Northampton remembers Gwen Whildin
Northampton lost a swimming icon last week when Gwen Whildin, the former head coach of the Kids varsity swim team, founder of the Northampton Kids Aquatic Club and mentor to hundreds of Northampton swimmers, passed away in her home in Pompano Beach, Florida, on Monday, Jan. 21.
Anyone speaking with her former swimmers since her death learned a lot about her tough coaching style, but also about a person who had a positive impact on the lives of young swimmers in many ways. As Cullen Mentzell, current Northampton swimming and diving team head coach recalls, “Coach Whildin put all of her heart into Northampton swimming.”
As members of the 1993 PIAA boys state championship team, former swimmers Dan and Steve Medei knew and appreciated Whildin’s unique way of developing champions.
“I learned what hard work was about with Coach Whildin,” reminisces Dan Medei, “[She] expected her swimmers to be tough and work hard. It was satisfying to see the hard work I put into practices and workouts turn into success in the pool.”
Steve Medei continued these sentiments.
“Toughness, hard work, persistence and discipline only begin to describe her trademarks. She demanded and got the best from everyone,” he said.
Over the years, Whildin did not lose her ability to produce strong swimmers and push her athletes to work hard, as Rachael Pursell, former swimmer and Northampton 2016 alum, recalled.
“One thing that I learned from [Whildin] was to be strong,” Pursell said. “She taught me this during hard practices when I thought I couldn’t finish. She gave us the strength to stay strong and fight through.”
The toughness and hard work she expected from her swimmers turned into success again and again as Whildin’s list of coaching accomplishments spanned decades, including 72 state finalists, 18 state champions, eight Mountain Valley Conference titles, US Swimming All-Americans and a 2000 Paralympic World Champion.
“Overall I will most remember her for her love of the sport, the kids and her commitment to expect the best out of her swimmers and herself,” Mentzell said.
Through 32 years of coaching, Whildin taught swimmers lessons that extended beyond the pool.
“I learned from Coach Whildin to believe in yourself in all aspects of life because you can succeed at everything when you believe in yourself,” explained former Northampton swimmer Annalise Christy.
Teammate Kaitlyn Nemes echoed Christy’s comments.
“She would always remind me that I had the power to be a great swimmer and pushed me to work my hardest,” Nemes said. “I credit her for my strong work ethic and for growing my confidence in and out of the pool.”
Her athletes were used to, “countless hours in the pool,” as Steve Medei recalls, but his comments mirror those of so many swimmers.
“My fondest memories of her were from outside the pool,” Steve Medei said.
Whildin’s former swimmers reminisce about team dinners, her Jeep, her dog, her sense of humor, her holiday gifts and Christmas parties, and the simple way, “she always knew how to make you laugh even if you were having a bad day,” as Nemes added.
As Whildin coached and mentored young swimmers, she was also developing future coaches who would take what they learned and develop new teams of exceptional swimmers and divers.
“I’ve learned a great deal from Gwen,” said Robert Herd, a 1983 District 11 champion in the 100 backstroke and current head swimming and diving coach at Lehigh University. “I attribute a lot of my coaching philosophy to her. She taught me that we can discover a lot about life through the sport of swimming, we can empower ourselves and our athletes through our experiences of training and competing and being a team makes the results sweeter.”
From Lehigh University to the current coaching staff of Northampton, Whildin’s influence turned many former swimmers into today’s coaches and through them, her legacy will continue to live on.
“My athletes have heard my Gwen Whildin stories,” said Herd. “They know she is a part of their experience because she is a part of me. She was a fun person who loved people, sport, health, and fitness; she gave that to me and now I can give that to others.”
Perhaps Steve Medei summed up Whildin’s impact best when he recalled the coach who taught so much to so many.
“The news of her passing is sad,” Steve Medei said, “but the celebration of how she positively impacted her athletes is uplifting and made me feel fortunate to have her in my life.”
His sentiments and all the happy memories shared recently describe the legacy of a coach, teacher, mentor and friend that will not soon be forgotten in Northampton’s swim community.