Runnin’ with Rani: Swimming legend Borowski takes a bow

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After two decades standing at the helm of Kona Aquatics Age Group and Kealakehe High School swim teams, legendary swim coach and Hawaii Waterman Hall of Famer, Steve Borowski, says, “It’s time.”

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After two decades standing at the helm of Kona Aquatics Age Group and Kealakehe High School swim teams, legendary swim coach and Hawaii Waterman Hall of Famer, Steve Borowski, says, “It’s time.”

The 69-year old Holualoa resident is one of Hawaii’s most decorated and successful swim coaches and his decision to step back as a coach was announced just after last month’s Age Group championships.

“I’m just stepping back from a lot of the responsibilities,” Borowski said. “I’m still going to be highly involved and will continue to coach my Masters team, just not as head coach for the Age Group and high school swim teams.”

Yet to truly understand and appreciate everything Borowski has accomplished throughout a vibrant career spanning more than six decades, one must go back to the beginning – to Borowski’s early years as an athlete and later, as a coach.

Borowski’s early years

Borowski began swimming competitively at the age of four in a 20-yard pool just a block from his house in Chicago. From there he added water polo at age 7, and continued to excel in both sports throughout high school, eventually earning All-American honors.

After receiving a full swimming scholarship from Indiana University, Borowski’s raw talent in the pool helped to propel the Hoosier’s to their first and second NCAA Championships. Borowski also swam the butterfly leg on the winning 400-Medley Relay that broke both the American and NCAA record. Once again, Borowski earned All-American honors in swimming and water polo.

It was then, while still attending college at Indiana, that Borowski got his first taste as a swim coach, giving lessons to an age group team. After receiving his Master’s degree in Physical Education with an emphasis in Psychology, Borowski became the assistant swim coach to the legendary Doc Councilman, who coached on three Olympic teams and wrote several inspirational books on swimming.

“Till this day Doc is known as the godfather of swimming,” Borowski said. “I was so fortunate to swim for him, get my Masters degree with him, be his teaching assistant as well as assistant coach – I was with him for seven years of my life. I was Doc’s assistant when we won the 1972 NCAA Championships, when Mark Spitz was a senior.”

During that same year, while swimming with and coaching some of the best athletes in the world leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Borowski made the move to Hawaii to take on a new position – becoming the head swim coach at Oahu’s Punahou School.

In his 13-years at Punahou, Borowski led the boys and girls teams to an unprecedented 13-straight Hawaii State High School Championships, a national record at the time.

Adding to what was already an impressive coaching resume was another highlight that occurred during the 1976 high school season. Borowski coached Chris Woo who went on to make the US Olympic Team and compete at the Montreal Olympics where he finished eighth in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Woo then later competed in the preliminary heats of the men’s gold-medal winning 4×100-meter medley relay that broke the World record, and was the only swimmer from Hawaii to make the Olympics in over 50 years.

Borowski also coached the University of Hawaii men’s team before deciding to leave both Punahou and UH for a fresh start in Kona in 1986.

For several years, Borowski worked as the director for the Kona YMCA and also served as the race director for the Ironman World Championships in 1991. In 1994, Borowski began his popular Kings Swim – a 1.2-mile open water swim event in Kailua Bay.

However, it wasn’t long before Borowski found himself getting back into the water as a competitor – this time to become the fastest in the world in his age division at the age of 50 – setting several world, national and state records in the 50-meter freestyle and 50-meter butterfly.

At age 55, Borowski was again the fastest in the world, setting world, national and state records in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, and the 50-meter and 100-meter butterfly events.

Kona Aquatics

Borowski began Kona Aquatics 24-years ago, before the Kona Community Aquatic Center was built and before there was a pool at The Club In Kona.

Word spread like wildfire on his successful coaching career at Indiana University with Doc Counsilman and also his 13-year stint at Punahou School. Yet it was Borowski’s humble, low-key and down-to-earth approach as a coach that immediately had swimmers of all fitness levels seeking his advice on pool and open-water swim techniques.

Eager to help Kona’s growing number of athletes improve, Borowski created Kona Aquatics – beginning with a Masters Program – designed for beginners, intermediate, and advanced swimmers from ages 18 and up.

For the first couple of years, Masters practices were held in Kailua Bay where Borowski and Bill Gonzalez set up 4-buoys spaced 25-yards apart. Thus, it helped the group monitor their progress with Borowski either swimming with his pupils or coaching from a kayak for a fun one-hour workout held three times per week.

“Then we moved to The Club in Kona,” Borowski said. “I helped Jeff and Marlina Lee design their pool in the back of The Club. It was designed so that we could swim in it, which is why it has four lanes, but shallow water at 3-1/2 feet. We were then able to hold two, one-hour Masters workouts during the week. I remember that the lanes used to get so crowded. For comparison, the Kailua pool has lanes that are nine feet wide, at The Club, the lanes were only five feet wide. But that’s how we started.

“It was also when I began a Learn to Swim Program for the younger ones ages 3 to 6. After that I started the Age Group Team for ages 7 to 18 because Learn to Swim became a feeder program into the Age Group Team. So that’s how it all began.”

In the early 90’s, discussion among county officials began about building the Kona Community Aquatic Center (Kailua pool) and Borowski became actively involved during its design and planning stages. Borowski, who had experience designing the University of Hawaii and Punahou School pools, said that it took six years of his life to help get the Kailua pool built.

