Article image

by Elaine K Howley

June 8, 2021

The two longtime members will be induced on Oct. 9

Every year, a select few Masters swimmers from around the world are inducted into the Masters International Swimming Hall of Fame, a division of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. In 2021, the list of inductees includes two longtime U.S. Masters Swimming members—Kerry O’Brien of Walnut Creek Masters and Clay Britt of Montgomery Ancient Mariners—who’ve achieved the highest level of their respective disciplines within the sport. The induction will take place Oct. 9 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Kerry O’Brien, Walnut Creek Masters

In Masters Swimming circles, the name Kerry O’Brien is synonymous with coaching excellence, so much so that the annual award formerly known as the Grassroots Coaching Award was renamed the Kerry O’Brien Coaching Award a dozen years ago. A handful of Masters coaches from around the country who are doing an admirable job building USMS membership and passing along a passion and dedication to the sport to their swimmers earn the nod each year.

This time, it’s O’Brien himself who’s being praised for his lifelong contributions to Masters Swimming with his induction to MISHOF. O’Brien says it was an unexpected surprise, as he didn’t know he was being considered for the honor until one of the committee members called to tell him he was being inducted.

O’Brien started swimming when he was about 12 and swam and played football in high school. “I love sports,” he says. “I love being on teams and just doing the whole sport thing.” He began coaching swimming while he was still in college, working with an age group team in Walnut Creek, California. In 1980, he was approached about taking over the group’s Masters program on an interim basis, an appealing offer given that he needed the money.

During the interview, O’Brien was asked if he could still see himself coaching in five years’ time. The answer was yes, and he became the coach at Walnut Creek Masters in October 1981. Turns out he underestimated how much he would love his job—he’s been there ever since.

O’Brien, 64, will be the first person inducted as a Masters swimming coach. He’s coached three MISHOF inductees (Jean Durston, Suzanne Heim-Bowen, and Ann Hisch), and his swimmers have set 153 individual FINA Masters world records and 13 relay FINA Masters world records. He’s also led Walnut Creek Masters to nine USMS national championships.

"As a Walnut Creek Masters member for 35 years, I know every club member feels blessed to have Kerry as a coach," says Walnut Creek Masters member Peter Guadagni, also the president of USMS. "Whether you're an Olympian or a novice, he gives each swimmer the support they need. Kerry's accomplishments and those of his athletes and club may have contributed to him receiving this honor, but it's his caring heart his swimmers most treasure."

Being recognized by MISHOF, O'Brien says, is something “I’m still trying to wrap my arms around. I look at the people who’ve been inducted, and I know what they’ve meant to the sport, through their contributions as athletes or contributors. A lot of these people I’ve known for a long time and the body of work they’ve done over the years. For me to be recognized along those same levels, it means a lot to me.”

In November 2019, O’Brien announced that he would be retiring in October 2020 on the 40th anniversary of his time with Walnut Creek Masters. But the coronavirus pandemic derailed that plan, as with so many others. He’s decided to extend his tenure until January 2022.

As retirement looms, O’Brien says he’s been swimming more, playing golf, and doing more of his artwork, which understandably includes a lot of swimming and water themes. “Between art and swimming, those two loves have welded themselves together,” he says. “They’re almost inseparable and most of my art has swimming themes. I love the sport of swimming. I love what it’s given to me, and the art has given me different ways to express that enjoyment and what I get out of it.”

Clay Britt, Montgomery Ancient Mariners

Clay Britt, 60, of Montgomery Ancient Mariners is being induced as an honor swimmer, a title he’s earned through elite competition and Masters events.

Britt competed in his first meet at age 6 and says that he just took to swimming. “I was born to swim,” he recalls. Early in swimming lessons, “they told the group to swim to the other side. I swam across and was the first one there. The next thing I know, I was on the swim team and I swam across the pool and I was the first one there. And I thought it was really cool.”

Really cool, indeed.

Britt built on that natural ability with hard work over the next several years and became a fierce competitor, training with the Rockville Montgomery Swim Club, a top-flight age group program just outside of Washington, D.C. He excelled, breaking virtually every record kept, some of which still stand, and earned a scholarship to the University of Texas.

His freshman year at UT, Britt proved an excellent recruit when he won the 100 backstroke at the NCAA championship. He repeated the feat in his sophomore and junior years and took second in his senior year. He also set a couple of American records during his career with UT and was named an All-American in the 50 freestyle.

Britt was a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, but politics intervened, and the U.S. boycotted the games in retaliation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Britt kept training for the 1984 Olympics, but says he didn’t swim well. “I was just late in my career and kid of worn out by it all,” he recalls. So he retired, got a job, and tried to get on with life. But something was missing, and he decided to try one more time for the 1988 team.

“I had a great year training and a lot of fun,” he says. But when he got to trials, “everyone else had gotten faster but I hadn’t.”

From there, Britt decided to keep on swimming with Masters and seamlessly transitioned. In 1988, he was traveling in Australia and happened upon the Masters World Championship meet there and took part. “That was the start of my Masters swimming,” he says, and he’s been loving it ever since.

In the early 1990s, Britt added coaching alongside his own swimming, a full-time job as a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, and family life with his wife and now 14-year-old daughter. Amid all this, Britt has managed to compete in a swim meet at least once a year every year for the past 54 years. He has recorded 281 individual Top 10 times, set 49 individual USMS records, and been a 28-time individual pool All-American.

Given all that’s happened over his more than a half-century swimming career, Britt says that to be recognized by the MISHOF is “icing on the cake. It’s a nice recognition of something I’ve been pretty passionate about. I didn’t do it for recognition. I did it for my own personal enjoyment, but it’s neat” to be recognized for his achievements.

Though Britt says he’s had a “love-hate-relationship with swimming—it chose me, I didn’t choose it,” his appreciation for the sport has only deepened over the years. He now swims less for competition and more for fitness and fulfillment.

“I love swimming more now than I ever have,” he says. “It’s interesting because the meaning of it has changed over the years. It used to be all about competition and winning. Now, it’s all about just the moment in the water and feeling and trying to maintain good health as you get older.” He says the enduring friendships swimming has given him are the real prize: “I just feel super fortunate to have swimming in my life.”


Categories:

  • Human Interest

Tags:

  • Awards