When Stan Tinkham moved to 20th and H Street in Northwest Washington, local swimming was a much different scene. Kids swam almost exclusively at YMCA pools, and there were few organized swim teams or meets or leagues.
That was 1940.
Today, 5 a.m. practices and Saturday meets at the local pool are the norm for the thousands of swimmers in the area, many of whom would find themselves watching Saturday morning cartoons if not for the efforts of Tinkham.
Tinkham helped found the Montgomery County Swim League in 1959 just three years after he established himself as one of the best coaches in the world, leading the U.S. Olympic women’s swim team to the ’56 Games in Melbourne. Tinkham, 77, still coaches elite prep swimmers at Sea Devil Swimming, which boasts over 700 members at seven locations in the greater Washington region.
“Swimming in this area wouldn’t be what it is without Stan Tinkham,” an MCSL parent said in July, when Tinkham was one of 33 people inducted into the MCSL’s Hall of Fame.
Tinkham also helped found the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club, which after 21 years in operation, closed in the early 1990s. He also was a longtime coach of the Walter Reed Army Hospital civilian swim team, as well as the head coach of the military swim team from 1954 to 1958. Under Tinkham at the 1956 Olympics, the U.S. women won six medals.
“The most outstanding thing was the Olympics certainly,” Tinkham said. “It was beyond my dreams, it was really great.”
Tinkham’s road to the Olympics was a short one — he was only 24 when he was named as coach for the Melbourne Games. Tinkham, who learned how to swim in South Dakota prior to moving to the District, was an All-American swimmer in high school and at the University of North Carolina. He joined the Walter Reed swim team as a civilian coach in 1946, and from there, was selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee to coach the women’s Olympic squad. He said that he was selected because of the number of quality swimmers he had at Walter Reed.
“Out of 8 swimmers on the team I had 5 of them [from Walter Reed],” Tinkham explained. “The coach at that time didn’t have any swimmers of his own so he quit, and then they appointed me coach.”
More than the Games themselves, Tinkham remembers the practices leading up to the Olympics. His swimmers, including Shelley Mann, who led a U.S. women’s sweep of the 100-meter butterfly, were highly competitive and took to his difficult regimens with enthusiasm. Both with his Walter Reed team and his Olympic team, Tinkham focused on sprints in practice. Every swimmer practiced every stroke every day.
“We had everybody competing against everybody,” Tinkham recalled. “These were all-out sprints. I think that way the swimmers just enjoyed it more, and I think they just went with it.”
After the Olympics, Tinkham returned to the Walter Reed military team for two years, before becoming manager of the Connecticut Belair pool in Silver Spring. While at Connecticut Belair, he helped found MCSL, and after the end of the MCSL season in August, Tinkham started the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club in September of 1959.
“We won the national championships at Walter Reed, and quite frankly my goal was to bring the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club to that level,” Tinkham said.
He built a standard 25-yard indoor pool to house the team initially, and then added a second 60-foot-by-30-foot outdoor practice pool when the club grew. At its peak, the team had 350 swimmers, but a rusted roof eventually spelled doom for Tinkham’s team.
“After 21 years of operating, the roof, which was a steel roof, rusted, and it was $300-400,000 to put the new roof on, so at that point, we just had to give it up.”
The International Swimming Hall of Fame recognized Tinkham’s successes in 1989, inducting him into the Hall along with 14 other swimmers and coaches. He has kept a relatively low profile since then, especially after the demise of the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club.
Though he has coached at the highest levels of swimming, Tinkham said he still enjoys his daily sessions with Sea Devil Swimming.
“It is such a thrill,” Tinkham said. “I certainly have had a great time with it.”