School and then club ball at Florida International University. Daughter Lyndsey runs the Riptides business end, while many former players return to South Miami to coach.

Swimming World spoke with Vaughan at the Gulliver Prep pool about her career, her club and the values that she instill in the boys and girls—and their parents—who continue to flock to her program.

– How did you get started in water polo?

I played at Miami Palmetto High School. I swam my whole life—and was supposed to go to the University of Arizona, but they wanted me to swim and I was just done with it.

So I stayed here and went to the local junior college. Got married and had children. I was really out of the scene of swimming and water polo for a good ten years, but when my kids were young I brought them to the little neighborhood pool in Cutler Ridge. Within a year I was running the program.

The year I graduated from high school I played club. I was very fortunate; years ago the Miami Hurricanes and a group of girls who played out of Gables were really talented. Kathy Horn—who’s in the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame—she played with Maureen O’Toole. And Jenny Thompson; those were two of my best friends. They helped me and taught me how to play.

Years ago we hosted the Junior Pan Am Games here—when Ashleigh and Chelsea were young. The guy who was running it, [who was] from California, said: If I had three of you in California we’d run the state!

– At some point your kids’ swim program is looking to be more competitive; how does water polo factor in?

I had a very supportive husband who was a competitive soccer player and coach. My first licensing was actually soccer; I went with him and did some camps and clinics and got a soccer license.

We never took vacations. The only time we went anywhere was for a water polo tournament. In hindsight, I don’t know if that was the best thing to do—I tell people that—he died at 56. You always think: We’re gonna do it later!

Now, I don’t have later.

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Team Johnson is also Team Vaughan. Photo Courtesy: C. Vaughan

So, when somebody comes and says: Carroll, I made plans for something and we can’t go. I feel terrible!

I say: Don’t feel terrible! I have other kids! Go! Enjoy your life.

We put out important dates; if you can be there you can. If not, somebody else plays.

– Donna Johnson emphasized that it was the family atmosphere you created for the club that drew her and her children to the Riptides.

Almost every single assistant coach I’ve ever hired was one of my own players. So, I don’t think I’ll ever run across a problem—there’s a lot of problems that exist in the world. They know what I expect; I don’t have to reiterate at any time exactly how we do things. And it is like a family. We’re there for each other.

They come back from college and become my assistant coaches.

– There is an idea that it’s important to give back to the sport. How does that help the Riptides stay competitive?

Of course you want to win. But, I believe the most important thing to us is to do things the right way. There are so many things tempting them that aren’t the right way. I’ve had kids come and tell me—even my parents tell me—something I know isn’t right to get ahead. What do I do then?

I tell them: Always listen to that little voice in your head. And if you need to, call me. And I’ve had kids do it. Because there’s just so much temptation out there to not do things the right way.

That’s been my philosophy all along. We’re always going to do things the right way. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. But, it doesn’t matter; we gave it our best shot.

– That means you have supportive parents.

People jump ship. People leave if you’re not doing things the way they want or you’re not winning quick enough. Like I said, my husband was very supportive and he would tell me all the time: Let them go! They’re going to be a cancer to your program.

It’s sad because sometimes you lose really good kids because of bad parents. but you can’t let that spoil everything else.

– So let’s talk about one very good parent—Donna—and one very special player: Ashleigh.

She probably could have played any sport and have been a gold medalist. If you look at her work ethic, she worked hard! It goes back to that they were all friends. They’d tell me: Don’t cancel practice on Christmas! We want to come!

We would do two-a-day practices, eat lunch in between, and the kids would say: are we all going to the movies together?! They loved being together.

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A silver finish for the 16U Riptides in South Florida. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger / 3rd & Ocean

We struggle now because we don’t have that. My assistant coaches—Chelsea, Hunter, Chris—we don’t see that now, so we’re trying to figure out how to get these kids to want to be here.

We try to give them the fundamentals of water polo through repetition—and they’ll even tell me at the next level: Carroll, don’t scrimmage so much because it’s not what they really need. But, if I don’t make it fun and they don’t scrimmage enough, they won’t come back. So I have to do things a bit different. in order to make them want to come here and make them come back.