“They had all different people coming in with their ideas,” he recalled. “They were thinking of a 25-meter pool which was actually a 30-year old design at the time. I said Kona is growing so much that it’s not going to work. So we were finally able to talk them into building a 50-meter pool.”

The Kona Community Aquatic Center was built next to the Kekuaokalani gym and open to the public on March 27, 1999.

After the Kailua pool was built, Borowski focused his attention on starting the Kealakehe High School boys and girls swim teams in 2000, and later, the girl’s water polo team in 2005. One of Borowski’s proudest moments came in 2010, when the Waverider girl’s swim team won their first State title.

Borowski has been inducted into the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame, Illinois Water Polo Hall of Fame, Chicago High School Sports Hall of Fame, and most recently, the Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame.

And now, as Borowski embarks on adding new chapter to his already full resume, “Coach Steve” took some time to discuss his decision to step back, choosing a new head coach, a few reflections, and what’s next for Kona’s Aquatic King.

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When did you decide it was time?

It’s always been in my mind for the last few years but I’ve never been in a hurry – it just had to be the right time and I needed to find the right person.

For me physically, there have been a lot of things going on so that’s been really hard. From lower back issues, to skin cancers, to pterygium and cancer in one of my eyes. I had lower back surgery when I was thirty; so standing on the deck for long periods of time is tough. Then a few years ago I had both hips done and knee surgery, and I get migraines really bad. A lot of times I’ll be coaching with full-blown migraines and I’ll get them often. So it’s been tough.

When I stopped coaching at Punahou years ago, and I coached there for 13 years, one of the reasons was trying to stay out of the sun so I wouldn’t get skin cancer. So coaching in the morning is good and in the later in the afternoon is good. But that everyday 3, 4, 5-o’clock afternoon sun, and those four-day meets over in Oahu where you can’t hide from the sun has been physically tough.

Was it hard to tell the team?

I’ve been coaching at for 40-plus years total, 23 years in Kona. The hardest part was telling the children and the swimmers. There’s never a good time. I remember when Leahi Camacho was swimming, her dad Charlie told me; “Don’t you retire!” So it goes both ways.

But I love the kids and I love the coaching. I’m still going to be involved, and I’m going to continue to oversee Eric (Rhodes), but I’ll be doing more of the administrative work – billings, registrations, and organizational stuff – so that will keep me busy.

How did you come to choose Eric Rhodes as the new head coach?

Being that I’m the owner, the president, and on the board of directors because it’s basically my team, I didn’t want to step away until I found someone real capable to take over.

Eric Rhodes is a guy who swam for me as a teen over in Oahu. He went to Kaiser High School, but swam for me with the Punahou Aquatics and became really successful. And while I was coaching the Punahou swim team, there was also a period when I was coaching the University of Hawaii men’s team.

So before stepping down from the UH Men’s program, I offered Eric a full four-year scholarship to swim for UH. After he graduated, he really didn’t know what to do and so I was able to help him get his first job in Japan working for a big company in the health and fitness industry. He’s a brilliant computer guy. I’ve known him for 40-years.

Eric is committed and he wants to coach. He’s been shadowing me for about a year and half, so I felt confident that he would do a good job. I don’t want Eric to be me as a coach, but he understands my philosophies and knows my techniques – which is most important.

From the amount of time that we have to work with the kids and what we do, we’ve had tremendous success. Compared to other teams nationwide, we do really well. The kids tend to stay in the program longer before going to college and doing really well like Leahi Camacho, Madison Hauanio, Cara Jernigan, Amanda Hamilton, and Nathaniel Goodale.

What would be your favorite memory as a coach?

Putting Chris Woo on the Olympic Team in 1976. And what most people don’t know is that he made the finals but he also swam in the preliminaries of the 400-medley relay – he swam the breaststroke. Chris Woo actually won the gold medal, but they didn’t present it and still haven’t. So we are trying to get that taken care of. So that’s been one of my things now since I have more time, is to work with USA Swimming to get all those guys on that team recognized as gold medal winners.

What would you like to be best remembered for?

I think truly caring for each kid and personalizing each child – not trying to coach them all the same way. Even though it’s a big group, I’ve always tried to do what’s best for each kid as an individual.

The bottom line is trying to make them a better person and swimming just happens to be the avenue that takes them in that direction. Goal setting, having good self-image, positive reinforcements are all things important psychologically; things I think a lot of coaches can miss. I’ve always tried to help them become a better person than when they started the program.

What is the next chapter for Coach Steve?

I’d like to get involved internationally with some open-water swimming. I’m on a couple of committees with FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur), which is the world governing body for swimming, and hopefully try to bring one of those big swim competitions to Kona. And maybe do more of those coaches clinic, like the one I did in Saipan. So when those kinds of opportunities come up I would like to be there, it’s my way to give back.

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And that’s what it’s all about – giving back – it’s so rewarding. It’s not about the money, or anything like that. I grew up in inner city Chicago and started swimming when I was four. So if it wasn’t for swimming, I would’ve never gone to college as I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

Both of my parents were poor and no one in my family ever went to college. So not only was I the first person in my family to graduate high school and go to college, but I was able to get my Masters degree from Indiana University and later accepted into a doctorate program. So I have a lot to thank for swimming. It’s been a big part of my life and I thank swimming for everything it’s done for me.

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