Q&A With Hopkins Mariners Coach Chuck Elrick

Photo Courtesy: Hopkins School

By Bryan Gu, Swimming World Intern.

Chuck Elrick is the head coach of the Hopkins Mariners Swim Team in New Haven, Connecticut. Despite having little swimming experience (relative to most coaches), Coach Elrick has led both a successful high school and club swimming program for the past 35 years. Having just crested his 600th win, Swimming World sat down with Coach Elrick in the hopes of garnering his unique perspective on coaching, and learning more about the journey that led to his success and the road to come.

Swimming World: What made you first get into the aquatic sports?

CE: I spent most of my summers at the Indian Point Summer Club in Branford, Connecticut. I grew up around the water. I was always in the water, either with the club team or on the diving board. I really enjoyed being on the diving board, and I think I was just a little more adventurous than the other kids, because the coach soon asked me to be a diver instead. 

SW: How long have you been coaching?

CE: Thirty-five years.

SW: What led you to make the transition from diving to coaching a swim team? How did you start coaching?

CE: I had started teaching lessons at the Woodbridge Town Pool, and Bob Burns was looking for an assistant coach for the club team– Woodbridge Aquatic Club. He came to look at a lesson that I was giving, offered me the job the next week, and it just took off from there.

SW: How did you get a job at the Hopkins School?

CE: Well it started with Bud Erich, the previous Hopkins coach – he and I had gone way back. I was coaching the Darien Piranhas with Bill Wall, and we had just broken away from the Darien Y to form the New Haven YMCA Mariner Swim Team. Several Hopkins students would do their independent (fulfillment of athletic credit outside of school) with us at the Long Club. I began to form connections with Hopkins.

I was called in for an interview in ’83 and in retrospect it didn’t go well. They told me I would be coaching six different sports teams across three seasons, and I immediately said no – I needed to be on deck at 5:30 p.m. and their practices ended at 5:15 p.m. I thought I’d lost it then and there, but I got called back. Ultimately I was asked to help the school build a pool, but for those first few years I was coaching six other school teams in conjunction with my club team. We moved up here in ’86, and things became smoother, but all of it really began with Hopkins students and my relationship with Bud.

600 Wins

Photo Courtesy:Peter Mahakian

SW: Having never actually swam competitively, how did you make the transition into becoming a coach?

CE: I was always active as a kid– football, soccer, wrestling, golf, etc. I eventually ended up playing lacrosse full time, all the way through college, and it was during college that I had my first experience with management. I was both captain and coach during my senior year. Since the “coach” could only make it one day a week to practice, we took up the responsibility. I found the coaching and teaching came naturally to me, and everything I didn’t know came with experience and mentorship. 

SW: You must have received tons of guidance over the years. What were some of the most influential words you were ever given?

CE: Some of the most influential people in my life – Bob Burns, Bill Wall, Jim Barton – taught me more through their actions, rather than with their words. They’re yellers, always very aggressive and demanding of their swimmers, and I remember always questioning their method. Why not earn their respect, instead of demanding it? In response to their coaching styles, I learned to hone my own, commanding respect with silence on the pool deck.

I remember I almost quit my first year at Hopkins, since Bud Erich had been such a friendly character, and the kids were unfamiliar to a more regimented environment. The kids would complain at my foreign methods. I had to pull them into my office one lane at a time, just to explain to them why things were going to be different. The only reason I didn’t quit was because I had made a promise to myself to leave every job a little better than I found it. That first year was awful, but it slowly began to get easier, and now I’m pretty sure most kids fear me.

SW: What do you think makes a good coach?

CE: Multiple things. Knowing how far you can push somebody, for one. Be realistic about what a kid can achieve. Alternatively your deck presence and presence with other coaches. Athletes and swimmers see how you interact with officials and coaches, and they will follow your behavior.

Chuck Elrick

Photo Courtesy: Peter Mahakian.

SW: In all this time, what was the most important thing you’ve learned?

CE: Not everyone has the same goals. Some people are only on the team because they have to be, some people are in the water just because they love to swim, some people only see as far as high school championships, and some people want to compete nationally. You have a variety of goals from one group of people and it’s important they be treated all with the same respect.

SW: What do you think is the most difficult part of coaching? Why?

CE: Honestly, I’d say it’s the interruption of family time. The daily grind – traveling, coaching, writing, planning – is the hardest thing to get past. I’m putting in a lot of hours and let’s be honest, it’s not quite as glamorous as some professions. 

SW: What’s it like, having been in this sport for so long, to see all of these swimmers coming around full circle?

CE: It’s scary to think they’ve come all the way around, but it’s great to see them finding passion and succeeding in the sport.

SW: Not to pry, but how much longer do you think you can do this?

CE: I honestly don’t know. It’s not work yet. I enjoy it enough that I don’t feel my age – the kids make me feel young.