For decades, Hillcrest High’s Coach Stone built tradition, one stroke at a timeMay 08, 2023 11:21AM ● By Julie Slama
Hillcrest High’s “Coach Stone,” seen here hugging a swimmer, has coached swimming at the school for more than 35 years and never was a competitive swimmer. (Photo courtesy of Tom Huddlestone)
At 40 years, Hillcrest High’s longest tenure coach is stepping down from the blocks—and he never swam a stroke.
The former Hillcrest teacher who started the Youth in Custody program in 1981 and oversaw it through 2013, for all, but the last year of the program, got into coaching as a necessity to the school.
Robert “Tom” Huddlestone, or Coach Stone as he’s called, didn’t have any coaching experience and his football experience amounted to playing in junior high, but 170 freshmen came out for the freshman football team so the head football coach split the squad in half.
“I was asked if I wanted to coach football and I asked if I could have a key to the weight room,” he remembered. “When they said yes, it came along with ‘go ahead and get started.’ I was making $10,000 a year; I didn’t want to pay for a gym fee.”
After two years as the Huskies’ freshman football team, Stone moved to the sophomore team.
After the 1984 season, the former army captain who has a black belt and built his own Harley, was asked to be the strength coach with swimming and diving that practiced at the old Midvale Middle School pool.
“Being a strength coach was fairly new in swimming and diving back then. Before I got done with the season, I was doing that, helping coach the girls and the divers. It turned out to be a busier year than I thought,” said Stone, who was never a competitive swimmer.
The next year, when the head swimming and diving coach left, he was asked to take over the program.
“I argued that I had only worked in swimming for a year and administration said, ‘You’re the only one that knows where the pool is.’ The deal I was told was, ‘If you don’t take it, then we’re just not going to offer swimming anymore,’” he said. “I couldn’t do that to those kids, but I didn’t know enough about the sport. I thought ‘I’m not going to look a fool’ so, I started picking every brain in the (Salt Lake) Valley that I could find and learn what to do, how to do and when to do all the different things that made up different parts of the swim coach’s job. I joined a coach’s association, and they showed me the ropes and saved my bacon. I must have been OK, because they kept me around.”
In fact, swimming is the only sport at Hillcrest that has qualified for state championships year-in and year-out during his tenure.
“I have been the head coach for the girls since 1984 except for one year,” he said.
What Stone came to appreciate was the balance between coaching swimming and teaching some of the then-Jordan School District’s students who were in state custody because of criminal behavior. He mentored those with personal and family issues and often bounced around foster care, including some students who had been abused and neglected or some that rarely made it to class. He taught them all, first in a book storage area, then in a portable on the edge of campus, until he retired from teaching in 2013.
“With my students, I was tough, I was motivating, I was trying to help each one graduate,” he said. “Swimming allowed me to feel more part of the school. Swimmers are the hardest workers, and they have the longest season in high school. In football, there’s a lot of standing around, but in swimming, you start at three and we go to five and we’re swimming from three to five. In football, you can play and not really apply yourself. You can’t do that with swimming; it’s hard work and being devoted to what you’re doing.”
He said Hillcrest High’s swimming has challenges as well. In the early years, team members would have to stand on the step behind the plastic blocks because the mounts to the pool edge were broken. So, they fundraised $16,000 to get new blocks. Then, they raised another $16,000 for a timing system.
That pool, which was dark and had water kept warmer than ideal for competitive swimming, was demolished with the former middle school building in 2015.
Hillcrest’s swimming team now buses to Gene Fullmer Recreation Center in West Jordan for pool time. During the pandemic and other times, time in the water has been restricted, making it hard to grow the program.
“Ninety percent of our kids are first-time swimmers when they start swimming with us,” Stone said. “We’ve never won a region nor a state championship namely because we never have had a feeder program. It’s just hard to do without a pool.”
In 2018, now-Hillcrest graduate Zoe Welch began swimming competitively for her first time.
“When I started swimming the 500 it was really hard and scary,” she remembered. “One time, at a meet, it was getting closer to my heat time, and I was getting very stressed and overwhelmed. I began to cry and went to Coach Stone expressing that I couldn’t do it and was scared. He was very comforting and supportive and said, ‘no matter what you do I will be proud.’ He followed that with more advice about just thinking about one stroke at a time, while paying attention to form will make the time go. It helped me calm down and not think about it as such a scary thing.”
She went on to swim for the Huskies three years under Coach Stone.
“He was always there from the beginning and taught me everything I know. He was so considerate, kind and the most perfect example of a coach,” she said.
Diving, as a Utah High School Activities Association sanctioned sport, faded about 20 years ago. With the decline of participation in 1999, the state diving championships was pulled out of swimming and all classes competed in one meet. Combined, with a new requirement of a deeper pool depth under the board, the older pools didn’t meet the specification and eventually, it reverted to a club sport, he said.
“At one time, the diving program was huge in our district as they dove at the Cottonwood Heights club program, but because they lived in our boundary, Hillcrest had a lot of divers. If you swam and wanted to go to Brighton, you could automatically transfer, but they didn’t do that with divers. We always were in the top five or six in the state championships,” Stone said, recalling the Huskies had both a male and a female state champion. “I knew a little about diving because I learned the technical side and how to score diving and once you get the basics of it down, I knew when they over rotated or didn’t point their toes and splashed on entry, but I wasn’t the expert.”
Through his years on the deck, Stone has watched swimming grow.
“It’s become more intense now. The times are dropping fast,” he said pointing out the boys’ 500 free time used to qualify for state at 5:20 and now, the 5A winning time was 4:36.
While Stone considered hanging up his towel after last school year, he stayed on to help with the transition to the first-year coach Elizabeth Drake.
“I learned a lot from working with Coach Stone,” she said. “He has a lot of coaching experience and understands the kids and the program. That’s been the most helpful thing is having somebody who has been doing this a long time.”
Stone fondly remembers his athletes’ trials and successes, including one boy who tweaked his knee swimming the breaststroke leg of the medley relay at state and was to swim on the freestyle relay.
“We had to pull him out of the water; he couldn’t stand on it, and he couldn’t walk. I was trying to figure out what was I going to do for his replacement in the relay because I knew that he had to have surgery on the knee, when he asked me for a favor,” Stone said. “He said, ‘Coach, I want you to let me swim in that relay. I’m a senior and this is my last chance to swim for you.’”
Stone anchored him to allow for the maximum rest and “his first 25 was the ugliest I’ve ever seen him swim in my life. He came back on the second 25 pretty steady. His third 25 really strong and his fourth 25 was the best of his life. We were in eighth place when he went in the water, and we finished in sixth. We had to pull him out of the water and I thought ‘you just swam the swim of the ages.’ It was unbelievable that kid was willing to go, but it was all heart. These kids are pretty special.” λ