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Profile: Coach Mel Roberts, Tooele High School Fishaloes

When researching my blogs on team mascots and nicknames I stumbled upon the “Fishaloes”. As I checked out their SwimTopia team website for more information on their unique nickname and mascot I noticed that their coach, Coach Mel Roberts, was in his 48th year of coaching at Tooele High School. I couldn’t help but be impressed and curious to learn more!

 I interviewed Mel about his amazing success and longevity as a High School swim coach. I also spoke to one of his swimmers, Stuart Smith, to get an athlete’s perspective on Mel. Enjoy!

Coach Mel Roberts

Over Coach Mel Roberts’ 48 years with Tooele HS, the team has won an astounding 33 Regional Championships and 11 State Championship titles in Utah. After serving in many different roles in NISCA, the National Interscholastic Coaches Association, Mel was elected as President in 2013 and is currently serving his active term as Past President. If he wasn’t busy enough, Mel has a fulfilling family life as father to 3 and stepfather to 10 children.

EO: Were you a swimmer yourself?

MR: Yes, I started swimming at age 11. My dad was a meet announcer for the local swim coach and it didn’t take me long to decide swimmers were cool and I wanted to be one. I swam for Coach Leigh Pratt all four years at Tooele High School and then for four years with Don Reddish at the University of Utah.

EO: How did you get into swim coaching?

Don-Reddish Coach Mel Roberts with his college coach, Don Reddish

MR: My swim coaches, both Coach Pratt and Coach Reddish, had a huge impact on my life. When I got done with my degree at the University of Utah I got into a CPA program. By that time Coach Pratt had retired from coaching at Tooele High School and the school was having trouble finding and keeping a good swim coach. I saw the team start to go downhill and decided I wanted to move back to take over. I went back to school for a year to get my teaching accreditation and then took over the coaching position at THS and started teaching Math as well.

EO: How have you stayed in coaching so long? Don’t you get tired of the early mornings?

MR: I love working with the kids. As long as I enjoy doing it, I want to keep it up. I have retired from teaching now and could stop coaching at any time, but I feel younger being with the kids! You have “up” years and “down” years. Sometimes I’m beat at the end of a season but then I miss the association with the kids and I always come back around. Coaches have such an influence on swimmers; they teach things that can’t be taught anywhere else. We teach kids more than just how to swim fast, we teach them about life. It’s a fantastic feeling when kids come back years after they have graduated to thank you for everything you’ve taught them.

I never had a desire to move to a college coaching position. I have stayed in the one place for so long because I grew up here and Tooele is a huge part of my life.

[Tooele, pronounced too-eluh, is a town of about 30,000, 35 miles outside of Salt Lake City.]

EO: You’ve been working with your Assistant Coach, Sam Cox, for 33 years. What has contributed to the longevity of that coaching relationship?

MR: Sam swam for me during High School. She didn’t have a lot of family support, the swim team became her family, and swimming kept her on the straight and narrow. After Sam got married and had kids of her own she wanted to come back to the school and the swim team so she could give back to the sport that had given so much to her. Sam is a great coach; she is really good at teaching those kids to swim!

EO: I have seen your “Composite Record” page online, your win/loss percentage is amazing and you’ve been very consistent! What has been the secret to your success?

MR: I think the coaching relationship I have been able to develop with my swimmers is the key. My swimmers know they can rely on me, they know they can trust me, and they have confidence in me. My swimmers can come to me and talk to me about any problems their having outside of their swimming and they know I’ll be there for them and support them along the way. It pays off in the pool. I have had whole families come through my program, where I have coached the grandparents, the parents and now the kids. There is definitely trust there! The longer you’re in the coaching game the more you realize it’s not about the win/loss record, it’s about life lessons.

EO: What are the core values you try to pass on to your swimmers?

MR: I try to teach kids about commitment: that you have to give something up to get something in return, that improving at swimming, just like anything else, takes dedication. I teach my swimmers to associate with each other and work together and to accept failure and get up and go on with life. I stress to my kids that when they go out into the community they’re representing themselves, their families and their school. Things like manners and courtesy – things that kids don’t necessarily learn out there in the world anymore – they learn with me.

EO: You have an Alumni Meet and social event coming up on December 26, is that a tradition?

MR: We have been running the Alumni meet for a number of years now. When past THS swimmers come back from college for the Holidays or come back to visit parents they love to get together, go over the scrapbooks, and relive the “glory days”. We like to say, “The older we get the better we were”. When folks leave the program they are always sad to be done with their high school swimming career. They enjoy coming back, timing or volunteering at our meets and staying involved.

