In the world of Long Island high school swimming, Charlie Schlegel was a legend and an innovator, and his teams were almost impossible to beat. As the head boys coach at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School for 25 years, Schlegel amassed a record of 395-28, won 23 league championships, 21 Nassau County titles and an Eastern Interscholastic Championship in 1971.
At a time when high school swimming on Long Island was in its infancy, Schlegel built a dynasty.
“Plainview was the mecca for competitive swimming,” said Thomas Liotti, 72, of Carle Place, who swam for Schlegel from 1963 to 1965. " . . . He gave everybody an opportunity that they might not have otherwise had. New York was not noted at the time for competitive swimming. Charlie replicated what was happening in California [where high school swimming was much larger].”
Schlegel, who was both a high school and youth coach and swam competitively in masters events into his 80s, died of multiple health complications June 30 at Halifax Hospice in Daytona Beach, Florida, his family said. He was 89.
Schlegel, who also lived in Plainview, oversaw 15 undefeated seasons and had an 88-meet undefeated streak that spanned eight seasons, Liotti said. He also coached the girls team, his son Randy, 67, of North Carolina said.
“He was very proud of [his success],” Randy said. “But he didn’t bring it up and put it in people’s faces . . . He was more proud of the fact that most of the people that came through his program did well. They went to college, got a job and had a career. It didn’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer, it could have been, 'This guy’s a policeman. He has a great job.' "
Born Feb. 8, 1930, in Brooklyn, Schlegel grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. He swam at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens before attending Ohio State University. After leaving Ohio State, he joined the army and served in Eastern Germany as an army Ranger during the Korean War.
While in the army, Schlegel continued to swim. His times caught the attention of his superiors, who encouraged him to go back to Queens and compete in the 1952 Olympic Trials. He agreed, but difficulty with travel arrangements got him back to New York one day late and he never swam in the trials, Randy said.
Schlegel received a teaching certificate from Long Island University and a master's degree in education from Hofstra, Randy said. He first worked as a physical education teacher and track coach at Glen Cove High School and then as a physical education teacher, track coach and assistant swim coach at Uniondale High School, Randy said
Following his stint at Uniondale, Randy said his father was hired at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School and assisted in planning the building of the school's new pool.
“On Long Island, at that time, there were very few high schools with pools,” said Dr. Bob Kahl, 69, of Florida, who swam for Schlegel on both youth and high school teams. “Swimming was fairly prominent in New Jersey, New York City and upstate New York, but very little on Long Island. He just brought a bunch of expertise and people got really good.”
Schlegel developed that expertise, in part, by reading many books about the California high school swimming scene and adopting some West Coast training techniques.
“He was way ahead of his time,” Liotti said. “He had tremendous energy and really outworked everybody. He had a sense for greatness and excellence. He really inspired our team to be excellent.”
Schlegel, who Randy said also served as an assistant principal and assistant athletic director at Plainview-Old Bethpage, retired in 1985. He ran the aquatics program at C.W. Post University in Old Brookville and opened Quail Run Deli in Deer Park with his late sons, Christian and Bruce, Randy said. He moved to Florida in 1988, where he swam, gardened and helped coach the swim team at three local high schools.
He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Alma, son Randy, and stepbrother Robert Leupold of Florida. He’s predeceased by sons Christian and Bruce. Schlegel was cremated, his family said.