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YMCA Celebrates 90 Years In The Pool

In this April 3, 1971 file photo, Ken Williams, left, receives a gold medal from Jamestown YMCA swimming coach Harold Leach after winning the 25-yard breaststroke at the YMCA state meet at the Jamestown High School pool. P-J file photo

It’s been more than 50 years, but Ken Williams still remembers the performance he put on in the Jamestown High School pool on the day he turned 10.

“A lot of memories, really,” he said as he scanned a yellowed Post-Journal clipping, dated April 4, 1971, with a headline that read, “Williams, Jamestown, Wins State ‘Y’ Divisional Swimming Title.”

“That was my first really big swim meet,” he said, ” … and I happened to win.”

For the record, Williams, representing the Jamestown YMCA, was the lone gold medalist for his talented team at the YMCA state championships. Winner of the 25-yard breaststroke, he didn’t know he had touched the wall first until he checked with his mother, who was timing a swimmer in another lane.

“Yeah, it was kind of exciting for me,” Williams admitted the other day.

Members of the Jamestown YMCA swim team competed in their first invitational, the Fall Classic at Spire Institute in Ohio earlier this month. Submitted photo

It was just the beginning of his remarkable success that later included trips to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship while a student/athlete at JHS and as a member of the St. Bonaventure University swim team.

The foundation for it all?

Well, that was built at the YMCA pool on Fourth Street in the city where he began swimming as a 7-year-old.

“My sisters swam at the Boys Club first and my parents wanted to get me into swimming,” Williams said. “They preferred that I go to the Y, so my sisters moved to the Y. (My success) took a while. Probably within a year or so I started to get pretty good.”

Under the tutelage of Jim Tenney for a year and then Harold Leach, Williams and a host of other local talents helped the Y produce some outstanding teams.

“(Leach) turned out to be a great coach, a great guy and friend,” said the 60-year-old Williams. “We had a lot of really good swimmers. It was a really good program.”

Now known as the Jets, the organization is celebrating something pretty significant this year — its 90th anniversary.

“The big names have all come up through,” said Maria Roehmholdt, who joins Jason Chinni on the current Jets’ coaching staff.

Williams, of course, is one of those big names.

“We stare (at his records) all the time,” Roehmholdt said. “He was so fast.”

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Roehmholdt didn’t grow up a swimmer, but to say she has embraced the sport would be a huge understatement.

“I learned to swim as an adult,” she said. “Now I go to clinics and I do more studying than I did as a kid. If you had talked to any of my gym teachers (at Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart), they would have laughed at you.”

Years later, it’s the youngsters in the Jets program who are having the last laugh.

“We’ve gone to states, nationals and we rise to that challenge,” Roehmholdt said, “but it’s so much more than that. Jason has been there for 16 years and I’ve been involved for 14. … We’ve been around and put our roots in and just try to continue that growth.”

The Jets have had as many as 105 swimmers in the program at one point. This year the number is about half that.

“We ran the team last year (during COVID-19) and we came up with a plan,” Roehmholdt said. “… We did our meets virtually and our kids ran a full competitive season and got through it. Most of them loved it, because it was one time they could get out and do something.

“We’re smaller, but that means we can impact those kids that are there in a much greater sense. About five years ago, we decided we were going to revamp the way we do our practices. We were not going to do it by age group, we were going to do it by skill level.”

Roehmholdt also noted that the Jets are expanding into para swimming, which caters to three impairment groups — physical, intellectual and vision. That’s in addition to other changes over the years.

“I’m not here to turn you into a swimmer,” Roehmholdt said. “I’m here to make something positive in your life. … It doesn’t matter where your starting point is. We’re going to get you better than you ever thought you could. That, I think, is why we’ve been here for 90 years.”

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Bill Radack was inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. A check of the Hall’s website confirms that the 1955 Jamestown High School graduate was certainly deserving of enshrinement.

An All-American backstroker during his Red Raiders’ days, Radack took his talents to Ohio State University where he was a four-year letterman.

But guess where he first made his mark in the water?

At the Jamestown YMCA, under the guidance of Coach Dick Bower, who would, years later, be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Radack is just one of the headliners of a deep fraternity of swimmers who made their mark there, including Williams.

In fact, not quite 12 months after winning his first YMCA state title in 1971, the 1979 JHS graduate claimed another individual championship, this time in Flushing, Queens.

“That was really the memorable trip,” Williams said of his weekend in New York City. ” … I did really well. I had a state record for a while (in the 50 breaststroke) and was second in the 100 (individual medley).”

However, beyond the trophies and ribbons he accumulated during his time with the Y team, Williams maintains that it was the discipline and loyalty learned there that has stood the test of time.

“You had to be ‘in’ or you’re not going to make it,” he said. “It’s a hard sport. It’s a grind, year after year. … A lot of those lessons you still think about. A lot of discipline and goal setting. Tradition was a big thing. It’s something you never forget.”

Williams needed little reminding of those special years. The photograph accompanying the 1971 Post-Journal article mentioned at the beginning of this article shows Randy Swanson and Ted Carlson, both members of the Jamestown YMCA team, hitting the water for the start of the 200 freestyle. On the pool deck are more than a dozen meet officials wearing YMCA T-shirts.

Those folks all witnessed Williams make history on his 10th birthday, one of many times a swimmer from the Jamestown Y has performed at a high level on the state’s biggest YMCA stage.

The Jets strive to continue that tradition.

Ninety years and counting.

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