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Remembering Glenn Ginish Sr.

October 30, 2012

Nine-year-old Laura Ginish receives a hug from her father, Glenn Sr., at the tail end of the 1996 Boys & Girls Club National Short-Course Swimming Championships in Sarasota, Fla. Glenn Sr. coached both Laura and elder son Glenn Jr. when they were youngsters representing the Boys & Girls Club of Cumberland-Lincoln Penguins. Glenn Ginish Sr., who grew up in Pawtucket and captured several individual state and New England swimming titles, died Oct. 18 at age 54 of a sudden heart attack.

On the evening of Thursday, Oct. 18, Glenn Ginish, Jr., a performance analyst for a renowned bank in Boston, was taking the “T” home to Jamaica Plains when he figured he'd call his kid sister, Laura, back at her mom's apartment on Mendon Road.
He did so just so the two could catch up with each other's lives.
“We were shooting the breeze, and I got another ring, so I told Laura I'd call her right back,” Ginish Jr. said. “It was my father's (second) wife, Mary, who called me out of the blue. She told me they were rushing my father to the hospital. She said they found him on the ground in the driveway.”
Glenn Jr. immediately called Laura back, explaining to her that something terrible had happened to their dad, Glenn Ginish, Sr.
“I just wanted to get to where my dad was going,” Laura said. “I did get there, and it seemed like it took forever. About 15-20 minutes later, the doctor came out and told us.”
Ginish Sr., a Pawtucket native and one of the premier high school swimmers of his era – not to mention mentors, had died of a massive heart attack at the tender age of 54.
He was buried at Johnston's Highland Memorial Park on Monday.
“One of the first things (my brother) said to me was 'Now he'll never to be able to play with his grandchildren,'” Laura stated. “The first thing I said, 'Now he can't walk me down the aisle.'
“It hasn't set in,” Laura offered, tears welling up. “He used to send me a text message every morning. It would say, 'Good morning, Punkies! Have a good day! I love you!'
“I'm not going to get those messages anymore,” she added, wiping her eyes. “I'm going to miss that.”
While Laura sat at her laptop late Saturday afternoon perusing old pictures and news articles about her dad's brilliant athletic past, her mom walked into another room to retrieve what she called the most precious photograph she had ever seen between father and daughter.
At the time, she was a diminutive, darling nine-year-old. She and her father had traveled to the 1996 Boys & Girls Club of America's National Short-Course Swimming Championships in Sarasota, Fla.; they were there to proudly represent the Boys & Girls Club of Cumberland-Lincoln Penguins.
As the meet wound down with the final relays, Glenn Sr., who then served as the extremely successful Penguins' head coach, embraced his little girl. Laura had nestled under his right arm, and Ginish Sr. looked down at her as if to say, “Great job, honey! It's been a long meet, but I'm so proud of you!”
“That feeling was amazing. I felt so protected,” she said. “I won't have that anymore … I guess because we're a little older and we don't live with him anymore, people may think it won't hurt as much. It's not the day-to-day stuff at all; it's just knowing that he'd be around.”
Laura noted she placed that same photo into her father's casket, “so I will always be with him.”
***
I can relate, just a little, to Laura's feelings. Glenn had been a teammate of mine while we both competed for the now-defunct (unfortunately) Seekonk Dolphins Swim Team, led by legendary coach Ellis Mayers.
Any swimmer who launched off the blocks at an area meet – it doesn't matter what level – knows his name, and what he stood for and accomplished in his area of expertise.
Coach approached us one day – I'm guessing it was the fall of 1974, when I was 13 – to tell us we were about to get ourselves a new teammate. When he explained that “Glenn Ginish” was the young man, then about 17, I immediately thought, “We've just won the RIMA League (an acronym for Rhode Island/Massachusetts Swim) championship!”
That was the reputation Glenn, not to mention his brothers and sisters, had throughout New England. He already had captured for himself numerous state age-group titles and records, but Mayers reminded me last week that he wanted more as he got older.
