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Wes Snapp built Turners Falls swim program from scratch

  • Wes Snapp, middle, sits with his Turners Falls swim team during the Western Mass. Championship in 1983. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 9:43:18 PM

When you walk into the gymnasium at Turners Falls High School, it’s hard not to notice a plethora of championship banners from various athletic teams.

There are banners for basketball, football, softball, baseball, golf, volleyball and track & field, all commemorating the school’s athletic accomplishments.

Until recently, the championship banners on the wall did not include the Turners Falls swim team. And not because they hadn’t won any. Unfortunately, a pool renovation in the early 2000’s consequently led to all the teams’ trophies and record books being lost, nearly erasing the memory of the forgotten dynasty created and developed by coach Wes Snapp throughout his nearly 30-year tenure with the school.

Early Years

Snapp never envisioned being a swim coach.

After high school, he attended Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, where he earned nine credits before being drafted into the Army.

Upon his honorable discharge, Snapp attended Springfield College, where he swam on the team his senior year. While searching for jobs after graduation, one popped up as an English teacher at Turners Falls High School. He applied and got the job, setting off to begin his life as a Franklin County resident — despite a relative lack of knowledge of the area.

“I didn’t even know where Turners Falls was at the time,” said Snapp, now 86 years old, from his home in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. earlier this week.

One year into his teaching career at Turners, the high school moved to Turnpike Road. In its new location, the school sported a brand new, four lane swimming pool — providing a leg up on its neighboring rival.

“Greenfield didn’t have a pool,” Snapp said, “so Turners said ‘Let’s put up something they don't have.’ That’s how that came about.”

With the new state of the art pool, Turners principal Don LaPierre began looking for a coach to start a swim team. He approached Snapp about taking the position.

“The principal had looked through the records,” Snapp said. “He came to me and asked, ‘You swam in college?’ I said yes, a little bit. He said ‘OK, you’re the coach.’”

Just like that, Snapp found himself in charge of the newly-minted Turners swim program.

The team started as just a club program, where kids mostly came just to enjoy the new pool. Some also tried to learn how to swim. The club program ran for three years before officially being recognized as a Turners varsity team in 1976. That inaugural team was made up of 12 swimmers with both boys and girls participating, a rarity at the time. With no feeder program however, all swimmers were new to the sport, and Snapp was tasked with molding them as swimmers from scratch.

“We were just 12 kids who wanted to be on the swim team,” said Ed Pelis, who was on the original team in 1976.

The program accepted anyone who wanted to be on board, but it began to grow in numbers as word got around about the fun they were having as a group. With Snapp’s laid-back attitude, student-athletes found starting a new sport less intimidating.

For Eileen Boucher-Nikopoulos, who was the only girl on the team when it was just a club program, Snapp made sure she was treated no differently.

“He was very welcoming,” Boucher-Nikopoulos said. “Being the only girl, he never made me feel awkward. He kept it light-hearted and it was fun. I never had second thoughts because I was the only girl.”

Being the only co-ed swim team in Western Mass. at the time, Turners scheduled any school that was willing. This led to a rough stretch for the early years of the program, as they were forced to compete against all-male teams who were much more experienced in the sport.

The first year as a team, they didn’t win a meet.

Nor did they the second year. Instead of celebrating victories, Snapp found different ways to keep his team encouraged, using his positive attitude to keep spirits high.

“We celebrated little things,” Snapp said. “While we were helpless in the league, we celebrated when a kid broke a minute or when the whole team broke a minute. We made up little records for ourselves and that kept everyone happy and involved.”

For many programs that struggle finding success in the first couple years, maintaining interest can be a challenge. Instead, buoyed largely by Snapp’s enthusiasm, the team actually gained in both interest and numbers, according to former members.

“He was always encouraging,” Pelis said of Snapp. “He was an outstanding coach, made sure we practiced. He was a good all-around person to be forming a team. He was the right guy at the right time.”

