MEL NASH, CRAIG SIMPSON, CORKY SEMLER, ROB CREAGAN
The story of the 1970 Gateway boys 200 yard medley relay team actually began the previous year in 1969 when Gateway’s medley relay team of Mel Nash, Rick Marshall, Rob Creagan and Craig Simpson were WPIAL champions, set a new Gateway school record, and finished third at the PIAA Championships. That year the PIAA champion, York High School from the eastern part of the state, with the individual state champions in both the 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly in its relay, set a new state record with a time of 1:40.58. That was an unheard of time in 1969, and a record that most observers believed would last for many years.
Rick Marshall, the breaststroker in Gateway’s 1969 relay, was a senior that year, but Mel, Rob, and Craig would all be returning the following year. Moreover, Gateway had another blue-chip breaststroker waiting in the wings to replace Marshall — then-sophomore Corky Semler. Therefore, the goal of winning the 1970 PIAA state championship in the 200 yard medley relay had its genesis at the March 1969 state swim meet.
A year later, as the 1970 WPIAL championships approached, a dilemma developed concerning Mel Nash. Mel, only a sophomore at the time, had by then developed into probably the best swimmer in the state, and had a chance to win two individual state championships. However, back in 1970 a swimmer could only swim in two events in a meet. The medley relay was strong enough to win the WPIAL championship without Mel, but could not hope to win the PIAA Championship without him. No one would have blamed Mel if he had opted to swim two individual events, but in an admirable act of selflessness, Mel agreed to forego one of his individual events so that the medley relay would have a chance to meet its goal of winning the PIAA state championship.
At the WPIAL and PIAA Championships, the top places are often separated by tenths, or even hundredths, of a second. In fact, in the 200 medley relay at the 1970 WPIAL Championships, five tenths of a secondseparated the second place team from the fourth place team, and the fifth and sixth place teams were less than a second behind. However, Gateway’s team of Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig won the WPIAL medley relay championship, finishing four full seconds ahead of the second place team, and setting a new WPIAL record of 1:42.1.
In 1970, of course, the Internet was still a few decades away, so Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig had to wait several days for the results from the other District swim meets to come in from across the state to see how far ahead of the other teams they would be seeded at states. As the results from the other District meets trickled in, no other medley relay team was seeded within three seconds of Gateway’s relay. However, the shocker came when the very last District results came in. The District 1 medley relay champion, Abington High School near Philadelphia, had a faster time than Gateway’s. Abington was seeded first at states with a 1:41.6, while Gateway was seeded second with its time of 1:42.1. No other team in the state had a time under 1:45.0.
After all of the District results were in, the four members of the relay team were presented with a new challenge and an additional goal. The Gateway coaches, Frank Muno and Larry Petrillo, told Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig, all of whom had qualified for states in their individual events in addition to the medley relay, that they had a chance to win the state championship. (For reasons which still are not clear, the PIAA for several years, from about the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s, did not recognize an official state champion. But every year, all the coaches and every swimmer scored the state meet on their own, and at least in swimming circles, everyone knew who the “state champion” was.)
It seemed impossible that just four swimmers, swimming a total of only five events, could win the state championship. However, the coaches had “scored out” the meet based upon the seed times, and determined that if Gateway beat Abington and won the medley relay, Mel Nash won the 100 backstroke, and the other three swimmers all finished in the top ten in their respective individual events (Corky in the 50 freestyle, Rob in the 100 butterfly, and Craig in the 100 freestyle), Gateway could win the state championship. Mel was already seeded first in the 100 backstroke. Corky, Rob, and Craig had all finished in the top four in their individual events at the WPIAL championships, and were all seeded in the top ten at the state meet, so the key to winning the state team championship was winning the medley relay.
So Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig went up to the state meet at Penn State with three goals, two of which were difficult but “doable,” and one of which was rather far-fetched. The first difficult but “doable” goal was winning the state championship in the medley relay, which would then pave the way for the second goal – winning the state team championship. The relatively far-fetched goal was breaking the state record in the medley relay. That was the least important goal, but would be the “icing on the cake” if the first two goals were met.
In setting the WPIAL record in the medley relay, Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig had all done the best split times they thought they were capable of doing. Going into the PIAA meet, the four swimmers discussed their “wildest dream” split times – that is, the split times they would hope to do in their proverbial “wildest dreams.” The “wildest dream” split times added up to a total time of 1:41.2 – almost a full second faster than the team’s WPIAL record time, but still more than six-tenths of a second (an eternity in swimming) slower than the state record. However, it was believed that a time of 1:41.2 would give the team the medley relay championship and, more importantly, would lead to the state team championship. Therefore, the time of 1:41.2 became the “realistic” goal for the team.
A certain provincialism exists at the PIAA swimming championships that might not exist in other sports. As the 200 medley relay (the first event of the meet) was called to the blocks, swimmers from Penn Hills, Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, and the other WPIAL schools, knowing what was at stake in the relay, were all cheering for Gateway, while the schools from the eastern half of the state were cheering for Abington. The medley relay was a two-team race from the beginning, with Gateway and Abington easily outdistancing all the other teams. In the end, Gateway touched first, about three feet ahead of Abington.
In 1970, the Natatorium at Penn State had a relatively new electronic timing system. However, the electronic timing systems were then new to swimming, and the times were not displayed instantaneously as they are now. While already celebrating their PIAA medley relay championship, Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig waited anxiously to see how close they had come to the state record. Then the time flashed — 1:40.57! The team had broken the state record by one one-hundredth of a second! In looking at the split times later, it was determined that Mel, Rob, and Craig had all hit their “wildest dream” split times, but that Corky Semler had actually beaten his wildest dream split time by several tenths of a second.
The rest of the meet went as anticipated, with Mel Nash winning the 100 backstroke, and Corky, Rob, and Craig all finishing in the top ten in their individual events, thus winning the state team championship. Corky actually made the finals and finished fifth in the 50 yard freestyle.
After all of the 1970 state high school swimming championships in the country were concluded, it was learned that Gateway’s 1970 medley relay team had the fifth fastest time in the United States, and the fastest time of all the eastern seaboard states. The team was named High School All-Americans, the first relay team from Gateway to be so honored. The relay team held the state record for several years, and the WPIAL record even longer. As swimming times dropped dramatically in the latter part of the twentieth century with records seldom lasting longer than a few years, Mel, Corky, Rob, and Craig continued to hold the Gateway High School record in the 200 yard medley relay for 27 years, until 1997.
All four members of the relay went on to swim in college – Mel at Indiana University (Big 10), Corky at Kent State University, and Rob and Craig at Washington & Jefferson College. Congratulations to WPIAL champions, PIAA champions, and All-Americans Mel Nash, Corky Semler, Rob Creagan, and Craig Simpson on your induction into Gateway High School’s Sports Hall of Fame.