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Head Coach Martha Phelan and the North Haven girls’ swimming and diving team had a historic campaign that featured a second-place showing in states during the 2017 fall season. As a result of the Indians’ achievements, Martha was selected as both the Southern Connecticut Conference Division I Coach of the Year, as well as the Connecticut Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year. Martha has lived in North Haven since 1989. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Bergin )
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Martha Phelan loves the hustle and bustle of being on the pool deck and coaching up-and-coming swimmers, including the ones she works with as head coach of the girls’ and boys’ teams at North Haven High School. Martha enjoys everything about the experience, whether she’s meticulously mapping out workouts, pushing her athletes to perform to their potential, or seeing the eyes light up when she tells one of them that he or she just recorded a personal-best performance.
Martha has spent the last several years doing these things while building up both programs in North Haven and, in the recent fall season, her girls’ team reached an unprecedented level of success. The Indians won three events, set six school records, and placed fifth at the Southern Connecticut Conference Championship, after which they posted their all-time top finish with a second-place showing at the Class M State Championship, where they won six events and broke four school records.
By virtue of these achievements, Martha was named the SCC Division I Coach of the Year and the Connecticut Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association’s (CISCA) Coach of the Year, marking the first time she’s received either of these distinctions.
“I knew we had the ability to compete well and would have depth and great talent, but the unknown factor is always will the girls buy into your vision, will they train as had as you’d like them to, and will they have good team chemistry, because that all matters. They did all of those things and more,” says Martha. “These girls brought spirit to practice, they trained so hard, they all got along, and they all supported each other. It was just the perfect season.”
Martha received her award from the SCC right before the Conference Championship got underway at Southern Connecticut State University on Nov. 1. Then after the season was completed, she was presented with her distinction from the CISCA—an award that goes to one high school girls’ swimming coach in Connecticut—on Dec. 5 at the All-State Ceremony at the AquaTurf Club in Southington. Martha won both awards based on a vote by her fellow coaches in the SCC and the state, respectively.
“I was really surprised. There are so many great programs and coaches in the SCC who are also deserving of recognition, and to be chosen by them is the ultimate validation. I was so grateful,” says Martha of her award from the SCC. “I was also honored to be held in that kind of esteem by the other coaches in the state [for the CISCA award], especially when you’re in the same room with historic legacies like Greenwich, Cheshire, New Canaan, and Darien. These are powerhouse programs that produce year after year, and so to be held in high enough esteem to be given that reward was just remarkable.”
“But most important of all is that these girls got the recognition they deserve,” Martha continues. “I was thrilled for them, the town, the high school, and the athletic department. It’s all part of it.”
After receiving her award from the CISCA, Martha started thinking about her late parents, Dave and Irene, who she says “gave me the opportunity to swim.” Martha grew up in Morristown, New Jersey in a household of swimmers and is the middle child in a family of eight siblings. Martha’s high school didn’t have a girls’ swimming team, and she actually founded the program, although it didn’t start up until the year after she graduated.
However, Martha was still a year-round swimmer who competed on the AAU level for a team that merged athletes from the North Jersey Swim Association and a squad called the New York Knickerbockers. It was there that Martha met one of the most influential figures in her life, Bob Alexander, who coached the team. Alexander always made sure there was a spot on his roster for anyone who wanted to compete, and Martha has done the same thing throughout her coaching career. Martha never cuts anyone and is a big believer that every person on a team is equally important. She emphasizes this philosophy to create a culture where all of her athletes feel welcomed.
“Everybody in every lane is just as important. Growing up in a talented swimming family, I was a good swimmer, but I wasn’t a superstar, and I had to learn that there is always going to be somebody better than you. That struck a cord in me,” says Martha, who also has two daughters who competed for North Haven. “So from a personal standpoint, I have a special place in my heart for kids that show up to every practice, work really hard, and then do their personal-best in the competitive arena, even though they may not shine like an elite swimmer would. High school sports should be for everyone, and everyone should have the opportunity to experience that.”
Martha has additionally coached some teams outside the high school level. Martha started coaching in 1979 at the Hamden/North Haven YMCA and was there until 1989, when she joined the Hopkins Mariners. After working with that team for eight years, in 2009 Martha became a coach with the Hamden Hall Aquatic Club (HHAC)—a year-round, co-ed, age-group program—and she’s been there ever since.
HHAC Head Coach Ken Pierson has worked alongside Martha the past several years and says that she always puts in a maximum effort when it comes to her preparation, while motivating the kids to do the same in both practice and competitions.
“Martha is a great coach, and the kids love her. She’s very well-prepared. You can’t find another coach that prepares as much as she does. Martha is very passionate about swimming, and she gets the best out of each kid in each meet and each situation,” says Pierson. “Martha cares about how the kids do and gets a lot of pleasure from seeing their improvement and their achievements. Her practices are always challenging and tiring, but she tells the kids that if they put in the work, they will see success at the end of the season, and all the kids do.”
Martha feels it’s important to know the right time to push her athletes and the right time to pull back. If something negative happens, Martha tries to turn it into a positive and figure out how the team can make it better.
“We use a lot of teachable moments to bring the team to a better place,” she says. “There are times when I’m disappointed, and I let them know, but do it in a way where I give them an opportunity to learn from it and not be humiliated by it.”
Martha has used this approach while coaching different generations of athletes at North Haven. Martha was head coach of the girls’ swimming and diving team from 2000 through 2005 before stepping down, but then came back in 2012 after retiring from the postal service. Later that year, Martha became head coach of the Indians’ boys’ swim squad. She’s also the pool director at the Ridge Top Club in North Haven and coaches its rec swim team in the summer.
Martha hardly ever takes a break from the water, but that’s the way she likes it. For Martha, the water has always provided a safe haven, and it means the world to her that she gets to coach so many enthusiastic athletes in North Haven.
“I really enjoy working with young people. I love their energy, their spontaneity, and I get great satisfaction from seeing them progress,” Martha says. “It really is demanding and it takes a lot of energy, but my love for the water is a passion, and it gives me great peace of mind. It’s something I grew up with. It’s a part of me and my family. It’s just a way of life.”
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