Gateway Class of 1964
Perhaps the three most significant accomplishments of Ken Simpson’s high school swimming career are the following:
- Ken Simpson was Gateway High School’s first-ever All-American athlete in any sport.
- While still in high school, Ken Simpson was also Gateway High School’s first-ever athlete, in any sport, to represent the United States in international competition – a competition in which he brought home the gold medal.
- Ken Simpson’s time in the 100 yard breaststroke in 1964, his senior year at Gateway, would have made him the state champion in 44 states.
Those three accomplishments speak volumes about the kind of athlete Ken was, but to fully appreciate what kind of athlete Ken really was, one has to look at his background in swimming before high school.
He had no background in swimming!
When Ken’s family moved to Monroeville from Boston, Massachusetts in July 1958, a mere two years before Ken began high school, neither Ken, nor his four younger brothers, nor his younger sister (the baby of the family), knew how to swim!
The Simpson family joined the local neighborhood swim club (Eastgate Manor), and since this was before the advent of the summer swim leagues, the sum total of the Simpson family’s swimming experience over the next two years consisted oflearn-to-swim lessons. Nonetheless, in July, 1960, with no competitive swimming experience, training, or coaching, Ken and his four brothers entered Monroeville’s annual summer swim meet at the old Burke Glen swim pool. With Ken leading the way with two first places and a second place, he and his four brothers went on to sweep fourteen titles, leading to a front page story in the Times-Express about the family that did not know how to swim two years earlier.
As Ken entered his freshman year at Pitcairn Junior High School in 1960, he was a good enough athlete that he could have played any sport, but following the unexpected success in the Burke Glen swim meet, Ken decided to try out for the High School Swim Team – a mere two years after learning how to swim. With no previous training, coaching or experience in competitive swimming, Ken not only made the team, but along with fellow freshmen Fred Hahnfeldt and Jeff Evans, became the first freshman ever to participate on a varsity athletic team at Gateway. Ken not only swam for the varsity, by the end of the season he established himself as the No. 2 breaststroker on an already talented varsity team.
One year later, Ken first broke the high school record in the 100 yard breaststroke, a record he was to lower many more times during his high school career. Two years later (Ken’s junior year), he broke the school record in the 200 yard individual medley, an event which requires the swimmer to be accomplished in all four strokes. This was an incredible accomplishment for a swimmer who did not know how to swim four years earlier, and only began swimming competitively two years earlier.
Ken’s accomplishments during his sophomore and junior years can be summarized as follows:
Sophomore year (1961-1962)
- No. l breaststroke swimmer on team.
- First set school record in 100 yard breaststroke
- Finished 6th in WPIAL swim championships in 100 yard breaststroke
- Swam breaststroke in the 200 yard medley relay, which set a new school record, finished 3rd in the
- WPIAL swim championships, finished 4th in the Western Regional Swim Championships, and finished 9th in the PIAA state championships.
- Placed 2nd in the 100 yard breaststroke in the YMCA Regional Championships
- Placed 4th in the 100 yard breaststroke in the YMCA State Championships
Junior year (1962-1963)
- Set the school record in the 200 yard individual medley
- Lowered his own school record in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Placed 2nd in the 100 yard breaststroke at the WPIAL swim championships
- Placed 2nd in the PIAA Western Regional swim championships in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Placed 4th in the PIAA state swimming championships in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Swam breaststroke in the 200 yard medley relay, which again set a new school record and placed 4th in the WPIAL swim championships.
- Placed 1st in the Western Pennsylvania YMCA swim championships in the 100 yard breastsroke
- Placed 1st in the YMCA state championships in the 100 yard breaststroke.
- Set new state YMCA record in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Took 1st place in the 100 yard breaststroke in the Pittsburgh Dapper Dan AAU swim meet, setting a meet record.
- Won the Allegheny Mountain Jr. AAU 100 meter breaststroke title, setting a new meet record.
