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Swim coach Dan Reichert, 80, triumphing over stroke

He started coaching at the Martin's Dam swim club in Wayne in the 1960s, not long after leaving the Navy SEALs. Soon, no one could imagine summers without him.

He started coaching at the Martin's Dam swim club in Wayne in the 1960s, not long after leaving the Navy SEALs. Soon, no one could imagine summers without him.

The 20th century gave way to the 21st, the kids left the program when they turned 18, and now he was teaching their kids, turning out championship teams and life lessons with equal facility. One of his grads became an Olympian at 15.

No one knows exactly when Dan Reichert became a legend but everyone agrees he did. He seemed indestructible: The sharp blasts of his whistle echoing through the dense woods around the club, the Brooklyn accent shouting encouragement, the fist bumps and nicknames for everyone who passed him at poolside.

And then, suddenly, he was on the floor of his West Chester home, the pregame show of the 2011 Super Bowl on the TV screen. A cousin he lived with found him, motionless and speechless.

"It was a severe stroke," said Pascal Jabbour, director of the division of neurovascular surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where Reichert was taken by helicopter. "His life was at risk. He wasn't moving the right side of his body. He couldn't talk or understand."

But four months later, Reichert was back at poolside, helping the new coaches.

At 80, he is still there every summer Thursday, working with new coach and former pupil Philip Munger, and keeping the legend alive.

"I had been more or less a vegetable," Reichert said. "They questioned whether I'd be able to walk again. I didn't take too kindly to that." Nor did he ever believe it.

"His spirits were always high," said Munger, who recalled visiting him at Bryn Mawr Rehab and seeing the walls so covered with get-well cards there was no room for medical charts. "There wasn't a moment of despair."

"It was an amazing, outstanding recovery," said Rajendra Padhye, a rehab physician at Bryn Mawr, where Reichert spent about six weeks. "He saw the light at the end of the tunnel. . . . 'I can do this.' "

Every case is different. Still, "motivation plays a major role in recovery from stroke and getting back to the life one had before," says Arthur Gershkoff, clinical director of stroke rehabilitation at MossRehab hospital. "Keeping that goal burning is important to motivation."

Coaching had not even been on Dan Reichert's sonar during the Korean War, where he participated in underwater sabotage operations. But the war ended and his company personnel officer, knowing he had joined the Navy right out of high school, felt he should have a taste of civilian life before deciding on a permanent career.

The officer connected him with a diving company, and soon Reichert was in Florida, teaching fashion models how to dive so they could be in a film. "I thought, 'This has to be better than anything in the service,' " said Reichert, a trim man with dancing eyes.

Soon afterward, he was submerged in the Delaware River, trying to help raise a sunken ship in mid-winter. "I thought there had to be a better way," he said.

That "better way" became teaching physical education and coaching swimming in a series of public school systems, including 20 years at Conestoga High School.

Martin's Dam Club and its summer program was the constant. The varsity swim team now has 112 swimmers ages 6 to 18 and competes in an 18-member club league. "We've never come in worse than second in my 49 years," Reichert said.

The thousands of swimmers he has coached include Munger, 25; his mother, Dorothy Munger; and Olympic swimmer Libby Kinkead.

"I first met him when I was 10 and I'm 62 now," said Dorothy Munger, who owns the Toad Hollow Swim Shop in Paoli. "Can you imagine coming out of the SEALs and working with 10-year-old girls? At first he was so serious and almost grumpy, but everybody adored him. He was a great motivator. You just wanted to please him."

Philip Munger describes him as "a technique master . . . a lot of coaches out there just like to put in as many yards as possible and wear you down. That's not his idea of success."

At times, Munger says, Reichert's methods are both ingenious and hilarious. He recalls one occasion when the coach was trying to get swimmers not to breathe when pushing off from the pool at the end of a lap but to delay for a stroke or two, which is considered a more efficient technique.

So he brought in a picture from his SEAL days. He was wearing a chain-mail diving suit and a shark was chewing at the sleeve. "This is what's going to happen to you if you breathe off the turn," he told the swimmers.

"What's so unique is the way he makes it fun for everybody," said Kinkead, who at age 15 qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 200-meter backstroke (the United States ended up boycotting the event to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). "Whether you're the fastest or the slowest, you're special to him."

Reichert is known for giving the swimmers nicknames. Hers was "Kind Kid."

"It was his way of saying what was important," said Kinkead, now a psychotherapist in Denver.

Jane Barkman, an Olympic champion who also taught at Martin's Dam and later coached the Princeton women's swim team, described Reichert as "a role model as a person and as a coach. I wanted to be who he was."

The sun had been beating down for two hours one recent morning but Dan Reichert, shirt off and bareheaded, was just warming up.

"Way to go, Ms. Twombly, you're awesome," he shouted, then looked up at the other swimmers. "One more of these to go! You know you love it! You're much stronger when you bend [your arm] at 90 degrees!"

His walker was at his side. He said he uses it around the pool so the folks at Martin's Dam won't be concerned about him slipping. But he mostly gets along without it, including his four-time-per-week gym routine of walking the track and lifting weights.

"I'm not where I'd like to be," he said. "But I'm still making progress. It hurts that I'm not back all the time."

One problem is that he no longer can drive, so getting to the club from the West Chester home where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters has depended on the availability of volunteer chauffeurs.

"In the winter," said Philip Munger, he's kind of somber. "But when he gets on deck, he's alive."

"To me, this pool is heaven," Reichert said. "And these kids are great."