Swimming mourns the loss of tough, tender Pettinger

Updated 7/11/2018 8:02 PM
  • Former Wisconsin men's swimming coach Jack Pettinger has died at age 79.

    Former Wisconsin men's swimming coach Jack Pettinger has died at age 79. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Femrite

In a sustained competitive swimming endeavor that lasted more than 15 years, the most treasured award I earned was not a ribbon, medal or trophy.

Instead, it was what coach Jack Pettinger said about me at the conclusion of my college days at Wisconsin.

His remarks came at our team banquet in the spring of 1987. This was only a couple of months after the Big Ten championships, so the post-shave hairstyle I was sporting at the time was somewhat nebulous, that awkward no-man's land between peachfuzz and crewcut.

I guess I'm technically paraphrasing here, because it was 31 years ago and I didn't write it down anywhere. But his few words of praise meant the world to me then, and now:

"Aaron here," said Jack, "he might look like a teddy bear right now, but believe me -- there's steel underneath. I mean, you should see the way this guy trains."

I include this anecdote as an attempt to illustrate the kind of impact Jack had on the athletes he coached. Similarly personal tributes have been pouring in via social media these last couple of days.

Jack Pettinger, 79, died Tuesday in Madison, after battling Alzheimer's. He is survived by his lovely wife, Jane, and their four children, along with nine grandchildren and a great grandson.

I was fortunate to get a whole lot of time with Jack. In addition to swimming for the university team he coached for those four seasons, I also spent four summers in Madison swimming for the club team he'd founded, called Badger Dolphin. And after that, I helped out as a graduate volunteer coach during a fifth year of undergraduate work.

In that era, Badger Dolphin acted as a kind of summer magnet program, attracting a great mix of college swimmers from around the country along with terrific younger Madison, Chicago and Milwaukee swimmers.

Jack's frequent involvement in clinics for other coaches was important to many from the Chicago suburbs, including my own high school coach, Dave Bart at St. Charles, and important Illinois swimming folks such as Lee McCloud at Barrington. Simply put, Jack was a giant on the midwestern swimming landscape.

Jack and diving coach Jerry Darda formed a vivid partnership in Big Ten swimming and diving, starting with their arrival in Madison in 1969.

Jack -- all business, with piercing eyes and a lower tolerance for b.s. than anybody I've ever encountered.

Jerry -- loose and fun, always ready with a tawdry joke, as free-wheeling and flexible as the athletes he coached.

Together they quickly found success. Among the key recruits to Jack's early Wisconsin teams from the Chicago suburbs was Prospect Heights' Rich Lynch, who ended up being a team captain. There was lots of great swimming under Jack's guidance in Madison, most markedly in the 1970s with a string of runner-up Big Ten finishes and world class swimmers who represented the U.S. in international competition.

Jack's own swimming lineage was rich -- he'd excelled as a competitor at Fenwick and then Michigan before serving in the Marines and eventually becoming an assistant to swimming icon Doc Counsilman at Indiana. One very special athlete, Madison native Jim Montgomery, benefited from both Jack and Doc's guidance and became a world record holder and Olympic champion.

Another key part of Jack's legacy is the platoon of coaches he helped develop.

There figures to be great attendance from the wide swath of people Jack influenced for services between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Cress Funeral and Cremation Service, 3610 Speedway Road, Madison. Informal attire is requested as, fittingly, a picnic will follow the services.

I know enough of Jack's swimmers from eras other than my own to confirm that he had a unique ability to draw greatness from his athletes. I've tried to explain this to folks who didn't know him well -- including a handful who'd wondered out loud what was so special about him.

Mostly, the people doing this kind of questioning had somehow ended up on the wrong end of Jack's straight-forwardness. Jack could be difficult -- and each era of Wisconsin swimming has its own mythology about that part of the man, usually involving a truly creative application of vulgar language.

Attempting to relate these vignettes with any hint of completeness would be an assured failure, owing to vocabulary restrictions and sheer volume.

But anyway, here's one family-friendly example of the straight-talk version of Jack:

After I'd won the 500-yard freestyle as a freshman in the Big Ten championships, I made my way back to the team, to meet with Jack for what I thought would be a triumphant moment for us all.

Instead, before even showing me my splits, Jack said, "Congratulations -- you're the best fat swimmer I've ever seen."

I have witnesses -- this really happened. The part that's hard to explain is that it was not intended as spitefulness or even criticism, but as recognition that I'd conquered a very real challenge. And, significantly, he was perfectly correct about the fat part, at least within the context of comparing me against other elite swimmers.

In any case, stories like this represent only one side of what made him great: the toughness.

The other side, the tenderness, is what made him really special.

It took some years before I really understood that part, I think mainly because he liked the idea of keeping it low-profile -- so as not to compromise his stance as character-building taskmaster. Just practically speaking, revealing empathy to the athletes you are asking to swim 20,000 yards per day is not a winning business model.

Yet as the years pass, the nurturing moments are the ones that really stay with me.

Like the time in my senior year, when my roommate's dad passed away unexpectedly and Jack drove me to Milwaukee and back for services.

Or the many instances when, under threatening weather after a practice at the Nat, he'd drive a load of swimmers across campus in his station wagon to the student union for the meal-plan dinner.

A high school swimming friend of mine, Stryker Reed, was struggling as he attended another university. Stryker asked if he could train with our Wisconsin team for three weeks in Hawaii over the semester break, and Jack just said, 'Sure.' I believe the only condition was that Stryker had to do our workouts.

And my personal favorite, a Jack tradition: Opening his family's Green Lake cottage to both the men's and women's swim team for one glorious day each fall to officially start another season.

I wouldn't be surprised if each of these examples of kindness would now fall under some category of NCAA infraction, and heck, maybe they did even when I was there 30-plus years ago. All I know for sure is that I'm so deeply thankful I was around when Jack was.

At a recent summer golf escapade with some of my Badger swimming peers, there was a sobering moment when we realized we're all much older now than Jack was when he was coaching us.

Time does not always fly -- sometimes, it swims.

Toward the end, the man of few words had trouble producing any at all.

When a couple of those Badger pals visited him at a memory care facility just last week and asked him how things were going, Jack rose to the occasion and summoned a one-word response that begins with an 'sh,' ends with a 'y' and is very clearly not suitable for a family newspaper.

I am hopeful that even in this sad moment, those who knew Jack can smile about this detail and take some comfort in that fact that despite his illness, he was always, still, his true self.

Tough, tender and a gifted teller of truth.

Thanks for everything, Jack. We'll never forget.

• Aaron Gabriel is the Daily Herald's high school sports editor.

• In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research or to Alzheimer's Association.

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