EO: You would have seen a lot of changes to swimming over the years. What changes have had the biggest impact on the swimmers?

Missy Coach Mel Roberts presents Missy Franklin with her 200 Backstroke Championship Trophy, 2014 NCAA Championships

MR: I’d have to say the most revolutionary change to swimming that I saw was goggles! When I started swimming we didn’t have goggles, and your eyes would burn and itch. Goggles didn’t come out until after I started coaching and all of a sudden you could keep kids in the water longer and have more time to work on endurance and skills. We started seeing big improvements.

Of course we’ve all seen the lane lines, the blocks and the swimsuits change, but when they first painted the black line down the middle of the lane and painted the targets at the end that made a big difference with circle swimming and improving turns.

EO: Has using SwimTopia, your online swim management software, helped you manage the team and changed your coaching experience?

MR: I was surprised but it took my parents and kids a good while to get used to using the website to find all the information they needed. Now everyone uses it regularly and communication is certainly easier. I used to print and mail everyone our monthly newsletter!

EO: What’s your least favorite thing about coaching?

MR: Paperwork! No matter how much we move toward an online system, with a school program, there are always forms to be filled out and getting those back from the kids can be challenging! I have a really good relationship with all my parents, so that’s not an issue, but trying to set up meets and give kids the opportunity to swim all the events they’d like to swim can be challenging.

EO: What’s your favorite thing about coaching?

MR: What’s really cool is when you see the kids that could hardly swim a length at tryouts set goals and work toward them. As they gain confidence the improvement comes, and seeing them smile after they do a best time is the most rewarding feeling!

One Swimmer’s Perspective

After talking to Coach Mel Roberts I wanted to touch base with one of his swimmers to get their impression of him and his contribution to their lives. I spoke to Stuart Smith who swam all four years with Mel and graduated in 1983. Stuart’s wife, Staci, also swam for Mel, as did Staci’s 5 brothers and sisters. Mel was the best man at Stuart and Staci’s wedding and now all three of their children have gone through the Tooele HS swim program with Mel as well. Stuart’s son broke his dad’s 26 yr old 200 IM Varsity Record during his tenure as a Fishaloe.

Stuart described watching Mel at the pool, staying late with the kids that wanted to work more and harder. If someone was dedicated Mel would give them as much of his time as they needed to help them get better. Stuart remembered wanting to be that kid one day.

When I asked Stuart what he thought made Mel and his team so successful, Stuart explained: “Mel did a good job empowering the older swimmers to be leaders, there was a real cohesiveness to the team. Mel fostered the kind of camaraderie where we lifted each other. The senior boys would NOT let me fail during practice. They set the standard. Mel would sit with each of us and set goals. He taught us how to work towards them and helped us reach them. We really responded to Mel, he gave us confidence. A lot of successful people came out of his program.”

Coach Mel, Coach Sam and Team. Stuart's sons are 4th and 5th from the right. Coach Mel Roberts, Coach Sam and Team. Stuart’s sons are 4th and 5th from the right.

Mel mentioned in our interview that he was there for his swimmers both in and out of the pool, and Stuart gave an example from his own experience of how Mel’s perceptiveness about his swimmer’s needs, and his ability to be there for his swimmers, helped Stuart through a tough time. When Stuart was in 9th grade he began to run out of steam right in the middle of practice. He didn’t know what was happening — he wanted to work out, but he just felt he had nothing to give. Mel began quizzing Stuart about his eating habits throughout the day. Stuart’s parents had recently divorced, and his mom had moved out. Mel discovered Stuart wasn’t eating regular and hearty meals. To solve the issue Mel gave Stuart some recommendations for breakfast, got him eating at school for lunch every day, and asked his friends on the team to make sure he did; then Mel invited him to his own family dinner every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night. Stuart says, “It wasn’t a request, I had to be there, and he made me eat until I couldn’t fit another thing in! Of course my swimming picked back up shortly after that!”

Not every kid is lucky enough to have a coach that goes the extra mile like Mel did for Stuart. Coach Mel Roberts has been a big part of the Tooele community; shaping lives, and helping kids swim better, for 48 years. Mel’s positivity and commitment to teaching life skills through his swim program have certainly contributed to his amazing longevity and success in the sport. A big thank you to Coach Mel Roberts and Stuart Smith for taking the time to talk to me.

Congratulations Mel, thanks for the inspiration!