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Kalani Simpson

Sidelines

By Kalani Simpson

Thursday, March 20, 2003


Mr. Minn is retiring
from his ohana


MR. Minn sits on a bench at the side of the pool, surrounded by the sounds that have been the background music for his life, much of these past 52 years. His kids kick and stroke, water churning peacefully, the sounds of a swim team at work, practicing.

"Today is a short day," Mr. Minn says.

They are winding down for a meet, a big one. The last one.

It was 1955 when Al Minn started the Aulea Swim Club, when he first became its coach. He and his small group had gone to Mary Kawena Pukui in search of a name, a Hawaiian name. It was she who gave them Aulea. "It means 'swimming together harmoniously,' " Mr. Minn says. "In other words, ohana.

"I liked that."

It felt right. Just what he was looking for. A team built around the heart.

"That is more important in the beginning," he says.

Mr. Minn was a principal, a coach, an athletic director, a mentor to champions, Olympians. Today, his former swimmers are everywhere. He's won every award. He was one of the first names in the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame.

And yet he was always here, at the beginning.

Always at Aulea, with the kids.

Tomorrow, his team's annual meet is named for him. The Al Minn Aulea Invitational runs all weekend at the Kailua Rec. Center, young kids diving in for race after race after race.

His last meet as a swimming coach.

It's tough to believe Mr. Minn would really retire, but he says that he is, he really is. It's time.

"I need a rest," he says.

"I'm a beach boy. I might go back to the beach again.

"Rabbit Kekai and those guys, we all grew up on the beach together. But I left them."

AL MINN GREW up on the beach, and then playing football. He played for Father Bray, and then went to Willamette University on a football scholarship after getting out of the Army. He got his master's at Oregon. And it was there, on the mainland, that his coaching career began.

He was working as a lifeguard at a lake, and a bunch of kids asked if he would coach them: "I said, 'coach you what?' " But his group got it together for the swim-a-thon, the biggest meet in Portland. "And we won," Mr. Minn says now, as if realizing this was what started it all.

He returned home, coaching football at Farrington. It was tough competition, in the old ILH. But he had the swimmers, too, teaching those kids togetherness and pride. "They loved it," he says.

They won a championship.

"We beat Punahou," still an accomplishment all these years later. "That was a big one," he says.

It was about this time that a group of parents asked him to start a club for kids. Aulea.

"It dawned on me that maybe," and he pauses here, at the "maybe," maybe "swimming is my bag."

It was. They built a pool at Farrington, and Aulea was born. And then Mr. Minn taught everyone to swim, over the years, a coach here, a principal there, in the public schools, or as an athletic director. He coached 12 All-Americans as AD at Hawaii Loa College. He was head coach at UH for more than a decade, was an assistant on U.S. national and Olympic teams. He coached a Goodwill Games squad and a champion team at the U.S. Olympic Festival.

And always, his teams were family, they swam with heart.

"That first team meeting, Mr. Minn spent a long time talking about 'ohana,' " said Jeanne Childs Siragusa on her induction to the UH Circle of Honor in February. "That was the first thing he taught us."

Always, Aulea was part of the dream, teaching the small kids, the ones just starting out.

"That's his heart," says June Ford, his former All-American, now a masters world champion and Aulea assistant coach.

NOW THESE ARE his last days, this his last meet. It seems impossible. Brett Phillips was a former high school champion and collegiate swimmer. He brought his daughter to Mr. Minn, when she was ready to swim. He decided to start again, too, and became a master's world record holder under his old coach.

He recalls being a kid at the "Al Minn Fun Camp" in the '60s, surfing, swimming, bowling. Riding that bus with no roof and board racks in the middle of the floor.

It seems impossible now that you won't be able to take your daughter to learn from Mr. Minn.

But it's time now, he says, between telling you about upcoming prospects and getting a kiss hello from one of his best swimmers. An Olympic year is coming, and he would be away too much. And he needs to rest, and get his body in better shape, and visit his family, and travel.

And the beach boy in him is calling him home.

"I want to spend more time where I grew up," he says.

And so he's really retiring, after this meet they've named for him. He's got lots of other things to do. Lots of other interests. He'll still be busy. He is more than swimming, even if, after all these years, swimming in Hawaii is Al Minn.

The coaching staff page on the Aulea web site somehow says it all: "Coach Faye." "Coach Dan." "Coach June." "Coach Scott."

"Coach Mr. Minn."



Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com



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