– What’s interesting—and also makes a lot of sense—is the regional aspect of the Miami water polo scene, with each local club reflecting the character of the community it’s based in.

We are very much neighborhood. Some of the programs are not; they’re just their school. But we have kids from Palmetto, Taro, Mast; I’ve had kids from Ransom [Everglades], Coral Gables—all over.

You get one or two kids, they like it, and just by word of mouth new kids come. And then the parents will say: Your child was about even to my child last year. What did you do this summer?

It’s been just word of mouth, the same with my swimming program. It goes year-round, we have swim meets every weekend. They’re rec; we run them ourselves and invite other rec / park programs. We purchase all the medals and the ribbons and everything.

– Again, you’re taking care of all the details and making this all happen! Is this a role you still embrace?

I started the program, we incorporated and made it a 501c3 organization—all of that back work. I’ve worked my whole life, I’m in the restaurant business as a waitress. That pays my bills. I would love for my daughter or son to take it over, or somebody that I’ve coached. Because I can’t do it forever. And I don’t want it to end. It’s been a very good club with a very good reputation.

When I first came to [Gulliver Prep], when they interviewed me, they said: You have to fold your club and start a Gulliver club. I thanked them for the offer and I left.

They called me back and said: What happened?! [I said:] I’m not folding my club. There’s no reason to do that. They agreed I could bring my club into [Gulliver].

– There’s also the Raiders that were at the South Florida Invitational Tournament…

Ransom Raiders. We’re Gulliver Raiders; St. Thomas is [the] Raiders—there’s a lot of “Raiders” our there; we all have the same name!

– To jumble things up even more, the head coach of the Ransom Raiders is Eric Lefebrve, formerly your assistant coach with the Riptides.

We’re very good friends. And I tell my kids that. It’s wonderful to have a rivalry, but we’re such a small sport that they’re going to leave here and go play in college with somebody that was your rival [in Miami]. And if you’re lucky enough to play on the national team, for sure you’re going to play with kids that you’ve played against forever.

Never disrespect them. It’s such a small sport we need to grow it—and that won’t happen if we have all of those problems, a lot of which comes from parents. They can’t handle rivalries or losses.

A child, they’re okay. You give them a snack and they’ve already forgotten about [the loss]. They’re on to what they’re doing that night. Sometimes these parents, they sit in the stands and I don’t know what they’re saying. Next thing I know someone’s telling me about what’s happening.

– Last year Hialeah won the girls’ state polo title—first time ever for a Florida public school. What does this mean about possible changes in the state’s high school polo landscape?

A lot of it has to do with Nelson. His genes, his know-how and his coaching.

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Nelson Dominguez of Hialeah Storm Water Polo Club. Photo Courtesy: Alex Donis

When I started coaching—and I started in the public schools—that was one of my main things. I started at Palmetto, and I said to the kids: I’m really excited you’re here but can you bring me your younger brothers and sisters? Because, in order for us to compete against the private schools, that’s what we need. They’re starting in middle school—and there’s not much we can do if they’ve already got a three- or four-year [head start].

We need those young kids from the swimming and soccer programs; we need water polo to be out there! That’s why splashball is going to be huge. We’re going to exceed everything else that been happening, because [kids] are starting earlier.

When you get somebody who’s in 11th grade and wants to start water polo for the first time because they swam their whole life, that’s hard. But you don’t want to say: I won’t waste my time on you.

So we really need to bring the youth in to [the sport].

Coach Nelson’s had those girls for a while; they’re young and grew together. They’re great girls; I took them to California [the last] two summers for JOs.

Yes, we’re a club here at Gulliver Prep but I have a lot of people who are not privileged at all. Because we’re a 501c3, all the money we make we pay out in pool rental and coaching fees. Whatever’s left over we fundraise and we take these kids [to tournaments].

To me that’s what it’s all about. The ODP program—and years ago I was exposed to it through soccer—and my husband said that soccer ODP was only for those who could afford it. Some of the best players in the world, if they didn’t have the money, they were left behind.

