Fetters left indelible mark on Beaufort swimming, swimmers

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Hall-of-fame coach died June 1 at 98


It is Monday, June 3, 2019, and I’m in Bryson City, N.C. 

It’s early — I’m on vacation — but my e-mail tells me that Richard Fetters has died. 

Coach Dick Fetters was 98 and living in Indianapolis when he died on June 1. He was predeceased by his wife, Dorothy.

Coach Fetters was a swimming coach for most of his life — most notably at Michigan State University. After he retired he sailed across the Great Lakes and then down the Intracoastal Waterway. When he got to Beaufort he stopped and built a house just off Meridian Road on Lady’s Island.

Dick Fetters had planned a conventional retirement — doing laps in his pool and watching Notre Dame football on Saturday afternoon. 

But before that routine got started he was asked to evaluate the “Water Survival Course” at Parris Island. After a couple of days of watching recruits he told the instructors they were doing it wrong. 

“The recruits should learn to swim without their helmets, boots and backpacks. They should learn the basics before being tossed, fully equipped, into the pool at Weapons Battalion.”

The Marines were not impressed. 

“We’re teaching water survival, not the breast stroke, Thanks for your help but we’re going to keep the Marine Corps method,” they replied. 

But while he was on the deck, three Navy dentists approached him and asked if he would help them with their strokes. He agreed and Parris Island Masters sprang into being.

In the beginning the small team (six members including myself) made little impact on adult swimming in South Carolina. There were meets in Charleston, Greenville and Anderson and we wore green T-shirts that begged the question, “Is Parris Island in South Carolina?” 

Dick Fetters believed that half the team should consist of active duty Marines. That meant we often got talented swimmers just graduated from the Naval Academy. But we also got people who had not raced in college — people who simply wanted a workout. But when you joined the team there was an unwritten contract.

“I’ll work with you. Help you be a better swimmer. But I want something in return,” Fetters would say to the curious who wandered onto the pool deck at Parris Island. “I want you to compete at three swim meets every year. And when you go I want you to swim 10 events.” 

Unknown to many, Masters Swimming in the United States is men and women doing bi-weekly workouts. Most who join do not climb the starting blocks and test their kick, their shoulder strength, their lung capacity against others in their age group. But Fetters knew that periodic testing was essential. The possibility of humiliation; or winning a towel featuring the embroidered message ‘high point winner’ was what made many endure 2,000 yards of nighttime, after-work practice.

In 1992 the team won its first S.C. State Championship. It won another in 1993. And then another 12 State Championships in a row. 

In 2004, Parris Island finished third (medium-sized team) at the National Championships. And in 2014 Richard Fetters was inducted into the American Swim Coaches Hall of Fame.

During its halcyon years, Parris Island Masters held onto its active duty Marines — at one time the Commanding General at Parris Island was a member. But there were also doctors, lawyers, preachers and nurse practitioners who churned through the chlorinated water in Raleigh, Atlanta and Santa Clara. 

And all the while Dick Fetters sat on the pool deck, stopwatch in hand, telling swimmers just out of the water, “Good race, John. But the next time you swim backstroke be sure your little finger is extended and goes into the water first.”

It is hard to estimate the number of people who were touched by Dick Fetters in the 22 years that he lived in Beaufort. That number is surely in the hundreds. For many, including myself, he instilled a love for movement, vigorous aerobic movement, at least three times a week. 

And I know that I’m not alone with this affliction. 

I know there are hundreds of others, now scattered across the country, who still do weekly workouts crafted by Dick Fetters. 

If one includes the swimmers he coached at Michigan State, there are thousands of aging men and women who have lived happier, healthier lives because Richard Fetters said to them, “… and you must compete. And when you go you must swim at least 10 events.” 

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