“I think what helped was that those of us on the team and on the club the first couple years, we spread to our friends,” Boucher-Nikopoulos said. “I had so much fun I was blabbing to my friends about how good of a time we were having. That was the key.”

What made Snapp the right man for the job was his ability to remain patient in the face of obstacles. Whether an ambitious swimmer came in with all the talent in the world or were aquatically challenged at first, they were treated as equals by the coach.

“He was an outstanding coach,” Alan Miner, a Turners swimmer from 1975-80, said. “He was like a mentor toward every swimmer on the team. It didn’t matter if you were the best or worst, he worked with you.”

While the swimmers learned the intricacies of swimming, Snapp also learned himself. He had no prior coaching experience upon taking the gig. Being the innovator he was, he found a creative way to learn different tricks to teach his team.

“I had swum a little in college but I didn’t know the rules,” Snapp said. “I had to look them up and learn them. I told the kids to pick everyone’s brain at meets and to be friendly and make friends. At any meet, they’d pick the opponents’ brain on exercises and drills that they did and before we finished the first year, we had a whole host of things we could do. It was all from other teams because I didn’t know anything about coaching so we learned as we went.”

Though he might not have had the knowledge of the technical aspects of swimming, Snapp was a teacher at heart, and always found an innovative way to educate his swimmers. 

Mark Desautels, who swam on the team from 1979-85, recalls Snapp teaching him and others how to dive. All the kids were afraid at first. They had to run off the board and throw their legs back over their head with the fear of landing flat on their back. 

Snapp had the idea to wear a sweatshirt while perfecting the dive, as it would brace the plummet into the pool if it wasn’t executed to perfection. When the team initially laughed at the idea, Snapp indeed got on the diving board wearing a sweatshirt and flopped into the pool to prove it wouldn’t hurt.

“Wes is such a good guy,” Desautels said. “Everybody liked him. I thought he was a great coach, very knowledgeable in swimming. He always had little pointers and was good on little, small things like that. Overall, he was very good with how he was able to relate with different people. He would relate in a way that made sense with them.”

Championship Years

It took a couple years for the swimmers to round into form and for Snapp to learn the ways of coaching. In 1979, all the hard work paid off.

In the program’s 45th meet, held on Snapp’s 45th birthday, their progress made in practice showed up in the pool. Turners got its first-ever win against Westfield. 

“It was like we won the Super Bowl,” Miner said.

From there, the program hit the ground running. 

Snapp was not alone as the architect. He had help from a young UMass graduate named Mike Cowles in those early years. Cowles was an assistant to Snapp after graduating from the Flagship in 1973, and he also took over as the aquatics director in Montague where he started the youth program: the Montague Bluefish.

While Snapp spent the early years of his program developing swimmers, once the 80s rolled around, he had swimmers coming up who had been coached since they were young, ready to compete at the high school level.

“Those little kids would come to our swim meets,” Miner said. “They’d be part of the team after going through the feeder program. It’s really how they established themselves to be a competitive team.”

“It was huge,” Cowles added. “If you didn’t have the youth program, you wouldn’t have ended up with the success at the high school level. Most of the kids went through the rec program. It was a lot of teaching going on, which made it a fun time because you have a brand new team and were seeing improvement almost every time they swam.”

Just three years removed from not winning a meet, Turners was the runner-up in the co-ed division of the Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference (PVIAC), tying head-to-head but settling for second due to having a worse out-of-conference record.

Turners won the division outright one year later however, capturing the 1982 title.

“It took a couple years,” Snapp said, “but we had some pretty good years after we got started.” 

In 1983, Turners moved out of the co-ed league and fielded separate boys and girls teams that competed in the PVIAC D Division. Even though they were one of the smallest schools competing in the division, both the boys and girls teams were crowned champions the next two seasons, not losing a single meet in the 1984-85 campaign.

