For Frank Keefe, coming to Yale in April 1978 to coach the swimming team was one of the happiest moments in his life.
“It had always been a dream job,” said Keefe, 72. “The combination of academics and athletics was a true balance. Yale understood what the real student athlete was all about.”
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Now, in his 32nd year as coach at Yale, Keefe will be retiring at the end of the current swim season after leading both the men’s and women’s teams to over 475 combined victories.
“Four years ago I couldn’t recover physically at the end of the season,” he said. “Each year it became more difficult to get back the enthusiasm … and I feel like I’d be Brett Favre if I tried to come out of retirement again.”
For the past couple of year, Keefe has been battling heart problems. He had two heart attacks last year, requiring him to undergo triple bypass surgery and receive a new heart valve.
Although it will be difficult for Keefe to leave coaching, it is only fitting that he end his coaching career at Yale, just up the street from where he started swimming. Born in East Haven, Conn., Keefe swam locally and got to know Yale swimmers when he was growing up. He eventually became a college swimmer, attending Villanova and graduating in 1960. Keefe was the captain of his swim team for two years at Villanova, and his time there taught him what it means to be a student athlete, he said.
When he got the opportunity to coach at Yale, he seized the chance to return close to home where he began swimming.
“Since the age of 6 or 7 I was a pool rat. I was one of the kids who got to train here in high school,” he said. “When the opportunity arose to coach, I jumped at it.”
Even with his impressive coaching record and his own swimming accomplishments, Keefe said he was proudest of his team’s academic standing, which was ranked the No. 1 Division I Academic All-American women’s swimming program in 2008. The Swimming and Diving team’s 100 percent graduation rate and current 3.6 team GPA prove Keefe’s support of the “real student athlete.” Keefe said four years of swimming is nothing compared to the 50 years Yale graduates will spend in the real world, taking the opportunities to do what makes them happy.
“He’s very reasonable about his expectations,” breaststroker Susan Kim ’10 said. “He knows what we have going on as Yale students. He’s the first one to tell you to take the day off if you have tests.”
According to Kim, the discipline in sports and academics that Keefe instills in his swimmers is also a direct reflection of his coaching style. He could care less for the latest technology in suits. His basic “old school” philosophy is that hard work will lead to fast swimming, Kim said.
“At Ivies last year, [Keefe] said, ‘You have the time, mental capability, and you’ve trained enough,’” Hayes Hyde ’12 said. “‘What you need to do is believe. I don’t care if you don’t win or have the best time. I want you to have fun. If you improve or if you learn something, that’s what’s important.’”
Yet Keefe’s emphasis on striking a balance in and out of the pool has not limited the Bulldogs’ success. In fact, he has had swimmers in the Olympics since 1968, including George Gleason ’00 and Stephen Fahy ’00 in 2000. Keefe himself was an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 and head manager for the team in 1988. Keefe said there was an indescribable energy that went along with representing one’s country and having the opportunity to meet people he’d seen or read about in person.
Although Keefe has coached on an international stage, he is proudest of his work at Yale, he said. His 32 years with the program have made him a part of the Yale swimming tradition.
“Frank is a tradition to this team,” men’s captain Thomas Robinson ’10 said. “And when you’re with him you fell like you’re a part of a tradition at Yale swimming.”
But it is not just current swimmers who believe that Keefe has made an indelible mark on Yale swimming.
“He’s been another great coach in the Yale swim tradition,” former men’s captain Charles Holum ’74 said. Holum was on the search committee that interviewed Keefe when he came to Yale in 1978.
“He’s been at Yale for a long time and been a great influence,” Holum said.
After Keefe retires, the Department of Athletics will convene a search committee consisting of students, alumni, faculty members, staff and other head coaches to look for a new head swimming coach, Director of Athletics Tom Beckett said.
Yale swimming will honor Keefe at the team’s last regular season home meet against UConn on Feb. 6, and again at the team’s annual banquet in April.