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Meet honors Kowals, who started Midland swimming

Feb. 05, 2013 @ 11:45 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Ed and Leta Kowal just wanted swimmers at Cabell Midland High School to compete for state championships the way athletes in other sports did. They didn't figure getting a meet with their name on it would be one of the rewards for their efforts.

The Kowals petitioned the Cabell County Board of Education in 2005 for a swim team at the school, and in the 2005-06 school year both Cabell Midland and Huntington High fielded teams. Huntington St. Joe already had a team and Spring Valley also started one.

The first Kowal River Cities Championships were held last week in Frederick A. Fitch Natatorium at Marshall University.

"I'm proud of it and proud of how we got it," Leta Kowal said prior to the meet.

"St. Joe gave me the reason. I thought, 'If they've got it, why can't we?' I'm proud all the kids have the opportunity to do this now no matter how good or bad."

Ed Kowal, the first Cabell Midland swim coach, passed away Nov. 28, 2012. Leta Kowal was joined at poolside for opening ceremonies by her children, Ed and Anna.

"I never dreamed of this," she said. "You're not out to get a meet named after you. Ed probably would be embarrassed. He wasn't out to make news."

The younger Kowal had been a competitive swimmer in the Huntington YMCA Charleston Aquatic Team for more than 10 years and his sister also competed for the club team.

In that first high school season Kowal, with his parents urging him on, won a state title in the 200-meter individual medley. He went on to swim four years at NCAA Division III power Denison University. Anna Kowal also swam for the Knights. She went to West Virginia University, but did not swim.

"It's weird," Ed Kowal said. "You want to do it, then you're able to do it and you get to be that first person (to win a state title). That state meet still is one of my favorites of all time."

Kathy Morris, whose husband Bob was Huntington High's first coach and now runs the Cabell Midland program, helps direct meets. Her daughter Alyssa swims for the Knights. Her older daughter Sara did, too. Morris remembers how the Kowals, who've been a part of the swimming community since the early 1990s, wouldn't take no for an answer -- be it from the school, Cabell County Board of Education or Marshall.

"Ed was about to give up," Morris said. "Their kids swam. Their friends didn't understand what it was like to be a competitive swimmer. They wanted to expose them to a sport they love.

"Ed's favorite part ... he liked the underdog. A swimmer would start at one end of the pool, struggle to get to the other but stuck it out. They might not get to states, but he made it fun."

Sonia Chambers, the coach at Huntington High, appreciates what the Kowals did. She was introduced to swimming at the club level and slowly took on roles of volunteer, meet official and high school coach. Her daughter Emily swims for the Highlanders.

"Ed and Leta are pioneers in scholastic swimming," Chambers said. "They were very tenacious. It's official. We now carry the torch. My daughter loves being on the team.

"The high school atmosphere is amazing. The kids who came up through the ranks (club) are leaders of high school teams today and they teach others."

Other swim families attempted the sanction route, but failed.

"When our son got to high school Ed said it will never happen. The school didn't want it," Leta Kowal said. "Ed was serious about it."

The elder Kowal did try to get his son eligible to compete as an independent, but the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission said no. Leta Kowal said there were other roadblocks as well.

Leta Kowal said Bill Smith, Cabell County Schools superintendent since 2005, had a role in getting the swimming sanction. "He had an open ear," she said.

Once all parties agreed, the Kowals said the local swimming community raised money to get equipment for the Marshall pool -- clock, scoreboard, touch pads, computers, etc. That's in addition to financing insurance, travel and other expenses for high school teams.

Leta Kowal worked in many capacities at HYCAT meets. When it came time for the high school regional, though, it was off to the pool at the University of Charleston. Not anymore. Marshall is host for several high school events now, the biggest the West Virginia Region IV Championships. That meet is scheduled Saturday.

"They (other meet directors) thought we didn't know how to do it," she said. "We did know. We showed them."

She helped train many of today's meet directors.

"Relieved," Leta said when asked how she and Ed felt when the go-ahead finally game. "We did our part."

Leta's children enjoyed being with their mom on the big night and watching the swimmers duel in the pool where they once did.

"It's great to see how much bigger it's gotten," Anna Kowal said.

"The thing I worried about after graduation is it might go away," Ed Kowal said. "I'd say it's stable now."

Chambers said the Kowals were great examples of dedication. She said Ed Kowal was at the meet in spirit to watch.