Volume 75, Number 29 | December 7 - 13, 2005


Leon Katz at the Sol Goldman Y

‘Zen master’ swimming coach has gone the distance

By Judith Stiles

When swimming coach Leon Katz blows his whistle, the veteran swimmers in the pool interpret the short and peppy tone to mean speed up, while the long slow blow means relax and don’t rush. For swimmer Gerry Griffin, who has been training under the tutelage of coach Katz since 1985 at the Sol Goldman Y on 14th St., sparse words of instruction and distinct types of whistle-blowing guide her through a vigorous and healthy workout every week.

“Coach Katz is like the Zen master of swimming,” Griffin says affectionately about 85-year-old Katz. “He infects other people with his passion for swimming, and as long as he keeps coming to his class, I’ll keep going,” she adds beaming.

At age 13, Katz had a near-drowning experience that would have sent most people running far away from pools. But instead this boy of the Great Depression earned enough money to buy a season ticket to a neighborhood pool near the George Washington Bridge, because in his words, he “yearned to learn how to swim.” He tried to teach himself by observing and imitating French Canadian champion swimmer Maurice Poitras, who was busy perfecting his elegant style of swimming in the same pool. Finally Poitras noticed the boy and offered to give him free instruction.

At the time, the budding swimmer was living in a household of accomplished musicians, most notably his father, a violinist, who played in the prestigious Detroit Symphony Orchestra. His mother, also a musician, often noted with amusement that “It was like a shoemaker’s children going barefoot,” when young Leon began to devote himself to perfecting his swimming stroke in lieu of playing the piano.

Soon he went to Stuyvestant High School and then went on to The City College of New York where he studied electrical engineering, still finding time to be on the swim team. He never strayed far from city pools and as a college graduate he pursued a lifelong dream of teaching and coaching the sport, which in 1991 earned him the C.C.N.Y. Alumni Varsity Association’s Service Award, given for volunteerism in the area of athletics.

For over 60 years, Coach Katz tirelessly has given back the gift of swimming to the community, through implementing the New York City Parks Department’s Learn-To-Swim program, as well as initiating a water rehabilitation program for injured veterans. Coach Katz was also honored by the American Red Cross for 40 years of volunteer service as a water-safety instructor, and in 1991 he was inducted into the City College Athletic Hall of Fame.

Along with his wife, Dorothea, also an avid swimmer, he raised four guppies who also took to water. His son Paul Katz became an N.C.A.A. champion swimmer and his eldest daughter, Dr. Jane Katz, is the renowned author of the highly regarded “bible” for stronger, faster and better strokes, “Swimming for Total Fitness.”

Although Coach Katz’s résumé is a long list of accomplishments, including volunteer work and medals as a masters champion swimmer, he is a modest man who lights up with enthusiasm when he talks about the mechanics of training.

“It is essential to listen to your body,” he emphasizes when describing how important it is to recognize fatigue. He also strongly recommends a cool-down period after a vigorous workout, which includes a slower pace of swimming. His students report that after they do intense periods of racing, he gives a long blow on the whistle and tells them to wind down, saying, “Now swim like it is a water show. Do it just for the form.”

When asked which is his favorite stroke, Coach Katz smiles and says he loves them all as he delves into a vivid description of the unique beauty of the crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, sidestroke and butterfly. He admits he has no preferred stroke, rather he simply loves the precision of swimming with proper form. He advises whatever the stroke, a swimmer should aim for a constant, smooth, rhythmic motion, without wasting movement. Twice a week — with his clipboard and stopwatch in hand — he leads a group of swimmers in a well-thought-out swim program. His daughter Jane attends the class regularly because she still believes there is a great deal to learn from her father, the swimming Zen master. Like Griffin, several of Katz’s trainees have improved their speed, strokes and form under his guidance, some having trained with him almost three decades.

Recently Coach Katz was honored with a gala 85th birthday party at the Sol Goldman Y, where his family and devotees paid tribute to his life’s work. He thoroughly enjoyed the celebration even though it was held on dry land. However, Coach Katz admitted he was itching to get back to work coaching swimming, and he was looking forward to what he enjoys even more — a good family swim with his children and grandchildren, in the warm waters of the Sol Goldman Y on a wintry day.

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