Occasionally this spring, WBUR's "Towns In Trouble" series is examining how the state budget crisis is reverberating in two Massachusetts communities: Hull and Gardner. David Boeri revisits Gardner, a small city that consistently turns out champion swimmers. But now, declining city budgets are threatening the swimmers' pool, and the schools, as well.
GARDNER, Mass. — "Ready?"
It's 5 a.m. in Gardner. The coach of the Greenwood Memorial Swim Club blows the whistle on his lanyard and orders five minutes of flutter kicking. The low thumping resonance of dolphin kicks mixes with the din of splashing and flip-turns by teenage swimmers.
Backstroke, fly, freestyle, they push through 7,000 yards of water drills — and this is their light workout. In the afternoon, they'll do 9,000 yards, then go to the gym and lift weights.
Whistling, yelling instructions and calling for adjustments in strokes, Don Lemieux walks along the side of the pool, coffee in hand. He has the form and intensity of a weightlifter; he came to his obsession with conditioning after competing in the Mr. Universe contest. He is the longtime coach of both the Greenwood Memorial Swim Club and the Gardner High School swim team.
"We have a motto here at our practices," he says. "Race like you're No. 1, but train like you're No. 2."
Some of these kids are state champions in their events, and some are national champions. To train with Lemieux, some come from out of town every morning and afternoon. Some move here, like the young boy who came with his parents from Andover. "What a move that is," Lemieux marvels. But most of these kids go to Gardner High, where the team, like the coach and the pool itself, are legends.
As the sunrise streams through the glass half of the gabled roof, it lights the banners that hang from the rafters like Celtic banners at the old Boston Garden.
In a lot of ways, this pool is like the old Garden, where dynasty dwelled aside magnificent decay.
"How great is that," I ask Lemieux, "to be looking at a banner that says High School State Champions 1994, '95, '96, '97, '98…" (He cuts me off before I can finish: "'99, 2000, '01, '02, '03, '04, '05, '06, '07, '08.")
He interrupts with, "We're missing a year." That would be the championship for 2010, which the girls won in February — after coming in only second in 2009.
Fifteen in a row, 16 girls championships in 17 years. They're the record setters, the champions. They even had an Olympic gold medalist in 2008. The swim team is what keeps Gardner on the map now that its furniture mills are gone. "Chair City" no longer makes chairs, but it's still making champions.
Lemieux savors not just the winning, but the swimmers and their individual progress. To Lemieux, a program like this is part of the glue that holds a town together.
"I think you can't have a city or a town when all you have is police, fire and schools and there's nothing else," Lemieux said. "You got to figure out what you can do for children. There's got to be something for those kids and something you can hang your hat on and be proud of."
For the intense coach, swimming is one of those hats, all the bigger for success having been achieved in an undersized and ancient pool. School Superintendent Carol Daring, who's swimming upstream against a current of bad budgets, knows the value of what the small school team has done.
"People wouldn't believe it," she says, "Little Gardner, Massachusetts. But its sheer will, sheer determination, excellent coaching and those girls go to great schools with great scholarships."
Across Town, Decay
But after the swimmers finish their morning workout and head to school, Superintendent Daring will be following them to give bad news to some of Gardner's teachers.
"I want people to know face-to-face that their positions are being considered for elimination," Daring says. "And people need to plan their lives quite honestly."
About 37 people need come up with a new plan for the rest of their lives, according to the budget the school committee is preparing for the coming year. Facing a huge shortfall, Daring and the school committee have to cut 10 percent of Gardner's teachers, administrators, counselors and other staffers.
"Towns In Trouble" Series:
Back at the pool, Coach Lemieux is addressing the big-shouldered girls who listen intently and look down on the daily workout sheets they've water-pasted to the pool deck at the end of their lanes.
"Get it, catch it, hold it, power phase; that's all it is," they read.
City finances are drying up and there have been no rainmakers in Gardner for a long time who can do what Lemieux has done for swimming in this, the oldest municipal pool in the country.
When I ask him if the pool was state-of-the-art when it was built, he replies, "I wasn't alive when it was built in 1914."
It was actually called Greenwood Memorial Bath House, named for the family who built it with their furniture-making fortune and gave it to Gardner as a gift.
"They thought it was very important that everybody learn how to swim," Lemieux says.
They also knew that most of the people who worked in the mills had no plumbing or a place to bathe or shower. From its beginning, the pool meant opportunity. It came with only one condition from the Greenwood family, Lemieux says, paraphrasing the old documents he's read:
"'We will give you this gift if you will take care of it and maintain it.' The selectman voted at a meeting. 'We'll accept the gift. Thank you very much. And we'll take care of it for you.' Obviously, that hasn't happened."
He half laughs at the fact, a source of great frustration. Throughout his years of success with the high school girls team and the swim club, the city's support for the pool has steadily declined.
The Swimmers Still Winning
The architecture is grand. But if the design was Greek, the decline has been Roman. Beams, posts and girders rust in luxuriance, roof boards are rotting, and the pool screams "energy pig." As pool superintendent, Lemieux scrubs, plumbs, checks the chemistry, cleans and coaches at all hours.
"We used to have a full-time lifeguard; that position got taken away," he says. "Then I had a full-time janitor. That got taken away. Then I had a full-time clerk. That got taken away. So I am the only full-time person in the pool."
By mid-afternoon, swimmers from ages 5 to 16 fill the pool. Their parents sit up in the ancient balcony, like Marjorie Germagian, and testify to the heavens we can see through the glass roof and metal trusses.
"I think it's the unsung hero of Gardner," she says of the swim team. "Furniture-making is gone and they've lost a lot of the things that used to make Gardner great. But since they've lost that they can still hang onto this and say there's still something good about Gardner."
It used to be that if you were a kid and you could swim, people from other towns knew you came from Gardner.
But a city that can't fund its schools isn't likely to fund its pool either. And Mayor Mark Hawke, who learned to swim here like everyone else, says he can't in good conscience spend money to fix a pool while teachers get laid off.
Lemieux dreams of turning the outdoor summer pool into a 50-meter pool that could be covered with a bubble and used year round. The pool could attract swim teams from all around for summer competitions — Greenwood has drawn crowds of 3,000 to meets in the past. It could bring much-need income and jobs to the "Chair City" that no longer makes chairs or the fortunes that once built pools.
Meanwhile, as the Greenwood pool approaches the end of its first century, the swimmers keep on winning.
This program aired on May 12, 2010.