Turners had high-end swimmers, but it was a team-first mentality that pushed them to unblemished marks. In what can largely be an individual sport, Snapp made sure to develop a team, not just a group of people looking out for themselves. 

“As a group, coach Snapp fostered a friendly working environment,” said Chris Pinardi, who swam on the team for six years. “He would always tell us you can have a superstar in every event and you won’t win a meet. It’s all the people who finish second through sixth that lead to victory. Support everyone behind you and always have that team mentality. He would have us cheer until every swimmer finished.”

With the Turners pool being just four lanes, it did give the team a little bit of a home field advantage. Teams were forced to swim just two at a time, while they were used to sending more in the larger pools throughout Western Mass.

The ceiling above the diving board was low as well. Opponents were hesitant to take a full bounce off the board, for fear they would hit their head above.

“When the visiting teams would come in from their six or eight lane pools and saw we only had four, they could only swim two people,” Snapp said. “They had all these swimmers and could only go two at a time. It gave us a home base advantage. We won a lot of diving events because they couldn’t adapt to the situation and we knew it.”

The success carried through the 80’s, as Turners won the championship in the 1985-86 season. In the ’86-87 season, the boys went undefeated to win the PVIAC C Division title while the girls went 10-3. In the ’87-88 season, the boys repeated as champions while the girls finished third.

For the swimmers on the original club team, seeing the program’s success made them feel like their hard work in the early years paid off in the long run.

“I think we set the initiative,” Pelis said. “It was because we didn’t give up that the program continued. If we had given up, if we had quit after two years, there might not have been a swim program.”

One of the most successful swimmers on those championship teams was Kim Morin-O’Brien, who began swimming for Turners in her eighth-grade year. Snapp put her out there right away, seeing her natural talent. It paid off. She went on to win the Western Mass. title her junior and senior seasons in the 50-yard freestyle, and was named league MVP as a senior.

By way of winning MVP, Morin-O’Brien was tasked with giving a speech at a function for the league. Nervous, she approached Snapp for advice, and like always, he gave her the encouragement and support needed to get up in front of the crowd.

“I had never given a speech,” Morin-O’Brien said. “I’m asking him ‘What do I say? What do I do?’ He made things seem matter of fact and gave me coaching, gave me pointers on things. You trusted what he said, not because he’s a teacher but because he had that trust that he knew what he was talking about. I can’t emphasize enough his relaxed style and calm way about him. He was good and effective in that regard.”

Snapp was winning championships in the pool, but continued to be a mentor to students in the classroom. 

Debbie Loomer taught with Snapp throughout his tenure at Turners, and remembers him always being professional and open for students to talk to.

“Kids liked him,” Loomer said. “He had a wit and jokester way about him but he was just a nice guy. I can’t ever remember him saying a harsh word. There were some teachers that all the kids liked, he was in the ‘Everybody loved him category.’ He never spoke harshly about anyone, a great role model for the kids. He was somebody who did their job and didn’t have to scream, rant and rave. He was the pillar of respect and professionalism.”

Snapp continued to coach and teach into the 90’s before retiring from Turners in 1998. He didn’t leave the swimming community, however, working as an official for the sport upon his departure.

His departure from the program left behind a dynasty that may never be seen again with the Turners program.

“The program went from nothing to the top,” Loomer said. “There were years where you had all these Western Mass. champs. For somebody like Kim, nobody ever voted on a small school swimmer (for MVP), but they did all because of Wes.”

The Western Mass. Swimming Association recognized Snapp for his lifetime in support of swimming upon his retirement, and while the trophies were lost during pool renovations, they have been remade.

The trophies and banners, mixed with pictures of Snapp, are now displayed at Turners Falls High School. The ‘forgotten dynasty’ will now be forever enshrined in the school’s history. 

“I enjoyed my time at Turners,” Snapp said. “I got feedback before I retired that I had done some good things. They appreciated that and I appreciated hearing that.”

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