When Ed Solotar died recently at the age of 76, he left behind him a swim team 450 strong and a legacy of success.
In the summer of 1972, Solotar leaped to the forefront of the area swimming community with the success of Melissa Belote (now Belote-Hamlin) in the Munich Olympiad. Belote, then 16, swam to unexpected gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. Immediately, Solotar's reputation was made as the resident expert on the backstroke. And practically overnight, Washington-area swimmers flocked to the Solotar Swim Team. Solotar, at the age of 64, was a new guru of the sport.
With the accomplishments of Belote, Solotar promoted age-group swimming in the Washington area as no amount of Speedo commercials or Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues could ever do.
But more important, perhaps, is what he did for the youngsters who decided on swimming as an extracurricular activity.
"In athletic scholarship funds alone, he probably grossed well over $3 million for this team," said Tom Healey, head coach for the Solotar Swim Team for the past 2 1/2 years. "A lot of kids got a lot of rides through Mr. Solotar's work. And he usually got them into the schools they wanted to. He was well respected in the coaching community, in the whole world actually."
Solotar had devoted the final 26 years of his life to the advancement of the sport of swimming, and not only in the United States. At the State Department's bidding, Solotar traveled to South America often to assist in the development of fledgling swimming programs in several countries.
"Many times he was sent overseas by the State Department to set up national programs and develop young swimmers," Healey said. "He had a technique for backstroke that was world renowned. It's a known fact. He developed Melissa, Margie Moffett, the list is endless of other world-class backstrokers. He had the capacity to see things in the water that others couldn't. He was watching underwater technique for the backstroke and began refining it and it became the stroke to do for him. I guess, like any other good coach, he would try different things and when it clicked, it clicked."
But it wasn't always that way. Solotar didn't start coaching swimming until he was 50 years old. Prior to that he coached high school sports, particularly track and field until the mid-1960s.
"Ed coached track and thought swimming was like track, until he got involved with it, of course," Healey said. "And then he fell in love with the sport. He was a 200 butterflyer in college and I guess it's something he always wanted to do. At 50, he decided to do it."
Solotar's success with Belote seemingly came overnight. Actually, the Olympic champion had been with her mentor since she began swimming at the age of 10. The year before her Olympic triumphs, Belote-Hamlin attended her first national championships.
"She bombed in them," said Healey, 33. "Melissa started swimming with Mr. Solotar. She was a butterflyer, usually swimming on the D and E medley relays (A signifies the fastest team). She couldn't stand the chlorine at the Starlit pool (in Fairfax) so she rolled over on her back. Solotar saw that and went on from there."
That same year, Solotar, who had been coaching under the auspices of the Starlit Swim Team, left to form his own team. At that time he could find time at only one pool, the Naval Research Laboratory in Southeast D.C.
"The majority of his kids went with him," said former Solotar Coach Rick Curl, now coach of Curl Swim Club. "The kids he brought up through swimming from when they started went with him, including Melissa."
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Curl could not be paying a higher tribute to his former employer. Six years after Solotar hired him, Curl left the fold to set up a team under his own name. As with Solotar years before, most of Curl's swimmers went with him.
"He's done an awful lot of good for the sport," said Curl. "Curl Swim Team could not have existed if not for my relationship with Solotar and what I learned. The two programs are very alike. His philosophy of limiting practice hours and interest in the younger age groups is the biggest impact on our program. Along with the low coach-to-swimmer ratio, that's led to our success.
"We've been positively influenced by the Solotar program. What I learned while I was there is more important than any other education that I've dealt with."