- Who : Tom Grace, Danbury resident
- What : Teacher, swim coach at Weston High School
- Did you know? Weston won its fourth straight girls Class S state title, and sixth in seven years
WESTON, Conn. -- Tom Grace looks at the past quarter century of his life with pride, incredulity and bemusement. In that time, the Danbury resident and Air Force retiree has gone from a bad vacuum cleaner salesman to highly respected science teacher and architect of a state swimming dynasty.
“It has definitely exceeded my expectations and the expectations of what my parents had seen in me,’’ said Grace, whose Weston swim team won its fourth straight Class S title last month. “I was not a pleasant teenager. I got kicked out of our house, was a real pain in the butt. When look back on what I’ve done, it’s gratifying.”
What Grace has done with the swim team is nothing short of amazing. He joined the team as an assistant coach in 2005, and took over as the head coach in 2007. His girls team has won six of the last seven state titles in Class S, and finished third in this year’s State Open. His boys teams have won four straight state titles.
Weston wins with relatively smallish rosters, and unlike most other programs, very few year-round swimmers. Grace is also a coaching anomaly, an educator first and coach second. It’s not uncommon for many swim coaches to not teach at all.
This year’s Weston team dominated Class S, more than doubling the point total of runner-up East Catholic.
“Honestly, it didn’t really surprise me,’’ said Grace, whose team also won the South-West Conference championship. “What surprised me is how well the underclassmen fit into the weaknesses we had. Our senior class is very talented, very versatile. What the freshman were able to do to contribute is what surprised me.”
Each of Grace’s championship teams has its own identity, but what made this group special is the bond between the classes. “We had 16 seniors and with any large group of high school kids there can be personality conflicts,’’ Grace said. “This team was very supportive of each other. They were able to resolve conflicts easily and amicably. Nobody harbored any grudges. They were very close.”
Grace’s girls swimmers, for the most part, start in the Weston Swimming program. Very few come out of higher profile programs around the region. And almost all of them compete in sports other than swimming, which is also quite rare. “The program would not be as successful without the work they do in the Weston Swimming program,’’ Grace said. “The girls who are just high school swimmers, I know what I have to do to them. I work them hard in practice. They take a lot of pride in the program.”
Weston had 41 swimmers on this year’s team, the largest in Grace’s tenure. And the pipeline is full with upcoming talent. “We have eight freshmen coming up, and four would’ve been in the state finals,’’ Grace said. “We’re going to be down in numbers next year, but we’ll still be strong.”
Grace joined the Weston program with little coaching coaching experience. He swam as teenager in high school and on highly competitive AAU teams. One of his challenges is working all day in the classroom and then diving into swim practice.
“As I walk from the high school across the field to the middle school (where Weston practices), I find myself shifting gears,’’ Grace said. “I’m going from teaching biology content to thinking what do I need to do today to make these kids better. It’s a lot of hours. But as much as I give them, they give me more back. You win a championship, or you see a kid make a phenomenal time drop, those are the moments that you live for.”
Grace started teaching at Weston in 2000. His path getting there was anything but ordinary.
Grace joined the Air Force directly out of high school -- “I wasn’t ready for college,’’ he said -- and was stationed in Germany. Grace’s LinkedIn profile says his military role was “correspondence manipulator.” He worked as a postal clerk. “I didn’t want to do anything that required training,’’ Grace said.
While in Germany, he met his wife, Liz, a native of Danbury who also served in the Air Force. They married, had a daughter and lived with Liz’s parents when they left the military. He held a variety of jobs, including a short and stupefying stint selling vacuums. He eventually got a night job as computer operator, and Liz worked in graphic design. He started college at Western Connecticut State University at age 25.
“I remembered having a conversation with a chemistry professor,’’ Grace said. “I was considering pre-med, and because I was such a poor student he was delicately telling me it might not work out. He said I’d be an excellent priest or an excellent teacher.”
Grace chose the latter, attending classes during the day and working at night. He came to Weston in his first year out of college.
“I love what I do,’’ Grace said. “I’m very authentic. I teach and coach the same way. When they screw up, you give them a little bit of a wakeup call. When they do it right, you give them a hug. It’s not only what they do, but how they do it.”
Perhaps because of his own confrontational days as a student, or his military background, or just his personality, Grace takes his roles as coach and educator seriously. It’s not wins, records, test scores or grade point averages that motivate him. It’s seeing growth as an athlete, student and person.
The path he took to find his passion, while unconventional, has been unfathomably rewarding.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done,’’ Grace said. “I did it the best way that I could, with as much integrity for my fellow man, and woman, as I possibly could. I’ve tried to instill some life lessons that were hard earned for me. Sometimes I’ll stop in the middle of class for something kids don’t think is important. Some things they don’t think are important are the most important. In class and in swimming, I think that’s the most important thing that I teach.”
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