Dale Leonhart: A permanent fixture when it comes to coaching swimming
Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy
Dale Leonhart has coached swimming for 51 years.
“He has almost a folklore aura about him,” said 18-year-old swimmer Cyrus Pearo. “The man has so much experience that there is no question he knows what he’s doing.”
The 67-year-old Grand Junction Dolphins and Grand Junction High School head swimming coach has been retired from teaching science for nearly eight years, but still is plenty busy.
Leonhart spends all but about two or three weekends of the year at the pool. He coaches the Dolphins from September through July, the high school girls from November through February, and the high school boys from March to May.
“Competitive swimming is a great venue for a lot of things I value,” Leonhart said. “It promotes the development of a positive self-image, self-motivation, goal-directed behavior, a good, healthy respect for hard work, the understanding you are a valuable member of a group, plus the community involvement. A lot of our kids are instructors or lifeguards. So it’s a great setting for promoting the development of good solid people that have a lifetime skill and a good awareness of holistic health.”
Leonhart was introduced to swimming by simply being a kid. He grew up in Meadville, Penn., which is 40 miles south of Lake Erie.
“There were a lot of little creeks so I always played in water,” Leonhart said. “I was swimming in cow pasture ponds when I was 5 and 6.”
Leonhart spent his teenage years in the Denver metro area, attending Denver North High School before moving on to the University of Colorado. Leonhart was a member of the swim team in high school and college.
“I was a utility guy, I didn’t have a specialty because I could do all the strokes but I wasn’t outstanding in any of them,” Leonhart said. “So I ended up doing the 400 individual medley, 200 breast and 200 fly.”
Beginning in high school, Leonhart spent his summers working as a lifeguard at a local pool. It was there that he got his first coaching opportunity.
“I coached kids almost my peers. The coach of the older kids got sideways with management and quit, so I volunteered to coach,” Leonhart said. Leonhart graduated from CU then earned his master’s from the University of Northern Colorado. He spent his summers continuing to coach.
He coached for six years at a pool in Aurora before taking a job at the Foothills pool in Morrison.
Leonhart was there for 19 years before coming to a crossroads in his life. Leonhart and then-wife Karen had decided Denver wasn’t where they wanted to start their family.
“Karen and I wanted to start a family and didn’t want to raise our kids in the big-city environment,” Leonhart said. “So we started looking around at Grand Junction and Montrose, and decided Grand Junction was a good compromise because it was big enough to have all the services but small enough that we could have a rural setting.”
In January of 1990 Leonhart got a job as a biology teacher and swimming coach at Grand Junction High School. He also landed the top job with the Dolphins, as the previous coach was stepping down.
The Leonharts have four children: Tim, Will, Sam and Sally. All four kids spent a lot of time at the pool in their youth.
“Because we were so intimately involved in the sport of competitive swimming, our kids grew up in the pool and around the pool,” Leonhart said. “They were all passed around from pool mom to pool mom, and we had a crib and play pen at the pool so it was our home away from home.”
The Leonhart boys had successful swimming careers, and Sally was heavily involved with dance. Leonhart never forced anyone to swim, and said he wanted his kids to do plenty of other activities.
“We made sure they were able to do other things,” Leonhart said. “Will played soccer, basketball, football; Tim and Sam did the same; and Sally played soccer and basketball.
“So when it came to choose, they would have a good library of things to choose from.”
Leonhart spends a lot of his time at the pool, but it’s rare to find him actually in the pool. As someone who loves competition, once Leonhart didn’t get the same spark from swimming, he moved on to other things.
“Once I walked away from the competitive aspect I don’t enjoy (swimming) that much because I can’t do what I used to do,” Leonhart said. “It’s ego deflating, so once I walked away from swimming I started running, and trained and competed in marathons.
“Once my hips got shot, I started riding a bike, so I still have that competitiveness.”
Leonhart builds his swimmers up by giving all his competitors a goal. He approaches coaching with the valuable lesson of just because they don’t finish first doesn’t mean they aren’t winners.
“Our sport is an individual sport and only one person can win a race, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the field can’t be winners as well,” Leonhart said. “If they have a goal to achieve and they do it, whether it puts them first or 27th, it’s a win for them and that’s the beauty of this sport.”
Grand Junction High School swimmer Jessica Deters swam for Leonhart since the fifth grade.
“He really makes it enjoyable,” Deters said. “He tells us stories that can help us relate to anything. In the pool, he has really helped with my strokes and I’m a much better swimmer now.”
Leonhart said he gets about two or three weeks off in the early fall when there is no swimming going on. Leonhart doesn’t stray too far from the water.
“I’m big into fly fishing now,” Leonhart said. “I’ve made some extended fishing trips into Montana, fished all the big rivers in California. So I got a few hobbies, and I try to stay out of the rocking chair.”