Former Navy Men’s Swimming Head Coach Lee Lawrence Passes Away

Lee Lawrence Graphic

Men’s Swimming & Diving 10/12/2020 2:57:00 PM

ANNAPOLIS, Md. –– Navy Athletics is mourning the passing of Lee Lawrence, who was a member of the men’s swimming coaching staff for 36 years and also served as instructor in the USNA physical education department.  Lawrence passed away this weekend in Florida.

Service information for Lawrence, age 82, has not been announced by the family.

The Moylan, Pa., native attended Staunton Military Academy (Staunton, Va.) where he earned two prep school All-America honors in swimming.  He would attend Missouri for one year before transferring to Springfield College where he was a member of the swimming team and studied physical education.  Upon graduating in May 1960, he enrolled in Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I.  After three years on active duty, he returned to Springfield as a graduate assistant for the swimming team.  With a master’s degree in hand in 1965, he became the head coach for the Geneseo State swimming team.  He arrived in Annapolis in 1967 as an assistant coach to John Higgins. As part of his responsibilities he coached the program’s plebe and junior varsity teams.  Lawrence was elevated to head coach in the summer of 1973.

Navy compiled winning records in 25 of his 30 seasons as head coach, during which time he guided the Mids to an overall record of 233-139.  Lawrence also concurrently coached the Navy women’s swimming team for six seasons (1979-85) and the school’s water polo team for three years (1982-84).  His women’s swimmers compiled a 32-29 dual meet record and his water polo squads posted a 68-12 record.

His three programs combined for a 29-10 record against Army.

Lawrence retired from Navy following the 2002-03 academic year, but didn’t put away the stopwatch.  He could be found coaching on the pool decks of area club and high school teams near his retirement home in Florida for most of the last 15 years.

“We are devastated,” said Bill Roberts, who served as an assistant to Lawrence for three years and was named head coach of the program upon Lawrence’s retirement.  “Coach Lawrence had a profound impact on so many people throughout his legendary career at the Naval Academy.  Since becoming the head coach, I have really enjoyed getting to know our alumni and learning more about coach Lawrence and his impact.  He certainly experienced a lot of success as a coach.  What is perhaps most impressive is the success the athletes on his teams experienced after they graduated from Annapolis.

“Personally, I shared an office with Lee during my entire time as an assistant coach.  We remained close after he retired from coaching and right up to the end.  I will cherish those memories and all that I have learned from Lee forever.”

“Lee was indeed an icon, along with John before him and Bill after him,” said Mark Heinrich ’79, who would be one of four members from Lawrence’s 1977 Navy swimming team that went on to reach the rank of admiral.  “Lee was a member of a cadre of coaches in the East that knew each other well and shared coaching tips and workouts.  Lee’s signature workout set was ten 200’s freestyle on 3-minute intervals.  He would say to all of us, ‘Set your hand speed and let it carry you.’  Every Navy swimmer has heard that.  Moreover, he helped me improve every year, and my three Eastern Intercollegiate Championships in the backstroke were a direct result of Lee’s coaching and his encouragement. 

“Finally, Lee and his wife Betty were like second parents to us all.  They routinely hosted us at his house just off General’s Highway on the weekends and fed us all.  He loved us all.  He was truly larger than life and we will all miss him for his personality, his humor, commitment and love of the Mids that he coached.”

“The fact that he gets out here and stands in the sun for us every day he can is incredible,” said then-Pedro Menendez High School swimmer Kelsea Nierth, in a 2017 article written for the St. Augustine Times.  “I trust his sets.  I can feel them helping me, helping my stroke, helping me go faster.”

“He’s like a second father to me. Our bond has gotten stronger over the years,” said Alexis Chang, in the same article.

“Lee was a treasure, somebody that I am very thankful to have swam for,” said Luis Nicolao ’92, who is the current head coach of the Navy water polo team.  “He knew how to keep it fun and enjoy every minute with his athletes.”

“I have known Lee since 1965 when my high school teams would swim against Lee’s Navy freshman teams,” said Frank Keefe, who went on to serve as the head coach at Yale for over three decades.  “When it was time for Lee to compete, he was fierce.  But that didn’t stop us from having dinner together before every meet.  He knew when the swimming started and when it stopped.

“When I heard the news, I called several of the coaches Lee and I competed against and all of them were in shock, just like I was.  He will be greatly missed.”

“The swimming world has lost a giant in our sport,” said McGee Moody, who was an assistant to Lawrence and is now the head coach at South Carolina.  “I owe so much of my career to Lee.  He gave me an opportunity to coach at Navy and taught me so much about leadership, loyalty and hard work.  He was my boss, a mentor and my friend.  His contribution to the USNA and its physical mission was immeasurable.  Every Midshipman who touched the water had to work with coach Lawrence.  He had a rough exterior nut each of his athletes knew that at his core he cared deeply about them.  His job was to prepare them to serve and protect our country, and he was very successful at doing that.  I am going to miss him.”

“‘Lou’ (as he was known by to his team) believed in me,” said Noah White ’04, who would compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials.  “He kept me on after plebe summer and after official team tryouts.  I didn’t win any races, or come anywhere close to winning.  But he kept me on and let me compete on the team.  After a dismal first year, he kept me on for the second year and put me on the traveling team.  Again, I didn’t win any races, or come anywhere close to winning.  Lou could have easily cut me at any time during those seasons and I would have understood.  Lou saw me at my sustained worst and kept me on.  If it hadn’t been for Lou believing in me, the successes I had later never would have happened. 

“I loved Lou’s smile.  He was known for being gruff and short, and not one for being expressive.  It was a small smile, barely discernible, but it was there and I loved seeing it as a reward for putting out.  My first individual win came on the road against a stronger Harvard team.  When I touched first, the first thing I wanted to see was Lou’s expression.  He was smiling.

“At the end of every away meet, the bus would stop to drop Lou off.  The team would break out singing ‘To know, know, know Lou, is to love, love, love, Lou, just to see Lou smile, makes my life worthwhile.’  It was a crazy song, always followed by Lou grumbling, but it was true for me.”