Tearful Tale Turns Tender
A light-hearted afternoon of laughter turned tearful for just a moment.
Karen Carlton Park clouded up and said, "I always get emotional when I think about it."
The recently divorced mother of two saw a giant of a swim coach surrounded by adoring children, watched him occasionally have them trembling, but also saw him console them when they lost a race.
They began dating soon after and eventually married.
Karen and that giant of a coach, Greg Park, sat on their side porch talking about the bygone days of the Forest City Swim Team, The Stingrays.
"When I saw how he treated those kids, I knew he was a good man," she said with tears in her eyes and a quivering lip. "It was a tough time for me."
Greg was the coach and Karen worked with the kids as a water safety instructor taking advantage of her knowledge of strokes.
They laughed and told stories about Greg's work with The Stingrays and later the East High swim team, coached by Ray Huskey.
Huskey loved to kid Jimmy Griffin, whose son Jay was a stand out, by claiming during at least two awards banquets that Greg had swum for N.C. State. Park said he knew it would get to Griffin each time. "He would come up to me after the event and say, 'You didn't really swim for N.C. State, did you?"
Park confessed he was not a member of the school's team, but he grinned and added, "I did swim back then and I did attend N.C. State."
While there were kids who swam year-round, Park said the true joy of the work was with the kids in the summertime.
"It was a true neighborhood team," he said, obviously enjoying the memory. "The funny part is that I didn't know them if they weren't wearing a swimsuit. I'd see them in the grocery store; and they'd holler, 'coach!' and I didn't recognize them."
Greg came to Forest City in 1978, but had grown up mostly in High Point around competitive swimming. He worked at the J.C. Cowan Plant of Burlington Industries. Larry Hicks had started the swim team that eventually became The Stingrays, but when he was no longer able to do it, Park agreed to come at the invitation of Recreation Director Butch Kisiah.
The job paid nothing, but the recreation department helped out with a little gas money and covered over expenses. Park did it for love. The rec department also provided the lane ropes and other equipment needed for competition.
Park affectionately referred to the youngest swimmers as "barnacles," because they would swim a while and hold to the side of the pool for a while, swim a while and hold to the side of the pool for a while. That was the eight and under competitors.
But some entered races at much younger ages. Karen remembered her son Lucas being recruited at age four. "We were entering a relay in Lenoir and Greg needed one more swimmer in that category. Lucas was only four, but he got in there and swam." Greg said, "The Lenoir pool was so wide, there was no wall to hang onto there."
Park's tenure with the team ran 1979-85, but "'83 was our big year. We won the conference. We finally beat Lenoir and Granite Falls."
Among the many joys of the work were helpers who kept herd over the huge gaggle of kids. They were women like Cathy Elmore, Terry Price, and Tina Sanders, who is now Tina Tarlton. The Parks also had high praise for Chuck Ohmstead who had five children on the team and later worked with the program at East High.
Among the swimmers under Park's coaching was Tonya Philbeck Hobbs who became one of the stand out swimmers in the world.
Hobbs at 16, while swimming for the YMCA sports aquatics program in Spartanburg, made first senior national time in the 100 meter backstroke, qualified for national competition where she finished ninth overall. At 17 she ranked with the fourth fastest backstroke in the country, and at 18 held the title for the second fastest backstroke in the country and eighth in the world.
In 1988 she was awarded Rutherford County athlete of the year, and in 1989 named athlete of the year in South Carolina. In 1988 she achieved three national cuts and three Olympic trial cuts, and was selected 11th going into Olympic trials. She swam for East High School for one season and held the record in the SC 100 backstroke for 26 years. She attended the University of Georgia on a full swimming scholarship 1988-1992, was an NCAA all American 1990-1992, was Southern Conference all conference in 1990-1992.
Karen and Greg were present last fall when Philbeck Hobbs was inducted into the Rutherford County Sports Hall of Fame.
Among the other top tier swimmers was Tami Matheny who has had her own stand out career in athletics and coaching and can now be found at the website, R2LC.com or on Facebook at refuse2losecoaching.
Park also had a swimmer grow up to be an award-winning superintendent of schools and Forest City's current town manager, Janet Harmon Mason.