SwimAtlanta coach, founder Chris Davis picked for Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame

SwimAtlanta Swim Coach Chris Davis stands in for a portrait at the SwimAtlanta complex on Tuesday in Lawrenceville. Davis will be inducted to the 2014 class of the Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame on Aug. 23. (Staff Photo: David Welker)

Searching for a way to describe Chris Davis personality, Eric Shanteau pauses for a moment.

The two-time Olympic swimmer, who has known Davis for years from training at SwimAtlanta with Davis as his coach, then gets the perfect suggestion.

Thats it, hes a 63-year-old kid, Shanteau said of Davis, who co-founded SwimAtlanta in 1977. Hes got a great sense of humor. He doesnt take life too seriously.

Davis knows when to get serious, too, having built SwimAtlanta into one of the nations top competitive swim clubs and developing scores of high-level swimmers along the way. Those accomplisments prompted his selection to the 2014 class of the Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame, which will induct him during an Aug. 23 banquet at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

But much of the veteran coachs success, particularly on the coaching side, hinges on the fun-loving side of his personality that Shanteau mentioned. He cracks jokes and trades barbs frequently with his swimmers before, during and after practices.

His athletes are at ease around him, Shanteau said, and they are aware that Davis takes a sincere interest in their lives, not just their sport.

To say that hes a swim coach would be a vast understatement because hes so much more, Shanteau said of Davis. Hes meant so much more to several generations of people. Its very unique for a high school coach to take on such an influential role throughout his kids careers, whether they are still involved in swimming or not. One of the biggest things for me was staying in touch with him well after high school and after college through my pro career, whether it was getting advice on swimming or things not related to swimming at all.

I rely on Chris and thats one of his greatest attributes, being something more than a swim coach. The word mentor comes to mind but I dont think that even encapsulates everything. Hes just had a huge impact on a lot of kids over the years.

The coaching role was what Davis envisioned when he and business partner Jim Fraser opened SwimAtlanta in Decatur, braving their first freezing winter at a heated, outdoor pool. The two had moderate hopes for their new venture, but those quickly changed in the ensuing years.

SwimAtlanta grew from its original pool to a 7,500-square-foot facility in Lilburn in 1985 and then to its current main office in Lawrenceville, home to a spacious, 28,500-square-foot facility, in 2001. The large club fields more than 2,800 competitive swimmers at seven metro Atlanta locations and also sees its pools used for more than 20,000 sets of swim lessons each year.

SwimAtlanta Pool Management, operated by Fraser, takes care of nearly 1,000 pools in 16 different U.S. cities.

It far exceeded our expectations, said Davis, a state backstroke champion at Druid Hills High who swam at Birmingham Southern and graduated from Auburn, where he coached before founding SwimAtlanta. Jim and me, our goal was to have 150 kids and maybe have some kids go fast at the Senior National, Junior National level. We never thought about having someone on the Olympic team. And if things went great, we hoped we could maybe make $20,000 a year. If we could make $20,000 a year, we would have thought we had died and gone to heaven.

Since those early days, Davis has churned droves of exceptional swimmers who have excelled at the local, state, national and international levels. The group includes five Olympians Shanteau, Amanda Weir, Hans Dersch, Doug Gjertsen and Kathleen Hersey.

Those names garner the most attention for SwimAtlanta, but thousands of others have been impacted in and out of the pool by Davis and his fellow coaches over the years.

One of the things Im most proud of is how many people will call me in a year to copy the SwimAtlanta model, to take the model that weve created and use it, Davis said. Theyve seen it be successful and think that it wll work for them. One, Im proud that they respect our model and two, part of it is that Im helping them be successful. I never charge. I feel blessed to help them and tell them what we do. And Im proud of our reputation. I think weve done it right. Weve always tried to do the right thing for the athlete, for the parents, for our customers. Weve tried to always be above board in the way weve dealt with coaches and organizations. I think we have a very good name in the community.

The other, more personal memories, for Davis involve his young swimmers. He enjoys seeing their achievements in the sport, but just as importantly where life takes them after swimming.

I just feel lucky to be able to be part of their lives, Davis said. Thats the fun part. Whether they end up being a great swimmer or not, its gratifying to me that parents trust me enough to be that much a part of their childrens lives. As a coach, you have a big responsibility. At some point and time, those kids listen to me more than they do their parents. Im sure a coach at school can say the same thing. To just watch them grow up and be able to be part of their successes, but also being a contributor to help them realize what their potential is has been great. Sometimes you tell them something and the light never goes on. Then sometimes you say something a little different and light goes on. Its Wow, I got to them. They understand.

Though he is a native of DeKalb, Davis has called Gwinnett County home for years. He and his wife Susan live in Berkeley Lake and have three children and one grandchild, with one more on the way. All three of his children sons Chris and Scot and daughter Whitney work with him at SwimAtlanta.

He follows much of the same routines daily that he did decades ago, working 10- to 12-hour days at the pool and staying until the duties are done.

I still have the first car I ever bought as a kid, a 1969 Firebird convertible, Davis said. Ive been married 37 years so I have the tendency to keep things for a long time.

Davis lifelong body of work led his selection into the Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame, which will induct its fourth class next month. He joins a list of past inductees that includes several other prominent coaches from the state like Georgias Jack Bauerle, Georgia Techs Herb McAuley, Moultrie diving coach Moose Moss and Westminsters coach of 50-plus years, Pete Higgins.

The other Georgia Aquatics selections from past years feature six Olympic gold medalist swimmers, six-time Paralympic gold medalist Curtis Lovejoy and former American record holder Mary Ellen Blanchard, a Norcross grad who later swam for Davis. One of the Olympic gold medalists previously inducted, Gjertsen, also was a SwimAtlanta product.

This years class also features Angel Myers Martino, Maritza Correia, Eric Wunderlich and Billy Heinz.

I was shocked (to be picked), Davis said. You dont see yourself, at least I dont see myself, at that level. Obviously, Im hugely flattered and honored that they would even think of me that way. When you have people get together and think of you in that light, I guess youve had a pretty good career. I hope theyre not doing it because they think I look bad and theyre trying to get me inducted before Im on the wrong side of the dirt.

That humorous quote offers a glimpse into Davis the jokester, the one who laughs with his swimmers but also offers them life advice with equal regularity. Hes not sure if working with young people has helped to keep him young, but at least he stays up on the popular lingo among teenagers.

Either way, its safe to say he agrees with Shanteaus kid at heart assessment.

Ive always enjoyed the kids, Davis said. If I go to a party and there are all the adults over there and kids over here, youll find me over there with the kids. It just seems like Ive always had a pretty good rapport with kids. I love their energy. Everythings new to them. Theyre trying stuff, things you did as a kid that you see them doing now. They just have so much life. Ive been lucky to be a part of the lives of so many of them over the years.

HALL OF FAME

What: Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame Induction Banquet

When: Aug. 23, 6 p.m.

Where: Atlanta Athletic Club

Class of 2014: Chris Davis, Angel Myers Martino, Maritza Correia, Eric Wunderlich, Billy Heinz

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