– How is this any different than the way USA Water Polo runs its ODP program?

They give financial aid for Olympic Development. They have it and I’ve told every child who was doing it to apply for it. The worse thing they can say is no.

I had a family—two of the kids are coaching here for me—they had quadruplets plus siblings. So imagine you’re trying to travel with six kids, and you’re trying to pay fees.

We look for [whomever] needs help and then we help. And all we ask for in return is that you help us with running our programs and with our tournament—we need people to work tables. They obviously like it because they come back and coach for me. They really want to be around.

It is like a family.

– It’s interesting that Felix Mercado, who’s been at Brown for so long, remains pivotal to Miami water polo.

My first year, I’d seen the athletic director at Palmetto, who had been the PE teacher when I went there, in line at the grocery store. She asked what’s happening in my life, and I said that my daughter’s going to Palmetto in two years, so she’ll be playing water polo there. She told me: Somebody better go get the job because I’m about to fold the program. I can’t find a coach. Are you interested?

I told her I’d just got my swimming program going and hadn’t been involved in water polo in a long time.

She said: Come and see me.

That’s how it started. She hired me, and I went in that first year, met the kids and it was overwhelming. [It’s] Pinecrest, a very affluent area, but a public school. The parents wanted to control everything, which they had previously. I was not going to let that happen.

Felix took me under his wing. “Whatever you need, you come to me.” He taught me how to coach, he helped me—some of the kids went to him and said: This is some mom who has no idea what she’s doing. We’re not going to listen to her.

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Family is key to the Riptides’ success (and a certain goalie, in the center). Photo Courtesy: C. Vaughan

He told them: [She’s] here to coach. Nobody else is willing to do that. You either listen to her or quit the sport. It was really good that he helped me in that way. he was great, and I’ll never forget that.

My daughter played club for him for years, even when I started the Riptides Water Polo because we were a swimming club that turned into water polo. I left her with him; there’s no sense in her going backwards.

– In taking the pulse of water polo in the region, are things getting better?

We’ve tried. We really have tried. But unfortunately I would say no. I don’t see it. We now get kids with the mentality that they can play three months of the year for their high school team—kids who might be fine with getting MVP of their high school, yet they can’t do anything in club. But that’s the expectation they hold for themselves.

The colleges say they want well-rounded kids. So that really got to the parents; they have to have music, They have to have art, they have to be [part of] a club. I don’t know that anybody is focused on doing anything exceeding expectations because they’re so spread out. They’re overwhelmed with all the work they have to do.

I tell them: Your school work is first. Your family, and then I would hope it will be our sport. Years ago I asked every athlete to give up soda, alcohol—which they shouldn’t have been having anyway—and PlayStation. And all those video games. For a whole season. A handful did it. I asked them to give everything to this team and this sport.

That year those boys won states, and I’ll never forget: my best player—he was MVP—telling me he put his PlayStation in the closet so he couldn’t see it.

He said it taught him something about himself that he never knew—that he could do. It was such a life lesson—and he really understood it. It wasn’t just about the team; it was so much for him!

I’m trying to do little things that I think down the road will help them. That’s really why I coach.

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Vaughan is on it in Coral Springs. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger / 3rd & Ocean

When we started, I would have to make up a team with an eight-year-old girl, nine-year-old boy, 12-year-old sibling…and we would go up to South Florida and play the Wigo twins, Drac and Janson. Their father, Bruce, was the head of the [International Swimming] Hall of Fame, and his older son Wolf is KAP7.

We would play them when they were in middle school. And they would trounce us! 30-1! But we would go every weekend. Felix, who was at Ransom [Everglades] would say: why do you keep going there?

I’d say: You know, the next week we went it was 30-2. And we just kept going.

Almost all of our kids ended up playing in college. I had a girl who went to Cal Baptist, Ashleigh Wheeler-Rood, she was one of my first ones. She’s now coaching in California. Water polo was such an important thing in her life. I’ll never forget; she wrote me after she started coaching: I’m sorry! I was one of these pain in the necks!

That’s what I mean; those are the stories.