In Ken’s senior year at Gateway,just five years after learning how to swim and three years after beginning his competitive swimming career, Ken swam the 50 yard freestyle, the 100 yard freestyle, the 200 yard freestyle, the 100 yard butterfly, the 100 yard breaststroke, the 200 yard individual medley, the 200 yard freestyle relay, and the 200 yard medley relay in dual meet competition. Ken went undefeated in every event, in every dual meet, that he swam that year. Wherever Gateway needed a first place, they could count on Ken to come through. However, it was in Ken’s specialty, the 100 yard breaststroke, that he really dominated the WPIAL swimming scene.
The top swimmers in any given swimming event in the WPIAL are often separated by thousandths of a second, and virtually never by more than hundredths of a second. Ken’s time in the 100 yard breaststroke in 1964 was nearly two full seconds faster than any other WPIAL swimmer. Ken was the WPIAL champion and the PIAA Western Regional champion in the 100 yard breaststroke. That year, only 12 swimmers in the entire United States had a faster time than Ken in the 100 yard breaststroke, but as luck would have it, one of them was from the eastern part of Pennsylvania, with the result that Ken took second in the PIAA state championships. He would have been the state champion in 44 states.
Ken was chosen to be on the United States swim team and compete in the 100 yard breaststroke in the annual AAU International Swim Meet against Canada, and had to obtain the permission of both the WPIAL and the PIAA in order to compete. And compete he did, bringing home the gold medal. Ken was the first Gateway athlete ever to participate in international competition.
In May, 1964, Ken was named to the High School All-American Swim Team, the first Gateway athlete ever to be named a High School All-American.
A listing of Ken’s accomplishments during his senior year in high school follows:
Senior year (1963-1964)
- Named co-captain of swim team with Fred Hahnfeldt
- Placed 1st in 100 yard breaststroke in Annual Pittsburgh Dapper Dan AAU Championships, breaking his own meet record.
- Named to the United States Swim Team to represent the U.S. in annual International Dual Meet against Canada, and took home the gold medal in the 100 yard breaststroke.
- Was undefeated in dual meet competition, including the 50 yard :freestyle, the 100 yard freestyle, the 200 yard freestyle, the 100 yard butterfly, the 100 yard breaststroke, the 200 yard individual medley, the 200 yard freestyle relay, and the 200 yard medley relay.
- Lowered his own school record in the 200 yard individual medley
- Lowered his own school record in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Anchored the 200 yard breaststroke relay at the Slippery Rock State College high school relay meet, taking the gold medal and setting a new meet record.
- Was WPIAL Champion in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Was PIAA Western Regional Champion in the 100 yard breaststroke
- Won the silver medal in the 100 yard breaststroke at the PIAA state championships
- Swam breaststroke in the 200 yard medley relay, taking 1st place at the WPIAL championships, 2nd place at the PIAA Western Regional Championships, and 4th place at the PIAA state championships
- Named 1964 Runner-up WPIAL Swimmer of the Year
- Placed 1st in the 100 yard breaststroke and 2nd in the 200 yard individual medley in the Pennsylvania YMCA Regional Championships
- Placed 1st in the 100 yard breaststroke in the YMCA State Championships
- Swam breaststroke in the New Kensington YMCA medley relay, which placed 1st in the YMCA Regional Championships and 1st in the YMCA state championships, setting a new state record.
- Placed 1st in the Lake Erie, OH AAU Regional Championships in the 100 meter breaststroke, setting an Association record in the event
- Also placed 1st in the Lake Erie, OH AAU Regional Championships in the 200 meter breaststroke, also setting an Association record in that event.
- Achieved 6th place national AAU ranking in the 100 meter breaststroke in the 15-18 age group
- Achieved 4th place national AAU ranking in the 200 meter breaststroke in the 15-18 age group
Ken continued his swimming career after high school, realizing his dream of swimming in the Big Ten Conference ( at that time the premier collegiate swimming conference in Division I) by accepting a full scholarship to swim at the University of Illinois.