“Well, Glenn went to Shea (actually, it was Pawtucket West at the time),” he noted. “While he was there, he also swam with us in Seekonk. He told me he was hungry to be a champion, not just in the RIMA League, but also at (high school) states and New Englands.
“I thought he was hungry to do that, and was willing to put the time and effort into it,” he added. “As you know, that's what hard work and devotion will do for you. He was willing to commit himself to those kinds of intense workouts, both in the water and on land.
“As everybody progresses through the high-school ranks, you're always working on stroke technique to get faster. That technique has to change, as do the workouts, if you're going to improve. We did quite a bit of work on his stroke, especially for high school, because that's where he wanted to excel.
“One of his long-term goals, certainly, was to be a state and New England champion.”
Mayers recalls when the ultimate paid off for Ginish. As a Pawtucket West senior in March 1976, he trekked to the New England Interscholastic Swimming & Diving Championships at the University of Maine-Orono and snared the 100-yard freestyle with a time of approximately 48 seconds-flat (that according to his son “Junior”).
“He was certainly strong, but he just had so much determination and desire to improve; that attitude can make a big difference,” Mayers said. “Technique is very important, but having that tremendous want to do well, he certainly had that. He set high goals for himself, and he wanted to know if I would help him. I just told him, 'If that's what you want, and you put the work in, sure, I'll help.'
“I recall having an eye on what he was doing, but I was pretty busy watching our own (Seekonk High) guys were doing,” he continued. “I do know he was so excited about it, happy with his improvement (in time). He always knew he would get better. He also knew that, if he didn't win, he certainly was going to do his best time. To him, and most swimmers, that's all that counted.”
Coach mentored him as a Dolphin for two years, and he admitted “it took my breath away” when he discovered his amazing student had passed away. (I had learned minutes earlier, when my sister Jill notified me at The Call.
“You just don't expect someone his age to … it was a shock,” he said. “I was at home, and Jill called,” he stated. “She said, 'Coach, I hate to tell you this, but Glenn Ginish had a heart attack.' You just can't believe it. I remember him as a young swimmer, and you don't expect someone like him to pass at age 54. I remember the shape he was in.”
Yup, he was invincible.
***
Ginish Sr., of Polish descent, graduated from Pawtucket West in 1976, and immediately received scholarship offers from colleges and universities. He chose Central Connecticut State, and did rather well before leaving for personal reasons after two-plus years
He later married a woman named Elisabeth, a gal from The Netherlands, and they had two children, Glenn Jr. and Laura.
It didn't take long for them to catch the “chlorine bug.” Naturally, he taught both, especially when he became the new head coach at the BGC-CL.
“He never forced me to swim,” Glenn Jr. stated. “I always wanted to be in the water. I had heard my father, and his brothers and sisters, talk about swimming all the time, and I wanted to be a part of it.
“It was more for the glory than anything else,” he added. “Looking back on it, I could see how much everybody's personalities were linked to swimming. It dominated a lot of conversations, and I think it was because everyone was so good at it.”
As his son grew older, Glenn Sr. would sometimes tease him about who was faster, and the tandem would race.
“I'd say it was always a healthy rivalry,” Glenn Jr. stated. “I think we were pretty close in terms of times – until I was about 12. It was always the 25 (yard) fly. Every now and then he'd beat me, but I held him off more than 50 percent of the time.
“Actually, I don't know if he could've gone much farther,” he added with a laugh. “He got out of breath pretty quick.”
As for Laura, she just chose competitive swimming because that's what everyone did within the Ginish clan.
“My father was coaching him, and I wanted to be with them,” she chuckled. “Babci (her grandma Rose Ginish) was at all of our meets, and she could be tough. I always felt she added more pressure because we didn't want to let her down. It didn't matter what my time was – it was, like, 'Just win.'
