The odyssey that led North Brunswick swimming coach Gregg Anderson to one day make New Jersey history began humbly in Sacramento, Calif., more than 50 years ago, when a friend of his father’s was simply trying to find a place to dig a big hole in the ground.
“It was kind of accidental,’’ Anderson said. “My dad had a landscape business, and he had a friend who had a business idea that he could dig a hole, put cement in it and have a pool in a backyard in 48 hours, but he needed somewhere to try it out. My dad agreed, so suddenly we had a pool.
“When we had a pool, that meant we needed to get swimming lessons. Then a guy who was a teacher at the local school said, ‘These kids are good swimmers.’ He had a friend starting a team, and said, ‘You should try out.’ The rest is history, I guess.’’
It was the beginning of a life immersed in swimming, one that reached a historic mark on January 25 when Anderson, who is the coach of the boys and girls swim teams at North Brunswick, became the first coach in state history to reach 500 combined career victories. The Raiders boys beat Elizabeth, 113-57, and the girls beat Elizabeth, 129-41, to achieve an unprecedented feat for the 61-year-old Anderson, who is the only coach the program has ever had since its inception in 1973.
“I don’t like all the hoopla,’’ Anderson said about the celebration of his milestone. “I tell the kids that it’s been 501 wins now, and I haven’t swum a lap. It’s all about them.’’
However, it’s meets like the one North Brunswick’s girls pulled out for win career win No. 501 that keep Anderson excited. After losing, 93-77, to Hunterdon Central during the regular season, the sixth-seeded Raiders turned the tables and upset the third-seeded Red Devils in the North II Group A playoffs, 87-83, before falling to perennial power Bridgewater-Raritan in the sectional semifinals.
“We went into that knowing what the other team had, and I had to change some of the events around to find the 10 points we would need to win,’’ Anderson said. “That really made our season. We had finished third at the Greater Middlesex Conference championship meet and we were the defending champions, so the girls were a little down, but they were great (against Hunterdon Central) and we found those 10 points.’’
After that day all those years ago when his father’s friend built the swimming pool in the backyard, Anderson took a circuitous route to North Brunswick. He attended Mira Loma High School in Sacramento before moving on to swim at Rutgers, where he became an All-American as a sophomore and junior in the 200 backstroke for a Scarlet Knights’ program that has since been disbanded.
During that time, he also dated and later married Sue Pitt, his now ex-wife, who was an Olympian in 1964 and 1968 and once held the world record in the 200 butterfly. While they were dating after college, Anderson was considering law school or graduate school when he and Pitt went to a job fair and filled out interest forms for the Peace Corps. Before he knew it, he and his future wife were in Tunisia, a small country with a population of 10.3 million in northern Africa, coaching swimming and teaching kindergarten for two years.
“We were the Tunisian national swim coaches,’’ Anderson said. “It’s kind of funny to think about because Tunisia is this country in the Sahara desert where it’s incredibly hot, and here we are coaching swimming.’’
He and Pitt completed their two-year stint from 1970-72 before returning to New Jersey, as Pitt is originally from Highland Park. At the time, North Brunswick was a brand new school in an area where the students used to attend New Brunswick, and it just happened to have a pool in it.
It’s ironic that Anderson became a North Brunswick lifer, considering the administration brought him on as a swim coach, but he told them there was a chance he may not last long because he was looking for a teaching job and there wasn’t one available at North Brunswick.
“I told them, ‘Don’t count on me,’’’ he said. “I was certified to teach, so I told them, ‘I’ll coach, but I’m looking.’ They wanted me to stay, so they gave me a year contract as a teacher even though I was just a permanent substitute at the time, and then the second year there was an opening in social studies.’’
Anderson never left, building the program from scratch with swimmers from grades 7-9 the first year, then 8-10 the second year and then finally a full high school in his third season. They went 0-11 his first season and then 4-12 while swimming a full varsity schedule, and it took about 10 seasons before Anderson was back to the .500 mark.
Over the years of his tenure, many things have changed in swimming, particularly in training methods.
“I happened to be cleaning out a file before, and I found some practice books from the '70s,’’ he said. “A lot of the training is still the same, but the equipment is different, the suits are different, and we use a lot more dry land training like ab work, push-ups, and weight training work. That's changed a lot.’’
However, there are some things that haven’t changed.
“St. Joe’s-Metuchen in Middlesex County has never lost the county championships,’’ he said before laughing. “If they’re not state champs, they’re in the finals, so it’s kind of tough in our county. We only have one win in 37 years against St. Joe’s, so I guess that hasn’t changed too much.’’
Anderson also had the interesting experience of coaching against his two daughters, Cattie and Sally, who were high-school All-Americans and NJSIAA champions at Franklin High School before moving on to become All-Americans at Penn State.
“Those were some of the real neat meets to be a part of,’’ Anderson said. “We swam against Franklin in 1996 for them to get to the championship round, and they beat us, and then after Katie had graduated, for us to get to the state championship meet, we had to beat them, and we won in 1997. Sally still is mad about that.’’
Sally still holds the 500 freestyle record time for the pool at North Brunswick, so the name “Anderson’’ is still up on the record board at the high school where her father has become a legend.
Anderson also is a major advocate for swimming in New Jersey, as he is part of the New Jersey Swimming Coaches Association and is a state representative for the National Association of Swimming Coaches.
“We’re still the only one in Middlesex County with a pool, which drives me nuts,’’ he said. “South Brunswick spends $30 million on a new building and doesn’t put a pool in. It’s a real community asset.’’
Anderson initially considered possibly retiring at 60, but his continued energy and a far-away retreat have kept him in the sport he loves.
“I still get a lot of satisfaction out of both teaching and coaching,’’ he said. “I haven't decided what I want to do when I retire, and that's part of it. My sisters and I were blessed because we inherited my uncle's ranch in South Dakota, so I go out there in the summer and turn off North Brunswick completely. I come back refreshed and ready to go.’’
He certainly is not in it for the milestones, even if they are ones that have never been reached by anyone in state history. Just ask him to remember his 400th victory.
“I have no idea,’’ he said before chuckling. “But there is a plaque out in the hall that says, ‘Congrats on your 400th victory,’ so it’s probably on that.’’
The real gratification comes from seeing nearly 20 of his former swimmers and a host of parents in attendance to celebrate his special night against Elizabeth.
“To see these kids that I coached, it brings back immediate memories of their races or a particular event that happened to them,’’ Anderson said. “I do have really fond memories. I've gotten quite a few letters that were really, really nice.’’
What also brought a smile to Anderson’s face was the moment at the team’s recent season-ending banquet when he broke out the sheet with everyone’s times on it from throughout the season.
“I want the kids to learn to set a goal and learn how to reach that goal,’’ he said. “I have computer printouts of every time they had that season, and my goal is to have the fastest times come in the GMC championship meet or the championship dual meets. I saw all their fastest times came in the GMC championships, or in the Hunterdon Central meet, or the Elizabeth meet late in the season, and that means my program works. That's what I like to see.’’
Still, after nearly 40 years at the helm and a career that is etched in state lore, Anderson’s main goal is the same one he had back in the 1950s, shortly after that freshly-dug hole in his family’s backyard was filled with water.
“I still have fun - that's my goal,’’ he said. “I want the kids to work hard, get in good physical condition, and most of all, to still have fun.’’