ITHACA – In the nearly 40 years that Roy Staley has coached swimming at Ithaca High — starting in 1968 and returning, after a 10-year absence, in 1986 — he’s produced numerous sectional championships, all-state and All-America athletes and more wins than he cares to count.
He’s produced many things, but there’s one thing that has suffered with all the hours he’s dedicated to getting the most out of his athletes, both at the high school and club level. Staley, who announced his retirement from high school coaching earlier this week, said he plans on trying to repair that neglected aspect of his life in the weeks, months and years to come.
“Swimming wrecked my golf game, you know?” Staley, who turned 70 in February, said with a laugh Friday morning. He said he used to play to between a 6 and 9 handicap. “And now I’m too old to get back to the game I used to have. I still love the game and would like to get back to playing it, which I will.”
Although he has no clue as to his coaching won-lost record (“I have no idea and I don’t care,” he said), Staley undoubtedly leaves the Little Red athletic program with the all-time best winning percentage of any coach in school history. That’s a pretty sure bet since, while he has no idea of how many dual-meet wins his girls’ teams have amassed over the last 26 seasons, he knows exactly how many losses he’s had: One.
“It was in 1997 or ’98 to Johnson City, a meet we never should have lost, but it happened,” he said. “And who am I to say that, since we’ve lost one girls’ dual meet since 1989?”
Staley grew up in Ithaca, graduating from Ithaca High in 1963 and attending the University of North Carolina, where he was a four-year member of the swim team. He returned home after graduation and, in 1968, helped interim swim coach Caesar George with the boys’ program. The program’s regular coach, Chuck Baxter, was on sabbatical.
Staley became a substitute teacher and then a full-time teacher at Ithaca High, and he became more involved in coaching swimming. It was around that time that he and former Ithaca High teammate Dick Chelekis started the Ithaca Aquatics Club, of which Staley is still the head coach.
“The fates kept me here in Ithaca, which I never planned, and got me involved in coaching, which was something I enjoyed,” Staley said in a 2005 story when he was named the Van Sickle Award Winner as Male Coach of the Year. “It’s had some tremendous highs and, on the other end, some lows. I’ve been lucky and very fortunate, and it’s been a wonderful experience.”
His girls’ teams from that mid-2000s were highly successful, with the 2005 squad — featuring Emily Peck, Logan Todhunter, and twin sisters Lindsey and Lauren Norberg — winning the state championship. Staley coached three Journal female athletes of the year — Beth Timmons (1993), Lindsey Norberg (2006) and Todhunter (2007).
Ithaca won 23 consecutive girls’ sectional titles from 1990 through 2012; Horseheads has won the last two. But it wasn’t just the quest for championships and individual recognition that fueled Staley’s passion at the high school level. Far from it.
“It’s obviously the pleasure of seeing a kid, or anybody, reach beyond themselves and so something they didn’t think they could do,” he said.
Mike Blakely-Armitage, the boys’ coach at Ithaca since taking over for Joe Hamilton in 2010, said Staley’s desire to see people succeed extends to his peers.
“He’s just a really great knowledge base for younger coaches,” Blakely-Armitage said. “He likes to take young coaches under his wing and help develop them. He always talking to coaches, creating a camaraderie, rubbing elbows with other coaches and getting new ideas.
“Even at this stage of his career,” Blakely-Armitage said, “he’s always learning from others and imparting that knowledge to coaches and athletes.”
Staley coached both the boys and girls until 2003, when he handed the reins over to Watkins Glen and Ithaca College graduate Sasha Kuznezov. Former Ithaca director of athletics Bill Bryant praised Staley’s dedication, especially during the years he coached in both the fall (girls) and winter (boys).
“(Staley) truly built one heck of a dynasty with the girls,” he said, “and certainly would have done the same with the boys if he’d stayed with it. The time he spent at the pool is unbelievable, and I think he was looking to give himself a little bit of a break.
“He’s truly a first-class professional when it comes to coaching,” Bryant said. “He had great swimmers, for sure, but he also took swimmers who were maybe average and made them outstanding. That’s a credit to him.”
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the veteran coach, who said there were three incidents over the years of parents who went to the school board, for one reason or another, seeking his removal from the position.
“I didn’t use a kid in a relay, and the family went after us. That was one of them,” Staley said. “It’s usually a thing where a family decides they don’t like you, and they look for things. But I was lucky … there were board meetings where support came from families of kids I’d coached.”
Blakely-Armitage said that even he and Staley didn’t always see eye to eye, but that their relationship was good.
“Roy can be hard to work with sometimes, but we really hit it off,” he said. “I like his approach and enthusiasm, and dedication to making people better. He has high expectations and doesn’t suffer fools, but it’s all with the goal of getting people to be their best.”
Staley said he intends to keep coaching the Ithaca Aquatics Club, and has offered to the Ithaca administration suggested candidates — one male and two female, he said — for his replacement.