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Longtime Friends Are Reaping Rewards From Pooling Talents

March 23, 2001|LAUREN PETERSON

When Stu Blumkin and Steve Neale met as members of the Cal State Northridge swim team during the 1970-71 season, who knew it would lead to a long and lasting friendship?

Blumkin was a senior All-American backstroker. Neale was a freshman breaststroker who didn't know what to expect competing for an NCAA Division II program fast becoming one of the best in the nation under Coach Pete Accardy.

"He's always been sort of a mentor in many ways," Neale said. "Even after he graduated and left, he always kept up with the team and how we were doing."

Blumkin and Neale are still immersed in swimming.

Blumkin, 51, is in his fourth season as boys' swim coach at Harvard-Westlake High. He guided the Wolverines to Mission League titles in 1998 and '99, and Harvard-Westlake finished second to Loyola last season. This year's team includes several talented swimmers, including senior distance specialist Ted Zepfel, freshman breaststroker Calvin Kao and Juan Delgadillo, a sophomore freestyler and butterfly specialist who transferred from Santa Monica.

Neale, 49, has coached the Hart boys' team since 1984, guiding the Indians to Foothill League titles and top-five finishes in the Southern Section Division II meet in each of the last three seasons. Neale and top swimmers Igor Bistric, Mike Linn, David Deloria, Nick Yancey and Sean Kakumu expect a similar finish this year.

Blumkin, a former lifeguard, still teaches lifeguarding classes at Santa Monica High, and Neale is a Los Angeles County lifeguard assigned to Lake Castaic.

"It's kind of interesting," Neale said. "We knew each other back then and we've maintained a friendship. We seem to have all these common threads involving swimming."

And each has coached an Olympic gold medalist.

Blumkin was the coach at Santa Monica College in 1994, when Lenny Krayzelburg attended the school for a year, just long enough to set a national junior college record in the 200-yard backstroke, since broken. Krayzelburg won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke races in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

Also in Sydney, Hart graduate and Neale protege Anthony Ervin tied American Gary Hall Jr. for the gold medal in the 50 freestyle.

"We have a lot of similarities, and that makes things fun," Blumkin said of his friendship with Neale. "I don't see Steve a lot because we live in different areas, but we talk all the time.

"I probably still see and talk to six or seven guys who we used to swim with at Northridge. I just think the whole team got along great together."

The team concept left an indelible impression on Neale, who models his teams after the ones he was part of at Northridge, where differences between upper and under classmen existed mostly through swimming times.

"I think what really attracted me to the program was not only the coach, but the camaraderie," Neale said. "I think it's so important to have that team unity.

"Swimming's kind of an individual sport, and then there are the swimmers who compete with clubs, and the ones that only swim on the high school team. They can get so separate that you have to work hard to eliminate that, but we've done it at Hart."

The Indians are 3-0 this season and opened defense of their Foothill League title with a 101-39 victory over Saugus on Wednesday.

Harvard-Westlake is 4-1, including 3-0 in Mission League competition. The Wolverines' loss came against Hart, 101-82, in a nonleague meet last week. It was the coaches' first head-to-head meeting.

"We both needed a good, competitive meet, and we got that," Blumkin said. "We're going to do this again next year and try to start a little tradition."

*

Blumkin and Neale also got together at the recent Pacific 10 Conference Championships at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach, meeting up with some of their former swimmers.

Krayzelburg, who graduated from USC and has been traveling as a motivational speaker, attended as a spectator.

Ervin, a sophomore at California, set Pac-10 meet and conference records in the 50-yard freestyle (19.11 seconds) and the 100-yard free (42.21), and is top-seeded in both events at the NCAA Championships that began Thursday at Texas A&M.

The relationships between the swimmers and coaches remain close.

"We talk once a week, at least," Krayzelburg said of Blumkin.

Krayzelburg, 25, called Blumkin's Beverly Hills home from Australia every day to share his Olympic triumphs, and Blumkin recently nominated Krayzelburg for induction to the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

"What I liked about Stu was, he knew when to push you," Krayzelburg said. "When you have someone standing over you every day for hours during practices, you want it to be somebody that you get along with and respect, and he's always a very open person to talk to. It went way beyond the coach-swimmer relationship."

So did the one between Neale and Ervin, whose younger brother, Derek Ervin, is a senior distance swimmer for Hart.

Anthony Ervin, 19, cited his former coach during a post-Olympic ceremony in Santa Clarita, and Neale's pride in the swimmer is obvious.

"Actually, I'm very flattered and honored just being part of Anthony's life," Neale said. "I'm very proud of him for the way he's represented our school and our country."

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