“My dad was a tough coach,” she added. “He always expected you to do your best. I remember once, he pulled me out of a meet because I wasn't doing well, or I think because maybe I wasn't trying as hard as he wanted. I didn't have as many bad experiences as my brother, I think, because I was his daughter and 'little girl.' Glenn was his oldest son, so he was harder on him.
“The name Ginish always meant a lot as we grew up. A lot of people knew my dad, my aunts (Cyndie, Nanci and Gayle) and my uncles (Stanley and Cliff), and we knew at a young age they were swimming champions. I don't think I understood how good they were until I was a little older.”
Stated Glenn, Jr.: “Dad was an old-school coach. He had a short-yardage, high-quality philosophy; that is, he wanted to make sure we were swimming fast all the time (in practice). He wanted us to know how we should feel when we were competing, especially at the end of a race, and battle through the pain.
“He believed in 'muscle memory,' and told us we needed to increase our pain threshold so our muscles would know how to respond (when exhausted).”
***
It's hardly surprising that both Glenn Jr. and Laura followed in their father's “stroke-steps.”
His son – as a Lincoln High senior a four-year letterman, two-season All-State selection and Rhode Island champion in the 500-yard freestyle in 2001 – swam and studied at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
As a Minutemen freshman, he held the fourth-fastest team clocking in the 200-yard butterfly and sixth-best in the 200-yard breaststroke, but he chose to leave his beloved sport after two-plus years. He graduated from UMass with a Bachelor's in Economics in 2005.
That same spring, Laura experienced her commencement from Lincoln – that after leading the Lions to two straight state team crowns. A four-year All-State selection in numerous individual and relay events, she snared the 100-yard butterfly titles as a sophomore, junior and senior, and was chosen the Rhode Island Swimmer of the Year for shattering the state record in her premier event.
Courtesy of a scholarship, Laura moved on to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where she excelled as a “flyer” and 50-yard freestyler, as well as a relay competitor.
She decided not to swim after two-and-a-half years to focus on her studies, and due to shoulder issues; she gained her Bachelor's in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies before earning her Master's in Education in 2009.
Now a Burrillville Middle School seventh-grade math teacher, Laura loves her colleagues and “my kids.”
When asked what her dad was like as a parent, she chuckled.
“I always knew when I crossed the line,” she grinned. “I remember once, I accidentally called the cops, and he wasn't too pleased; another time, I accidentally sprayed him in the face with Lysol. He got up and chased me up the stairs.
“I always knew when I was in trouble, but – through all that – I think I was always 'Daddy's Little Girl,'” she continued. “He liked to read to me at night when I was a child, and he used to smell my hair. He'd say, 'If I ever go blind, Laura, I'll know it's you.' Sometimes I'd look at him and say, 'Dad, you're too weird! You're embarrassing me!'”
When “Junior” pushed his cell button to get the call from Mary, and she explained the situation, he didn't have a good feeling.
“I know his health issues (i.e. blood pressure) run in the family, but I was in utter shock,” he said. “I always hoped that if he had a mild heart attack, it would scare him into getting healthier. I know he quit smoking back in March, but I knew he went back to it.”
He also indicated his father, who worked as a mail carrier for years, had remarried, and was happy in his new life. Glenn Sr., appropriately a 1995 inductee to the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame, had recently journeyed to El Salvador as a member of his church.
He helped his fellow parishioners repair local churches and orphanages, and also mentored numerous foster children.
“There were a few aspects about my father I didn't want to emulate, but I did end up with a lot of the same qualities; I have a lot of my dad's personality, as we're both stubborn (Polish men),” he giggled. “I also think I have his wit. He could be really funny. I could understand where he was coming from when he'd talk about things, and – you know – the same things that bothered him bother me.
“He'd say, 'Glenn, here's how you deal with it,' or 'You know what, don't deal with it! Who cares!' That was my dad.
“I'm going to miss him,” Laura confessed, tearing again. “I wish he was still here. He was one of a kind.”
No question about that, Laura. No question.

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