Back in 1997, the swimming team at St. John’s Prep in Danvers had yet to win a conference or state title. But after Tony Padvaiskas took the helm, the Eagles soared to heights never before imagined.
Tom Gately, who is now assistant coach, was senior captain that season. Four years later, the team earned its first state title, as senior captain Steven Amanti became a top-five swimmer in the state.
“That was a massive undertaking,” Amanti said. “The program had been around since the 1970s and had never won states.”
Twenty-two years and 14 Division 1 state titles later, Padvaiskas is retiring as head coach.
Last August, he met with Gately and aquatics director Jeff Fiore to tell them this would be his last year. He wanted to keep the news quiet until after the season to prevent any distractions.
Last week, he informed his athletes and officially resigned.
“He’s never wanted attention,” said Gately, who just finished his 14th year of coaching under Padvaiskas. “He waited until the very last minute to say ‘OK, I’m done now.’”
Amanti, who led the team to its first state title, said he wasn’t much of a factor his freshman year, but Padvaiskas kept working with him.
“There are hundreds of other stories like that where he’s been able to know that you can do a lot more than you think you can do,” Amanti said. “That faith and trust that he’s able to convey — and the nurturing of other athletes — he really gets spectacular results out of people that you wouldn’t expect.”
In addition to the 14 Division 1 State titles, Padvaiskas claimed 17 Catholic Conference championships and reached a record of 110-8 in dual meets during his career.
This past March, the Eagles won their fourth consecutive state championship, with senior cocaptains Mitch Lockwood and Alexander Argeros played pivotal roles in the 400-freestyle relay. The Eagles’ relay time of 3:13.65 was tied for best in the state.
Lockwood also won the 50 freestyle in a school-record time of 21.35 seconds, was the runnerup in the 100 freestyle, and swam a leg on the 200 individual medley.
Lockwood has known Padvaiskas since he was 6 years old. To this day, he credits much of his growth — athletically and personally — to the coach’s leadership.
“He’s basically like a dad to me,” Lockwood said. “He raised me and taught me how to swim and how to be a good person. He’s always been there throughout my life and I’m gonna miss him a lot.”
Before the state meet at Boston University, Lockwood was unusually nervous. Winning a state title his senior year was, after all, his dream. But Padvaiskas reminded him of the incredible work he had done to that point, and why he was in the pool in the first place: to have fun with his brothers.
“He brought me aside and that really calmed my nerves,” Lockwood said. “It didn’t really matter if we won or not. Obviously it was great to win and share that moment.”
For Padvaiskas, that one-on-one speech was an example of his coaching philosophy.
“In terms of the team concept and really excelling as individuals within the team and making them realize that day in and day out becoming the best person you can be, we use swimming as the tool,” Padvaiskas said. “But the process is all about becoming better people.”
Although he is retiring, the program Padvaiskas built will continue.
At Harvard University for the USA Swimming New England Championships last July, 11 of Padvaiskas’ former swimmers were there coaching club teams.
“To see 11 of my kids on the same pool deck showed the message of give back — it’s not about yourself, it’s about helping everybody,” he said. “By doing so, it helps you become better. It floored me when somebody told me I had 11 former athletes literally on the same pool deck as me.”
Argeros echoed that sentiment.
“I think that he would want to be remembered as the guy who took all these freshman, turned them into men, and sent them off into the world where they’re ready to be good people and then give back to the communities that once helped them,” Argeros said.