It was a fall day in 1975 when Barry Parenteau found himself alongside his father, Paul, in the office of then-Holy Cross Athletics Director Ron Perry Sr. ’54. The elder Parenteau was head coach of the Holy Cross men’s swim team and Barry was a volunteer assistant, expecting to talk about practice schedules and travel logistics for the upcoming season.
“Mr. Perry handed my dad two pieces of paper — one of them was the men’s schedule and the other was the women’s schedule. And my dad looked at [Perry] and said, ‘I’m good, but I’m not that good. You’ve got the men swimming against Brown and the women swimming against Smith and Dartmouth. I can’t be in two places at the same time. So Mr. Perry looked at me and said, ‘You wanna coach?’ I said, ‘Sure.'”
The brand-new women’s team needed a coach and Parenteau’s short answer launched a long career stretching from his role as coach of that inaugural team to his retirement this June as head coach of the men’s and women’s teams and director of aquatics at the Hart Center at the Luth Athletic Complex.
Much has changed on campus over Parenteau’s 43-year tenure, most notably for his teams the on-campus arrival of a state-of-the-art swimming facility in 1983. Until then, both practiced in any nearby community center or school pool that they could rent for an hour or two.
“Our campus is on top of a gigantic hill, so we could point out [to recruits] all the buildings downtown where we practiced,” Parenteau recalls with a chuckle.
And while the campus and athletics have grown in many ways, the program’s — and Parenteau’s — commitment to excellence held steady. His 241 combined wins as men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach are ranked eighth among all coaches in Holy Cross history. Add to that a slew of school and Patriot League records and the teams’ consistent classroom excellence as measured by the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. Parenteau, for his part, marks the passage of time by the student-athletes who have graduated, the successes they have enjoyed after graduation and the number of former athletes to whose weddings he and wife, Dale, have been invited. One such was held this summer in New York, where two of his former team captains, Joe McShane ’10 and Erin Meegan ’11, tied the knot. “To get invited to someone’s wedding is an honor,” Parenteau says. “When kids you coached have been out of school for eight years and want you and your wife to be at their wedding, that’s pretty special.”
The student-athletes who swam for Parenteau feel the same way.
“He cultivated an environment where you immediately felt like you were part of a family — his family,” says Coleen Lynch ’95, a swimmer who was named Scholar-Athlete of the Year, won six individual titles at the league championship, and is a member of the Patriot League’s All-Decade and 25th Anniversary teams and the Holy Cross Athletic Hall of Fame.
“There have certainly been times where life got busy and you’re not as connected to campus, but whenever you stepped back onto the pool deck or ran into him at a Holy Cross function, you felt like you never left. He was the same exact guy who was there for you years earlier and always thrilled to reconnect and introduce you to the next generation of student-athletes he was proud to be guiding.”
Casey Sherman ’19, a record-setting diver and NCAA Zone A Diving Meet qualifier, has known Parenteau since she was 7, when her club team was competing at the Hart Center pool. “I have early, fond memories of meeting Coach Parenteau at these meets. He was a fixture at the pool, always smiling and welcoming,” she says.
Although no longer wearing a whistle, Parenteau plans to be on campus this season when the Crusaders hit the pool: Wife Dale will still be running the timing table and his oldest daughter, Laine, is helping run the Hart Center pool.
That sense of family is fitting, considering that Parenteau, the son of Lorraine and Paul Parenteau — for 31 years the men’s swimming coach — was practically born to it. His father, a U.S. Navy hard hat diver during World War II, swam for the Ionic Avenue Boys Club in Worcester for legendary coach Carnie Noel, and was involved in numerous swim programs in and around the city before becoming Holy Cross’ head coach in 1965. The two Parenteau boys, Barry and Mark, grew up around the pool or at Lake Quinsigamond, where their father was a lifeguard.
“We were always around the water,” Parenteau says. “You go to meets and watch kids swim and the next thing you know you’re swimming as a 7- or 8-year-old.”
Barry and Paul Parenteau consult during a meet. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives
Following graduation from St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Parenteau went to Bridgewater State College, where he held school records in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events. After earning a degree in special education, he returned to Worcester to work in the city’s public schools and volunteered to help his dad coach on The Hill. Parenteau coached the Holy Cross women as a part-time job, continuing to teach special education in Worcester schools, until 1983 when he was made full-time aquatics director of the new swimming and diving facility at the Hart Center. He took on coaching duties for the men’s team following his father’s retirement in 1996.
Despite being made head coach at such a young age, Parenteau was prepared.
“In college, I wrote a lot of my own workouts. I knew how to get myself in shape and I knew how to get other kids in shape,” he says. “As I watched kids swim and get faster, I started looking for ways to make them better — better start, better turns, better technique. That’s the thing about swimming — you can always improve.”
The pressure, he says, came as the program began to grow, and as more talented swimmers chose to enroll at Holy Cross.
“As you got more and more talent, you put pressure on yourself to become a better coach,” he notes. The challenge? “Push them a little further without ruining it,” he says. “Swimming is a grueling sport … you’ve gotta have some fun with it.”
It was an approach his student-athletes appreciated.
“As a coach, Barry was always pushing us to do better and at the same time wouldn’t let us take ourselves too seriously — which made for a fun environment with lots of laughs,” Lynch says. “He always had faith in his swimmers and divers — even when we didn’t! His positive encouragement absolutely pushed me beyond my own limits.”
The record books bear that out, with multiple examples of Holy Cross swimmers meeting and exceeding challenges over his tenure, the latest being this past season, when Sherman earned her third straight trip to the NCAA Zone A Diving Meet. At the 2017 Patriot League championship meet, the men’s and women’s teams broke 15 school records.
But Parenteau never forgot that academics came first. Under his watch, the Crusaders had hundreds of student-athletes named to the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll, and his teams repeatedly earned Division I Academic Progress Rate public recognition awards from the NCAA.
“We never wavered on [academics],” he says. “Kids came to Holy Cross because of its academic reputation. Then they came to play a sport … everyone was there for the right reasons.”
“Barry never lost sight of why we were all at Holy Cross — and that was for an education, for an overall experience that would send us out into the world to be men and women for others,” Lynch adds.
“Athletics was a big part of that, but it wasn’t the only reason we were there. He appreciated that and was supportive of the academic side of life on campus and making sure we were focused on those goals as well.”
Parenteau stands before the flag at the start of a meet; behind him is former assistant coach Jeffrey Barlok, who was named Parenteau’s successor. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Athletics
Swim seasons are long: five months of six- to seven-day work weeks, and that’s not counting all of the preseason training and prep. The arrival of assistant coach Jeffrey Barlok two years ago and well-performing teams eventually gave Parenteau the peace of mind to retire, knowing the programs were set up for success. He announced his retirement in June, and Barlok was named the new head coach in July. The teams began their first season under Barlok in late September and will conclude in late February.
“You don’t have days off once the season starts,” Parenteau says. “I got a little run down and figured it was time to pass it off to someone else. The program is as strong as it’s ever been — it was time to step away and I am thrilled that Jeff got the job.”
“It is an honor to be taking over squads that have been run by a legendary coach,” Barlok says. “Coach Parenteau has taught me a lot about coaching and life these past two years, and I intend to carry on his philosophy of being thankful for every day and appreciating what we have. The program is in a good place and poised for greatness. I look forward to leading a group of young men and women with such talent, both in and out of the pool.”
Written by Greg Sukiennik for the Fall 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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