GARDNER - Legendary Gardner High swimming coach Don Lemieux, who led the Wildcats to 16 state titles, has stepped down after being told by school officials he would not be allowed to accompany his team to today’s Division 1 state championships.
Lemieux was informed of the school’s decision by principal Donna Pierce and assistant principal and acting athletic director Tim McCormick on Thursday.
Gardner Superintendent of Schools Carol Daring would not say Friday night why Lemieux was disciplined - sources told the Telegram & Gazette it was alleged practice violations - but she said the decision was made after Pierce consulted with the MIAA.
Lemieux was not suspended, according to Daring, who said it was the school’s choice not to allow him to coach the team at Harvard University. She said Pierce and McCormick will accompany the team instead.
Daring said she would not say what, if any, rules Lemieux broke.
“The most important thing is that the girls will have the opportunity to swim,’’ Daring said.
But, according to sources, as few as three members of the Gardner team are expected to swim today. The others will not compete in a show of support for their former coach, whom they believe didn’t receive proper support from the school. Schools do not have to report who will miss the meet until the scratch meeting an hour before the competition begins.
One member of the team, a school-choice student, withdrew from school on Thursday.
Daring said the school would not have appealed any MIAA sanctions. “It’s too late in the season for that,’’ she said.
Friday night, Lemieux said his coaching days at Gardner High are over. He is also the superintendent of the Greenwood Pool, where the team trains.
“My meeting [with Pierce and McCormick] was very cordial,’’ Lemieux said. “I told them they could do what they wanted. I was surprised at their decision, but I thanked them for all the years. I told them if they needed any help, I’d be here for them.’’
Under Lemieux, Gardner won 15 straight titles from 1994 to 2008 and another in 2010. The Wildcats finished fourth last season, but were among the favorites to win the state title again today after capturing their fifth straight South/Central championship last weekend.
Lemieux said he told Pierce and McCormick he wouldn’t try to influence his swimmers’ decision to swim or not swim today.
“I’ve had great kids,’’ said Lemieux, whose past pupils include Olympic gold medalist Samantha Arsenault. “But I told [the school] I would keep quiet, that I wouldn’t say a word to them. It’s their choice to swim or not.
“I’m pretty devastated,’’ Lemieux added. “But I’m not a parent and I’m not their coach. It’s up to the kids to make their own decisions. Those kids are my life, but it’s time to move on.’’