By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
KENTWOOD – When Jock Ambrose began his coaching career during the mid 1970s, sports options were limited in the community he had recently moved to after college.
The construction of a new indoor community pool, however, sent residents flocking to the water.
The Kentwood Public Schools Aquatic Center presented an opportunity for parents to introduce swimming to their children, and Ambrose would eventually reap the rewards.
“We did not have the ice arena, and soccer for boys and girls was not a sport yet,” Ambrose said. “Water polo wasn’t a high school sport either so there were fewer choices, but the draw of the pool was huge within our community.
“For eight to 10 years, young go-getter parents brought their kids a lot to swimming and it took off from there.”
Ambrose started coaching high school boys swimming in 1976, and after 38 seasons, he recently announced he would retire after this winter season after an illustrious career filled with success.
“‘I’m seeing that my energy level, as I get older, is not what it used to be,” said Ambrose, who retired from teaching four years ago.
“I never imagined I would coach forever, and my wife, Ann, and I want to do things with our kids and grandchildren. I’ve had a tremendous last year of teaching great students and great kids in the pool with wonderful parents.”
For the 65-year-old Ambrose, the decision to step down was made easier knowing that he’s leaving the program in good hands.
His successor won’t officially be named until after the season.
“We have a young man in the program who is more than ready to take over and continue to improve the program,” Ambrose said. “He’s ready to have a long career and is tremendous with the kids and parents. It would’ve been harder to walk away if I didn’t have someone like that, but I feel completely confident in where this program is going in the future and he is going to equal and surpass what we’ve had in the last several years.”
The East Kentwood boys swimming & diving program hit its peak during the 1980s, emerging as a perennial powerhouse.
The Falcons won Class A titles in 1983 and 1989 while also finishing as Finals runners-up in 1985, 1986 and 1988.
They finished in the top three seven consecutive years and became the benchmark for other programs to follow.
“There is no doubt in those years that we had some tremendous athletes,” Ambrose said.
Eric Gale was an All-American diver for East Kentwood and as a senior considered one of the top five divers in the country on the way to competing at the University of Tennessee.
Gale still holds several conference and meet records at the high school and has been the team’s diving coach the past 31 years.
“He is truly a class act, and it has been my honor to be one of the student-athletes under him and to have coached with him,” Gale said of Ambrose. “He is a tremendous human being and treats everyone he comes in contact with with respect and kindness, and that includes members of opposing teams he has faced.
“He’s the definition of what an educator should be, and he has positively affected thousands of lives in the swimming community and education.”
In 1997, Ambrose accepted the position of athletic director at East Kentwood and was away from coaching for five years.
He returned to the classroom and came back to the pool.
He also coached the girls team for three years during the 1990s, and that included coaching his youngest daughter.
As Ambrose’s coaching career continued, he began to see an influx of former athletes’ children.
“All the way through I’ve had tremendous family and community support for what we’ve tried to do, and I get one sibling after another,” Ambrose said. “Every year for the last 12 or 15 years I’ve had at least one person whose parent swam for me, and one year I had five boys on the team whose mom or dad swam for me in high school or within our club.
“It feels good when a parent brings their kid back knowing what they went through was a good place for them. The support of the parents helps you to continue the levels of success.”
East Kentwood athletic director Blaine Brumels said Ambrose has been a “true blessing to Kentwood Public Schools.”
“His hard work, dedication and commitment to our students in the classroom and the pool are unbelievable,” Brumels said. “We always have great stories about Jock, and they are always about his love of kids and being a Falcon. It is always about the students and love of the school and sport.”
Although Ambrose will remain with the program as an assistant coach for a couple years, his last MHSAA Finals directing it will take place in a couple weeks.
“We have a good group of seniors who are working hard, and we think we can get some kids to score and get to the second day,” Ambrose said. “It will be exciting for the entire program.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTO: East Kentwood coach Jock Ambrose revs up his team before the start of the 2009 Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Eastern Michigan University.