Remembering Pete Higgins

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     Former Westminster Swimming coach and P.E. teacher Pete Higgins was a staple in both the Westminster and swim community in Georgia. The legendary swim coach and National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame member passed away on August 21, 2019 at the age of 86. Pete Higgins coached all levels of swimming during his 50-year tenure at Westminster from 1960 to 2016. Arguably the most successful swimming coach in GHSA history with 41 state championships, Higgins profoundly affected swimmers of all ages and skill levels during his time here.

     Higgins was an extraordinary swim coach and was always able to bring the best out of all swimmers.

     “He would have us practice holding our line in the diving well, and we couldn’t get out of practice until we got all the way across,” stated Phoebe Liu, class of 2018, who had the opportunity to swim under Higgins her freshman year. “I think that really helped me be a more efficient swimmer.” 

     While Liu was an extraordinary swimmer on her own, Higgins dedication to his craft and the swim team was truly demonstrated when he worked with swimmers who weren’t necessarily the fastest on the team.

     “While a very smart and successful coach, Pete’s true genius lay when he turned people who weren’t as talented into stars,” said former swim coach Robert Cochran, who coached alongside Higgins for four years. “He focused on everyone at the same time the same amount.” 

     Many swim coaches would be quick to dismiss swimmers who may not be able to immediately contribute to the program, or even forbid them from swimming. Instead, Higgins embraced all types of swimmers and molded them into contributors on championship -winning teams. This is one of many reasons that Higgins was so successful. While he himself was very humble, and according to Dr. Cochran, he said that he was just lucky to be at Westminster with so many talented swimmers and that anyone could have coached them to a championship.

     “Coach Higgins was never someone who settled for mediocrity,” stated Coach Jan Allen, current varsity swim coach who worked with Higgins for 15 years. “The season goal was always a state championship. Never top 10 or top 5. The goal was always to win.” 

     While Higgins obviously was a gifted coach, he was also a skilled and accomplished swimmer himself. A swimmer at the University of North Carolina, his promising career was cut short by polio, a devastating illness that often leads to the loss of muscle function.

     While many may have given up and moved onto a different career path, Higgins decided to stay with swimming, illustrating his true passion and love for the sport. Soon thereafter, he received a call from The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, and little did he know, it would become his home for the rest of his life.

     “He coached here for almost 60 years, something that is unheard of,” said Cochran. “People are often moving on quickly, and his long tenure is a demonstration of his dedication to the sport.”

     Higgins’ dedication was truly manifested when his son was diagnosed with ALS, and during the period which he and his wife, Nell, were providing care for him. Instead of taking time off, he still showed up every day ready to coach.

     “I can’t think of a time where he missed practice,” said Coach Allen. Showing up on time to each and every practice even translated to meets, as Coach Higgins was always the first one at each meet.

     “He preached commitment but also practiced it—before the metro and state meets, he would be the one who showed up at 6 am to save a section for the rest of us to sit in when we got there an hour and a half later,” said Liu.

     Another reason Coach Higgins was so successful was that he was open to criticism and input from others. As such a legendary and successful coach, one may think that he would just be set in his ways and ignore input from others, especially a new coach.

     “When I first got to Westminster to coach, I was just expecting to sit and listen to Coach Higgins and learn from him,” said Allen. “Instead, the very first meeting we had, he asked me what I thought we should do.” Coach Higgins also recognized his flaws, but rather than just acknowledging them, he strived to improve and better himself each and every day.

     “He always lived what he said and tried to make himself better,” said Cochran. “He understood that he had shortcomings, and tried to understand where he came up short instead of just getting mad at the other person.”

     While many remember Higgins for his swimming legacy, others reflect on his impact on swimmers through his one-liners. 

      “Pete had countless quotable stories and one-liners, such as ‘credit where credit’s due’, and ‘don’t be sorry, be good,’” Cochran stated. Although these could be interpreted as harsh remarks, Higgins used them to motivate and encourage each swimmer to do their best and improve.

     “Pete always had a story for everyone, and each one was designed to teach a certain lesson,” said Allen. “He was such a people person and listened to everyone while sharing his own stories, particular for specific people.”

     Even if one didn’t personally know Higgins, his outgoing personality and charisma made him a popular figure on campus. While some may miss Higgins for his dedication to his craft and impact on thousands of swimmers, and others for his elegantly woven fables, his legacy will live on forever in both Westminster and GHSA swimming history. Rest in peace Coach Pete Higgins.

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