John Wray thought he left swimming behind in 2015 when he ended a three-decade run as coach at Juneau-Douglas High School – where he won six Alaska championships – and relocated to the Oregon Coast.
But less than a month after he and his wife, Sheila, settled into their new home in Newport, he saw an ad for a swim coach in the local newspaper.
“I hadn't come here planning on coaching, but I figured if it was available, I might take a whack at it,” said Wray, who had retired from his job in hospital management in Juneau.
Wray took over as the coach for the local club, Newport Swim Team, and began developing swimmers that helped the Newport High School boys team win 4A/3A/2A/1A championships in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Now Wray, 67, has returned to high school swimming as the coach of the Cubs, replacing Angie Sremba.
Juneau-Douglas had 21 all-Americans during Wray's tenure. The dual role as club and high school coach is nothing new for Wray, who served as the senior coach for Glacier Swim Club while coaching at Juneau-Douglas.
“The kids that swim high school have rah-rah time fun, and they deserve it,” Wray said. “The kids swim club to have fun, but it's more of an individual challenge. The kids have to be more serious about it.
“If I could improve their skills and set them up to have a good base fitness to go into the high school season, and have confidence racing, that's a big thing.”
Sremba resigned after nine seasons as the Cubs' coach. In addition to three state titles, she led the boys to nine district titles, two state runner-up finishes and one third place.
“My work responsibilities became too great to have time to commit to coaching,” said Sremba, a research associate at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
Wray said he talked about swimmers with Sremba, “but she had her program, and I had mine. It seemed to work out pretty doggone well for the results.”
Wray was in attendance for Newport's first two state championships but missed the 2020 state meet to coach in the age-group championships. He was gratified to see the Cubs win their first state titles in school history.
“They swam as well as I would have expected them to,” he said. “Some of those performances were outstanding over those past three seasons. I was very happy for them. They did a good job of organizing, just the way the different pieces fell together.”
When Wray took over Newport Swim Team, the club's turnout was in the low 30s, much different than at Glacier Swim Club, which had about 280 on its roster. In recent years, Newport Swim Team has grown to as many as 55 swimmers.
“The club needed some attention,” Wray said. “It was an opportunity. One of the big factors is we've been able to have the same three coaches for the first five years. So stability is really paramount.”
Wray said he learned about Newport's high school opening in early October and was hired about a month later. Club and high school swimmers trained sporadically throughout the fall and winter as state COVID-19 guidance has changed.
They have compensated with other types of training. The high school team has had virtual meetings and worked out on a field. The club had 21 swimmers participate in a sand-dune relay on the beach.
Wray was born in California, moved to Alaska in middle school, graduated from high school in Anchorage and earned a degree from UC Berkeley. Before entering into hospital management, he worked as a dietitian, an area he emphasizes with his swimmers.
“When it comes to that issue, I'm their worst nightmare,” he said.
Newport's boys graduated Luke Bachart and Caden Shanks – who each won two individual events in the 2020 state meet – as well as every member of the three state champion relay teams.
Whereas the boys face a rebuilding period, the girls team is a rising contender. The girls, who placed fifth in the state meet last year, are bolstered by three strong freshmen.
“It's time for the ladies to come up and have a say about things,” Wray said. “If we can go straight up against Catlin Gabel with their two sharks that they have, we might give them a run on the team score.”
Wray is hopeful that the truncated 2021 season, scheduled to go from May 17 to June 27, will include a state championship meet.
“We might make some noise if we have some sort of state championship,” he said. “I would love to be able to race. We'd love to have a meet to try to return to some level of normalcy.”