In a recent conversation about his latest chapter at Saint Rose, Golden Knights Swimming and Diving Coach Kevin Walsh ’15 G ’17 spoke as a sound similar to thunder rumbled in the background. It was diver James Sullivan early in a practice. The moves he made off the noisy board weren’t from dives or flips. Instead, Sullivan was breaking down the components in a sport he hadn’t even tried until three months earlier.
Sullivan, who runs distance for the Golden Knights track and field team, was unwittingly recruited to the water in September when Coach Walsh hosted a mock competition for nondivers. They pulled off buffoonish twists and cannonballs. But in Sullivan’s crazy moves, Walsh saw fearlessness and athleticism. He invited him to join the team.
“A lot of people say diving isn’t a contact sport – it is. There’s a lot of smacking,” said Walsh, in his office just off the campus pool. “He’s got guts. He hits the water hard and gets right up.”
As a member of the 2011-12 Golden Knights team that was the most successful in program history, and later a math teacher in a high-needs rural school, Walsh himself has long enjoyed trying things that seem a little too hard. These days, that means teaching a Saint Rose graduate education class and pursuing his Ph.D. in education at the University at Albany – on top of heading a swimming and diving program that lost momentum amid the pandemic and departure of its longtime coach.
Finding promising student-athletes in unconventional ways is part of the job.
“I don’t ever believe someone can’t do something. When a ninth grader says ‘I can’t do math,’ I have to break down the walls. It’s something I pride myself in,” Walsh said, as Sullivan landed a swan dive.
Walsh, now 29, never envisioned making a home at Saint Rose all these years after coming from Dutchess County as a math major. In his sophomore year, he met education student Samantha Spano, who suggested after graduating he consider becoming a teacher. He met with Education Professor Christina Pfister and decided to enroll. He completed the program in 2017 and, a year later, proposed to Spano in the Thelma P. Lally School of Education. They married the following spring.
“I thought when I proposed to her that would be my final memory at Saint Rose, and I’m happy that wasn’t the case because Saint Rose really picked up in the second half,” said Walsh. “It’s more than a school. It’s my identity.”
He was teaching at Hoosic Valley Junior-Senior High School in 2021 when Pfister asked if Walsh would teach a curriculum and instruction class as an adjunct professor. He did all the reading, prepared for the class and starting teaching the fall. Soon, the Golden Knights swim team also called on Walsh to assist after Head Coach Keith Murray left.
Walsh would arrive for 6 a.m. practices, teach at Hoosic Valley and, Tuesday nights, head back to campus to teach the graduate class. In 2022, Walsh added a second Saint Rose class. He was also named head coach of the swimming and diving team. He saw that he was hooked by higher education.
“I had a lot on my plate, but I absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. “I think I am a better teacher than I am at doing math. I wanted to do something broader.”
He finished his career at Hoosic Valley, and this past September, launched his Ph.D. studies while teaching and coaching. Though not much older than many of his Saint Rose graduate education students, Walsh is able to draw from years in a public school classroom. He can tell his future teachers to expect failures and to scrap an approach to try something new.
His doctoral studies touch on systemic racism, the dynamics of socioeconomics, gender identity – all which fortify his other roles. And, as swim coach, he draws from his swimmer’s mindset to help with a grueling schedule.
The season runs from September through February. During that time, he runs practices at 6 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m. during the week and 7 a.m. on Saturdays, unless there is a meet. The rest of day he manages the program, talks to his swimmers, and works hard at recruitment in hopes of doubling the teams by the fall.
To function, he separates his roles. The Ph.D. program happens online so he is able to work on that and his Saint Rose classes at home. He relies on support from his wife, who teaches third grade at Watervliet Elementary School. He gets six hours of sleep – and earned As his first semester of doctoral work.
“I’m always racing the clock. And I’d be lying to you if I said that during a teacher prep time I’m not also thinking about a swim set,” he admits. “But I do things in manageable pieces and tell myself I only have this much time to get something done.”
These are lessons he relays to his swimmers and divers.
Last season, he faced a team that was beleaguered by the time the pandemic had cost them and by facing teams double or more their size. He urged them to focus on their individual times. And he asked them to do more.
“When they sent out the coaches’ poll we were rated dead last,” he recalls. “I said ‘I disagree with that. Prove me right.’ And they did. Because they were able to meet their individual times, our guys ended up fourth overall, the best they’ve done since my years on the team. Our women did well, too. It was such an exciting experience.”
This season was marked by highlights. The women’s team won an invitational, and two swimmers from the men’s team earned multiple podium finishes at the Northeast-10 Conference Championships. And then there are new team members like Sullivan. Walsh said after working with the newcomer for a month or so, he was able to do the six dives needed to take part in competitions. In doing so, he adds valuable points to those of the swimmers.
“Every meet his scores get better and are added to the team’s total,” Walsh said. “It’s incredible. He doesn’t give up.”
By Jane M. Gottlieb