Jo Grogan is not your typical swimming coach, and that is quite fitting.
“Swimming isn’t the most important thing I’ve taught,’’ Grogan says. “It’s life lessons.’’
On Friday night, the impact she has had on other lives was obvious as many well wishers crowded into Kankakee High School as Grogan was honored for her contributions to the Kays’ program over a remarkable 47-year period which began in the mid-1970s and continues to this very day.
In the pool which is now named Grogan Natatorium in her honor, the celebration began with remarks from John Coghlan. Coghlan, a former Kankakee District 111 board member and the father of three daughters who previously swam for Grogan, had this to say about her positive influence on his children and countless others.
“Certain people so dominate a field you know them by a single name,’’ he said. “There’s Elvis. There’s LeBron. And there’s Grogan.’’
Coghlan continued: “She’s a hall-of-fame coach, but a better human being.’’
Similar praise came from others both during the ceremony and a meet-and-greet reception held afterward. The evening recognized a magnificent journey that began in a roundabout way.
Grogan first became a teacher at Kankakee High School in 1964. She switched to the old Westview High School when the district expanded to two high schools a few years later, then returned to Kankakee High after the schools were merged in 1984.
In those early years, there were no sports for girls, a situation Grogan was familiar with from her formative years. While she participated in recreational swimming as a youth, she never did so competitively because no such opportunity existed.
But then Title IX, the federal law which banned discrimination in public schools based on gender, was passed in 1972. It opened the door for girls to participate in interscholastic sports, and prompted former Westview athletic director J.R. Black to ask Grogan which sports she wanted to coach. She chose golf and swimming, but because their two seasons overlapped, she settled solely on swimming.
What did she know about aquatic competition? Not a lot at first, but she caught on in a hurry.
“I just took myself to clinics,’’ she said. “I went to clinic after clinic and also picked the brains of some other coaches.’’
Before long, Grogan was well versed and producing quality teams and athletes. One was Meta Rose Torchia, who swam for Westview and Kankakee High from 1980-1984.
When she began her freshman year, Torchia had no idea what lied ahead.
“I wasn’t even going to swim,’’ she said. “I was going to go out for cheerleading. But she (Grogan) needed numbers and she recruited me out of the hallway.’’
It proved to be a good move. Torchia developed into one of the best swimmers in school history, setting several records, some of which still stand. From there, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was a four-year member and captain of the swim team. Today, Torchia is a Chicago-area realtor who says the lessons she learned from Grogan still come in handy today.
Zach Bieber can say the same thing. Shortly after entering the coaching ranks, Grogan expanded her efforts to coach high school boys and younger swimmers in the club settings throughout the area. Bieber swam for her before graduating in 2014, and joined the U.S. Air Force shortly thereafter,
Still active in the Air Force, Bieber returned home on leave three years ago with a special gift for his coach. It was an American flag that accompanied Bieber and his crew as they flew a mission into Iraq. Grogan now proudly displays the flag at her home.
Bieber said he felt strongly about presenting the flag to Grogan for the values she instilled in him.
“It taught me respect,’’ he said of being part of her team. “It taught me the importance of doing things the right way. It taught me life lessons.’’
Grogan said she has no plans of ending those lessons anytime soon. She is now 77 and has been retired from teaching for 21 years, but returns to the high school each fall for the beginning of another season.
“I’m not retiring,’’ she insists with a chuckle. “They keep giving me these awards thinking I’ll go away, but I’m not going anywhere.’’
The ceremony took place at the same time the Kankakee boys team hosted its annual tune-up event which offers the chance to prepare for next weekend’s sectional meet. Bradley-Bourbonnais, Morris, Pontiac, Thornton Township and T.F. South also took part.