After being banned from state finals, legendary coach steps down and swimmers sit out in support

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

A bizarre scenario in Massachusetts turned one of the state's favorites to win a girls swimming title into a near no-show after a legendary swimming coach was told he could not accompany his team to the state finals on the eve of the season's biggest event.

The Gardner girls swimming team at the 2010 state finals —
The Gardner girls swimming team at the 2010 state finals —

As reported by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, longtime Gardner (Mass.) High swimming coach Don Lemieux was told on Thursday that he would not be allowed to attend Sunday's Massachusetts Div. I state girls swimming championships at Harvard because of an unspecified violation of either state or school rules. Though there was no confirmation of what Lemieux had done wrong, the Telegram & Gazette cited unnamed sources in reporting that alleged practice violations were at the root of the discipline against the coach.

Still, because the school waited until just hours before the state meet to levy the ban, the Gardner program -- which has won an astounding 16 girls state titles at the Division I level -- was sent into a tailspin. Feeling slighted by the school's decision and how it was made, Lemieux stepped down from his post effective immediately, leaving the team scheduled to attend the meet to be accompanied by school principal Donna Pierce and athletic director Tim McCormick.

As one might have guessed, that didn't please the Gardner swimmers, whose success has often been inextricably linked with Lemieux's inspirational leadership. As recently as 2010, Gardner entered the state finals as steep underdogs with fewer qualified swimmers than most opponents, yet still emerged victorious after fiery inspirational speeches from the longtime coach.

How upset were the swimmers that their coach had left? The Telegram & Gazette reported that as few as three were expected to make the trip to Harvard, essentially ensuring that the school would not retain its state crown, despite having a strong chance to do so before the scandal erupted.

In the end, that's precisely how many Gardner swimmers participated in the meet, at which Westford (Mass.) Academy captured a state crown. As noted by the Boston Globe, among the many notable Gardner absences was Taylor Strachan, a top swimmer statewide who broke records in both the 100-yard butterfly and 200 individual medley just a week earlier.

While it will certainly take more time for all details surrounding Lemieux's departure to trickle out and allow for others to make a judgement on whether his departure was warranted, the fact that the seasons and even high school careers of some of the squad's talented swimmers would come to an abrupt, early end is troubling and clearly raises questions about how the entire incident was handled.

No matter who the Gardner School District brings in to take Lemieux's place, that person will have enormous shoes to fill, and clearly a difficult and troubled relationship between swimming families, boosters and the school administration to bridge as quickly as possible.

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