Among the highlights of Ken’s post-high school swimming career are the following:
- Received numerous Collegiate Division I swimming scholarship offers
- Realized dream of swimming in the Big Ten Conference, swimming for the University of Illinois, setting University records in both the 100 yard breaststroke and the 200 yard breaststroke
- Placed in the Big Ten Conference Championships in both the 100 yard and 200 yard breaststroke in both his Junior and Senior years.
- Swam in AAU Masters competition from 1974 – 1981, and in 1994.
- Won 27 AAU Central Association Championships in the 50, 100, and 200 yard breaststrokes and 50, 100, and 200 meter breaststrokes.
- Achieved 42 National AAU Top Ten rankings
- Won 4 silver medals and 6 bronze medals in National Master’s Swimming Championships in 1976 and 1980
- Named AAU Master’s All-American in 1977 with a #1 ranking in the 50 yard breaststroke in the Men’s 30-34 age group
When Ken was asked about his most vivid memories of his high school swimming career, he wrote virtually nothing about himself, and not surprisingly to anyone who knows him, wrote extensively about the team’s accomplishments and the individual accomplishments of his teammates during his four year career. However, a few excerpts from Ken’s memoirs, reflecting his characteristic humility, bear repeating here.
First, a memory from his freshman year:
“It was the last meet [ of my freshman year] and we were swimming against Mt. Lebanon at their pool. It was senior day, and Coach Martin told me I would be swimming the 100 yard breaststroke with [senior] Tom Evans. I knew that Tom, being Gateway’s top breaststroker, was going to beat me, but I hoped to swim well against Mt. Lebo’s seniors. I was confident as the starter’s gun fired. One aspect of swimming breaststroke is that you can see quite clearly when and by how much you are losing by in a race. It is not a pleasant experience, and one you need to learn how to handle to become a successful swimmer. As I surfaced coming out ofmy tum at the 75 yard mark, Tom was ahead ofme. But what startled me was seeing the first Mt. Lebo swimmer, and then the second, hop out of the pool when I still had 20 yards to swim. By the time I finished last and got out of the pool, the Mt. Lebo swimmers had already dried off and were sitting on the bench. As I walked back to the bench passing everyone in the stands, I was thoroughly humiliated. I had had my best time in the event, but I was also angry with my performance. I promised myself at that moment that I would never get beaten like that again in a meet for as long as I competed. And, I never was.”
Later in his memoirs, Ken wrote about the last race of his high school career, the finals of the 1964 PIAA state championship in the 100 yard breaststroke:
“As I stood waiting to be called to the blocks for my last high school race, I remembered how badly I had been beaten at Mt. Lebanon three years earlier, how Bethel Park Coach Dick Bower had asked me to participate in a coaches clinic at the beginning of my senior season on how to swim breaststroke, how I had been chosen to compete for the U.S. against a Canadian National Swim Team and had been given WPIAL and PIAA permission to compete, winning the 100 breaststroke for the U.S. which was an experience I will always treasure. I remembered all the sacrifices my parents and brothers and sister made so I could race in places from New Jersey to Ohio. All the encouragement and time Athletic Director Henry Furrie, and my coaches Ed Martin and Murray Johnston and all my teammates had given me in practice and in the meets. I even remembered [football] Coach Antimarino taking it slightly easy on me in gym class so I wouldn’t somehow injure myself. As we were called to the blocks that last time, I felt this race was for me and everyone who had supported me. The gun went off, and at the end of the next 63.8 seconds I had a silver medal and my personal best time in the 100 yard breaststroke by half a second. This opened a number of doors of opportunity for me that set the tone for my life. This would not have been possible without much effort on the part of many people from which I benefitted. I like to think the way I swam this last race and the way I represented Gateway High School throughout my career made them feel all their efforts and support had been rewarded.
I am extremely fortunate and proud to have attended Gateway Senior High School. Those years rank among the best of my life. I met many people during that time who remain important to me even though I only see them at class reunions ifit all. Gateway has produced so many outstanding athletes in its 44 year history, I am surprised and deeply honored to have been selected as a member of the 2002 induction class of the Gateway Sports Hall of Fame.