Over four decades as a coach at Germantown Academy, Dick Shoulberg sent 16 swimmers to the Olympics, coached U.S. teams, entered two halls of fame, and won five national coaching awards.
On Wednesday, his voice cracked as he struggled to explain why he was abruptly removed from not just a job, but a prominent post in a sport that has defined him.
"I haven't done anything wrong, other than being 741/2 and looking people in the eye and telling them, 'You're wrong,' " Shoulberg said in an interview.
Last month, officials at the Fort Washington school sent an e-mail to swim-team parents announcing that assistant coaches Claire Crippen and Chris Lear would serve as acting head coaches when the season opened.
The e-mail made no mention of Shoulberg or a reason for his removal. Since then, the coach's departure has been the subject of swirling rumors.
Germantown Academy head of school Jim Connor, other school officials, and parents of swimmers have refused to discuss it. In a brief interview, Connor acknowledged that the coach had been placed on administrative leave but called it "a personnel issue" he hoped to resolve soon.
Shoulberg, too, declined to elaborate on the circumstances during a phone interview. Before hanging up, he was alternately emotional, angry, and hopeful that he could return to Germantown Academy - even if not as head coach.
"I know I'm old. But I'm efficient and old," he said. "My girls' team last year broke the [national] record" in the 400-yard freestyle relay.
The previous record was also set by Germantown Academy, in 2006.
Such honors have been routine at the school under Shoulberg. In 2012 and 2013, Germantown Academy was named a gold-medal team by USA Swimming - an honor given to fewer than 1 percent of teams nationwide.
Sean Hansen, who swam under Shoulberg as a teenager and now is head coach of the swim team at the Haverford School, said he was shocked to hear of Shoulberg's removal.
"He's the kind of guy that would have taken his last breath on the pool deck," Hansen said.
Shoulberg's training techniques have been copied by coaches around the country. Many of his Germantown Academy swimmers have stayed in contact with him years after leaving the school. Some call him a father figure - tough but supportive.
"He was the scariest individual in the pool and like your grandfather out of the pool," Hansen said. "He was just a class act and one of the best coaches not just in our conference [Inter-Academic] but in the country."
Dan Flack, the head coach at the Baylor Swim Club in Tennessee, tweeted a photo of himself with Shoulberg on Nov. 5, writing: "Aside from my father the most influential person in my life."
"He's changed me as a person in addition to a swimmer," Alicia Aemisegger said in 2005, the year she broke a school record and was named the Inquirer's girls' swimmer of the year.
According to a 1983 Inquirer profile, Shoulberg was a precision machinist. He graduated from Norristown High School and started coaching, he said, as a hobby.
He coached girls for nine years in Norristown, moved to the Roxborough YMCA, and in 1969 became founding director of Germantown Academy's aquatics program.
Shoulberg said Wednesday that he had turned down every offer from other clubs and universities for the last 44 years - including some recently - because "I have no desire to ever coach anywhere but GA."
"I've been offered positions - 'Come coach with us now,' " he said. "No. I'm GA. That's it. I'm not changing anything in my life."
He said he had offered to go back as "coach emeritus and only help if needed."
He said he values teaching children to take their first plunge just as much as seeing his longtime athletes ascend to the Olympic level.
"My life is not just coaching world-class athletes. It's teaching all aspects of aquatics," Shoulberg said, describing the water safety, ice safety, CPR, and first-aid classes he has taught for decades.
He said the sight of a preschooler leaping from a diving board and swimming 25 yards can be the brightest moment of a day. "We call it the Olympic moment," he said.
Inquirer staff writer Mari A. Schaefer contributed to this article.