Varsity Xtra: Last lap -- After 35 seasons Semler stepping down at NA
Coach Kirk "Corky" Semler leaves behind a legacy of swimming dominance at North Allegheny.
North Allegheny swimming Coach Kirk "Corky" Semler talks with the team before practice begins Tuesday in McCandless. Semler is retiring after 35 years of coaching.
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Swimming is a sport that typically doesn't require footwear, but for Kirk "Corky" Semler, a feeling has slowly developed around his feet as he stands on the pool deck overlooking his team's practice.
Having tirelessly devoted himself to his craft for decades, the North Allegheny swimming coach has noticed a constriction taking hold just below his ankles. Even if it's just in his mind, it's a sign, a sensation that is too strong to ignore.
"My favorite saying, and I heard this years ago and it applies so well, is 'My favorite shoes are a little too tight,'" Semler said.
For him, it's an aphorism that carries a simple message: No matter how much you might love something, there comes a time where you must let go, regardless of how hard it might be.
At the end of this season, Semler will retire from North Allegheny, leaving his post as one of the most-decorated swimming coaches in local and state high school history.
Symbols of Semler's 35-year tenure can be found anywhere one turns at the school's pool. There are the 24 WPIAL and nine PIAA championship teams he coached, represented by black banners arranged neatly in grids on opposite walls. The names of North Allegheny swimmers who attained All-America status, 132 under Semler, are compactly displayed in bold white lettering on a black bulletin board.
Yet, for a man of his obvious accomplishment, there's a restraint in Semler's conversation when he speaks of his achievements.
As he likes to phrase it, he's nothing more than "a spoke in the wheel," one of many who helped his team, the proverbial vehicle, churn at a torrid pace for so many years.
"Let's put the question in perspective -- I haven't won any [titles]," Semler said when asked of his team's championships. "I tell the kids all the time, 'I haven't swum a stroke in any of these victories.' It's the kids who have done it.
"Yes, I've been the coach and I appreciate the accolades and I appreciate the fact that people think I've won them, but the kids have won them."
The championships are what stand out about Semler, defining his career, but they are just the highlights of a journey that began many years ago.
After working as a car salesman and, as he put it, "essentially goofing off for a couple of years" after graduating from Kent State, Semler accepted a position as a physical education teacher and swim coach at North Allegheny in 1978.
Taking over an already successful program that won its first girls' WPIAL championship in 1973, Semler was able to continue North Allegheny's budding tradition at a place whose high level of expectation matched his own.
"I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to be in that environment," Semler said. "I think a lot of coaches would have been successful as well had they been given this opportunity."
The winning began almost immediately as his boys team captured a WPIAL title in just his second season and the girls team won WPIAL championships in 1983 and 1984. The 1984 team also claimed a PIAA crown.
Maybe the most successful stretch of Semler's coaching career came in the 1990s, when his teams combined to win seven WPIAL and six PIAA championships. The girls team did its best to turn the decade into its own personal dynasty, winning seven WPIAL and five state titles, a stretch that included three consecutive PIAA championships from 1995-97.
The boys' team won consecutive state titles in 2009 and 2010 and is the defending WPIAL champion.
They are feats that not only make for impressive bullet points on a resume, but also have made him and his teams an institution in the local swimming community.
"I know that when people move into the Pittsburgh area and people talk about who you should train with as a swimmer, it always comes back to North Allegheny," said Jaime Workman, who graduated from North Allegheny in 1997. "That's because of Cork, because of his longevity here and what he has done for the swimmers and the program. The program is the best bar none."
With this current track record of success, the natural question is why Semler, 59, is retiring, especially considering he exhibits few signs of slowing down, save for his graying hair and facial whiskers.
At a recent practice, he laughed as some of his swimmers jokingly mocked the "Feeling blue today?" message he wrote on a whiteboard near the pool. Moments later, he passionately spoke as his team, seated around him, attentively hung on every word.
For someone facing the potential stress of the WPIAL meet next Thursday, this is clearly not a man drained of will or enthusiasm for what he does.
But in a sport such as swimming that demands practices well before sunrise and long hours of preparation that would keep him at the school until as late as 8 p.m., the work has become too much and fatigue, even if not entirely apparent, has set in.
"Quite frankly, I think I'm just tired," Semler said. "Doing my favorite thing is now costing me more than it's rewarding me. I just need to step back here for a little bit."
Stepping back may be a tough challenge for a man who devoted so much of himself not for his own advancement, but for those who benefited directly from his work -- his swimmers.
It's a responsibility that Semler always felt went beyond the pool.
"Most importantly, he's more about developing them as people as he is developing them as swimmers, and that's why he has so many who love him so much and why he's had so much success in the swimming arena," North Allegheny assistant coach Patrick Wenzel said. "It's not all about swimming -- it's about life, it's about learning, it's about becoming the right kind of person. He leads them in that direction really well."
Marina Rozick, who graduated from North Allegheny in 2011 and currently swims at Westminster College, lauded Semler as "a father figure," noting that his level of care for his swimmers sets him apart from even his most compassionate colleagues.
"Now that I'm in college, I look back and I wish so badly that I could still swim for him," she said. "No coach will ever be like him."
With Semler's retirement on the horizon, the potential for a triumphant final act remains.
Led by a strong group of swimmers -- his boys and girls teams are both 10-0 this season -- the WPIAL meet is less than a week away.
If there's one group of people who want to provide Semler with a storybook ending to a distinguished career, it's his swimmers.
"We want to send him out with a win," senior Anna Seethaler said.
The exit of someone of Semler's stature brings about an inevitable void in numerous places. There's North Allegheny, which will have to look for a head swimming coach for the first time since the Carter administration. Wenzel, who was a state champion swimmer for the Tigers and heads up North Allegheny's youth program, is a potential successor.
Though Semler said he will stay involved even in retirement, there is also the Western Pennsylvania swimming community, which will have to replace something of a patriarch.
For both the school and the sport, it marks the end of an era, one defined by a man who found incessant joy in his profession not through individual accolades, but through the young lives he helped shape.
Semler may have reached the point where he can no longer continue with the sport's grind, but his positive legacy, and not just the banners he helped win, will live on with the program, something that makes his retirement anything but morose.
"I don't think it's so much sad," Wenzel said. "I think it's going to be a celebration. I don't think he's sad -- he's put everything he has into this for 35 years and he's left an indelible impact on North Allegheny."
First Published February 22, 2013 12:00 am