The Princess Anne swimmers stood in a circle on the beach at the Oceanfront. A message was drawn in the sand inside their ring: “PA SWIMS FOR PAUL.”
It was Nov. 21, a week after their beloved co-head coach, Paul Brown, had died unexpectedly at the age of 40. Parents, family and friends gathered for the memorial on the sand. Each swimmer shared a favorite memory, said their parting words and placed a flower inside one of the letters in the sand.
There were tears, and at the end, the swimmers wrote their names and a message on a large poster that said, “Coach Paul Forever in Our Hearts,” and shared it with Brown’s family.
“The underclassman saw how big of an impact he had,” said senior Shannon Lonergan. “It made us closer as a team. It got us to unite and share memories.”
The day also gave them a motto for their season: “All for Paul.”
Co-head coach Jay Smith said his players came up with the idea to replace their warm-up shirts with a special “All For Paul” message stitched on the back. On their swimming caps, they added Brown’s initials “P.D.B.”
“It’s been a rallying point, a motivator, a common goal for them,” said Katie Cosimano, Princess Anne’s athletic director. “Definitely a challenging couple of weeks, and still is for our kids. They think about him every time they get in the pool.”
Brown was more than just a coach for many of his swimmers. He was a teacher, mentor, friend and hero. He taught many of them how to swim at Pembroke Meadows, where Brown had coached summer league for more than a decade.
Freshman Quimmey Moure and junior Cameron Hammer had swam for Brown since the age of five.
Moure’s favorite memory came five years ago during a Pembroke Meadows summer meet. A swimmer from another team false-started and continued underwater, unaware the race was stopped. Brown jumped two lanes into the pool to stop the kid from swimming, saving him meaningful time and energy.
“I don’t know if he grew wings, but it was something special,” Moure said. “It spoke volumes about how Paul cared about any kid, no matter who you were.”
Lonergan and senior Bailey Hill gushed about his ability to make every member of the team, especially the incoming freshman, feel at home. Before the start of every season, Brown gathered the swimmers and gave them a message that would resonate longer than any coaching could.
“He’d say, ‘Listen guys, you can talk to me about anything,'” Hill said. “We all gravitated towards him, because we connected with him. He was really personable. He felt a lot more like a friend than a coach. Everything we took from Paul, we still carry with us today.”
It took a couple of weeks for Hammer to accept the thought of not glancing up after finishing an event or practice lap and seeing Brown’s wide, bright smile, aimed at him — a moment he’s cherished for the past 11 years.
Whether it was a good or bad performance, Brown greeted each swimmer with his smile and encouragement. He never doubted, always turning slight negatives into positives.
“He just knew how to reach the kids,” Smith said. “He was always able to get them to perform past their limits. He knew they all had greatness, and he told them that.”
“And the smile,” Smith said, “that was everything.”
Smith, who had coached with Brown since 2008, said he’ll never forget their annual pre-season meetings and Brown’s excitement about the team’s potential. Brown always kept his fellow coach up-to-date on their swimmers’ progress from the summer.
Now, as they mourn, the Princess Anne swimmers have a season in front of them.
Last year, after winning the 2014 5A state title, the boys finished as state runners-up. They returned multiple state-qualifying swimmers. Seniors Daniel Arris (100 breaststroke state champion) and Brandon Washington lead a talented upperclassman group. Juniors Eric Fuhs and Connor Rayhill (diving) and sophomores Josh Jung and Sam Westmont are primed for a return to states, along with incoming freshman Moure and Tyler Hill.
The girls returned four state-qualifiers — Lonergan, Taylor Wynne, Emma Jennings and Karlyn Barron — and added First Colonial transfer Morgan Roche (also a state-qualifier) to a group that finished as 5A South Region runner-up last year. Junior diver Reagan Bracknell, the reigning region champion, is a state favorite.
The teams started 3-0 this season. Along with Smith, coach Christopher Hakim has stepped in and provided support for the swimmers.
“If we have enough swimmers at each event at states, we have a great shot,” Smith said.
Hammer believes Brown is smiling down in support of the team.
“I miss him a lot,” Lonergan said. “It’s definitely different, but all we can focus on now is swimming for him and trying to make him proud.”
In so many ways, their late coach is irreplaceable.
“At first I was grieving, then we remembered he’s the reason most of us are here in the first place,” Moure said. “It’s the reason we all swim for Paul.”