PINEDALE — After 40 years of coaching swimming in Wyoming, Greg Gray announced his retirement this year. During the last five years of his career, the veteran coach took charge of the combined girls’ swim team in Sublette County, bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge to the team.
The decision to end a long career did not come lightly.
“Retiring, not being a head coach anymore — it was tough,” Gray said. “It was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do. It’s still tough to say goodbye.”
Sports were an integral part of Gray’s life since he joined his high school football, wrestling and track teams in Chicago. While he will miss working with young people, Gray is looking forward to watching sports for the first time in decades.
“I’ve been a participant or coach ever since 1963, my first year of high school,” he said. “My wife was so understanding all the years I coached and she retires at the end of the month. I’m anxious to spend some time with her. This will be my first fall off since 1963 and we have season tickets for Wyoming football.”
The road less traveled
Gray did not compete as a swimmer in high school or college. Instead, he excelled on the gridiron. Following a successful high school football career, Gray planned to play at the college level. An injury prevented him from landing a spot on a university team. Instead, Gray started with junior college ball at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. The team won the league championships and Gray caught the eye of the University of Wyoming coaching staff and signed on to play for the Cowboys.
“It was one of the highlights of my life, playing college football,” he said. “I got to meet so many great people. I still have close friends from the team and I remember all the relationships I had with my coaches.”
The Cowboys struggled both years Gray played as an offensive lineman. There were plenty of “great athletes” on the roster, but the team “had problems getting it together” several years after the school removed 14 African-American players, known as the Black 14, in 1969.
The Cowboys did score some impressive wins, though.
“Arizona State came to town and they were ranked number three in the nation,” Gray said. “We beat them. That’s the one everybody talks about down there. We also beat the University of Arizona the last game of that year.”
Gray signed on to play minor league football for a team out of Madison, Wis., with “aspirations to play pro football” after finishing at UW. The team “played other teams from all around the central states” and won the semi-pro championship.
“Both captains got a team ball after the championship game,” Gray said. “I kept that ball, and when I had kids of my own, I let them play with it and I never saw it again.”
In 1979, Gray found himself working in construction. He graduated from UW with a degree to teach physical education and when a position opened in Kemmerer that year, he grabbed it. Kemmerer organized a swim team and needed a coach and asked Gray to lead the squad. Gray had some experience coaching amateur and USA Club swimming and said yes.
“I kind of fell into education and coaching swimming,” he said. “I was working construction and just wasn’t very happy. I missed the kids. I enjoyed being around kids and athletics. I think I fell into that career, or maybe it fell upon me. I think I just found it and it worked out.”
For 35 years, Gray coached swimming in Kemmerer. In 2015, he took the head girls’ coaching position in Sublette County when his granddaughter joined the team.
Working with a team spread out between two high schools was a challenge at times, but the staff made it work.
“Coach (Kursty) Day was a great person to work with and communication was pretty good because of her,” he said.
After his granddaughter graduated, Gray stayed on with Sublette County and continued the commute from Kemmerer through the 2019 season.
“We had a great bunch of seniors this season from Pinedale and Big Piney High School. We had five seniors that went to State and did a great job. All the seniors were a great bunch of kids and I will remember them.”
All about the kids
Teaching P.E. and coaching swimming clicked for Gray despite his original intentions to continue with football.
“The kids were always the motivation,” he said. “I never taught swimming, I never coached swimming. I coached kids. No matter what the sport was, that was the bottom line. I love the kids more than any sport.”
Gray’s coaching philosophy centers entirely around the people on his team.
“Kids come first,” he said. “The sport is about being your best and making good decisions. After all these years, I came down with one rule: Do the things that help the team be its best, and that includes being your best self. The key to doing well wasn’t just about winning state titles. Just being your best was the important thing. When you’re at your best, you never lose.”
Swimming provided opportunities for any young person with the determination to stick with the sport and work through the grind, Gray believes.
“I always had a soft spot for kids that weren’t the popular or the most athletic kids in school. Kids with challenges, either emotionally or physically, could find success. That was one of the best things about swimming. You don’t have to be a tremendous athlete to find success.”
Over his long career, Gray witnessed swimming expand as a sport and estimates that he has seen nearly every swimming pool in Wyoming.
“Every year, something changes in swimming,” he said. “There’s a new technique, a new rule. The kids don’t change as much, though. They are just as good to work with now as when I started.”
Gray remembers every coach he played for and teacher he studied under. They all provided inspiration and help through the years.
“There are a lot of thank-yous. I’ve been blessed with a lot of great people in life.”