If you were a young swimmer in the 1960s through the ’80s with near perfect technique and the discipline to excel, chances are you learned from one of the best: Coach Alvin Sheeler, namesake of his Sheeler Winton Swim Club. His swimmers at his massive swimming complex in South Miami-Dade, now Palmetto Bay, knew him as Coach Sheeler. Or Al.
Nearly everyone in the local competitive swim scene at rival area clubs in Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale, North Miami Beach, Hialeah and other cities with teams knew him as the man who helped make their clubs better. Many Sheeler Winton swimmers, in their teens, gravitated to their programs and onward to college teams.
“He ran a swimming factory,” said Todd Friedman, one of those young swimmers who, with his brother David, swam for Sheeler Winton from 1967 to 1975. The brothers then joined the Hurricanes Swim Team at the University of Miami. “He was an amazing guy and visionary. Way ahead of his time.”
Sheeler died at 89 on Jan. 15 in South Miami, his home of some 60 years.
Born in Waco, Texas, on April 13, 1925, Sheeler lived in Dallas until his high school graduation when he joined the Navy. He served aboard the USS Harry Lee (AP-17) in the Pacific, including the invasion of Iwo Jima.
By the early 1950s, Sheeler was married to Dorothy, whom he met at a dancing school, and, as a general contractor, he began building pools all over Miami-Dade County — more than 1,000.
The Sheeler family, which includes daughters Linda Lou Stinson and Linda C. Harrold and sons Michael and Richard, started swimming at the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, which had a team, in the early 1960s as dad built pools and began to attend swim meets — and observe.
“Like everything else he encountered, he said, ‘I think I can do this better,’ and so that’s what he did,” said daughter Linda Lou Stinson. Sheeler Winton Swim Club was born in the 1960s and lasted for more than two decades, originating from the Sheelers’ home pool with about six swimmers.
“During the Cuban Missile Crisis people were building bomb shelters and not swimming pools. He decided he’d build an Olympic-sized pool,” Stinson said. “It used to be called ‘Sheeler’s Folly.’ So many people told him, ‘You’re crazy!’”
But, tucked off a dirt road, with a canal out front — the only thing that remains in the now-residential Palmetto Bay neighborhood — a swimming “factory” was born. Crazy? Perhaps. But it worked.
The land around the pool was so spacious Sheeler rented some of it out to farmers to harvest. He retired his contracting business early and, with wife Dorothy, threw himself fully into the swimming program that specialized in teaching children ages 6 to 10 how to swim.
That Olympic-size swimming pool he built on some six acres of fields near Perrine helped to give Sheeler his legacy; it certainly was his professional passion.
The pool was a marvel at the time in the 1960s and ’70s. Large, almost Flintstones-like cement structures held a concession stand out front and the Sheeler Winton offices. There were permanent stands for events. Rolling, grass covered hills lined the pool deck and, at swim meets, you’d find competitors sprawled on towels from all over the tri-county area. Many Sheeler Winton swimmers would compete for the team at meets locally and in the Caribbean.
The pool itself was divided by a wooden bulkhead so that it could host both short course, 25-yard meets, and Olympic-sized, long course 50 meter meets. You could say the pool complex had character compared to the standard university or community pools of the day.
Volunteer timers, mostly swim parents, perched high above the starting blocks on a bridge-like structure, another unusual design. There, with stopwatches on lanyards around their necks, they lowered ropes with clothespins to the swimmers below who would affix their time cards to the clip as they took to the blocks for their heats during races.
Sheeler’s other love was skiing. He built a lodge in Mount Crested Butte, Colorado, and during the winter he would often take some of his swimmers along for family ski trips.
“While time in his pool is a memory, it was the other activities that went on besides swimming that I remember the most — like going to his house in Crested Butte where he taught me and many other Miami swimmers how to ski. What a great man,” said former Sheeler Winton swimmer Brian Soltz.
Sheeler’s program worked because he ran it the same way he raised his children with his wife. “Discipline,” his daughter said.
“We had our discipline, too. Very regimented,” Stinson recalled.
Dad’s philosophy stayed with her as she had a career that stretched from flight attendant to secretary to merchandiser until her retirement: “Stick to it. There wasn’t anything you couldn’t do if you tried hard enough.” That was Sheeler’s life lesson, she said. Worked at home. Worked with his swimmers. The lasting result, “A sense of accomplishment.”
In addition to his wife and children, Sheeler is survived by six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
A celebration of Sheeler’s life will be 6 p.m. Saturday at West Dade Moose Lodge #1825, 9900 SW 77th Ave., Miami-Dade.
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