Skip Boyum’s 30-year tenure as the Northfield High School swimming and diving coach started with a splash.
After one of his first meets, he returned home to his wife, Diane, and confessed he might not last long in his current role.
“I said, ‘How did you do?’ and he said, ‘Well, we won but we lost,’” Diane remembers. “I said, ‘Please explain, I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ and he said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be in this sport very long. We won the meet, but then we lost because they threw me in the water and the last swimmer wasn’t out of the water yet.’”
He did last for 30 more years, and this fall, the third generation of Skip Boyum’s legacy in the Northfield swimming and diving program finished with a splash and the pool that’s named after him.
After the Section 1AA meet wrapped up Oct. 23, Skip’s daughter, Cindy — an assistant coach for the Gators — and her three daughters Hannah, Maya and Ellen Varley all leapt off the starting blocks and into the pool while Diane watched from the pool deck to celebrate Ellen finishing her last race as a Gator and wrapping up the third generation of Boyums and Varleys to swim for Northfield High School.
“They offered (for me to jump in),” Diane said, “but I like the senior center water temperature better.”
Diane, normally a fixture at Northfield’s home and away meets, was unable to attend any competitions all season because of COVID-19 safety protocols.
A special exception was negotiated for the section meet, and it resulted in a more appropriate send-off for the third generation than normally might have occurred.
“We never would have done that in Rochester, where the normal section meet is, and we couldn’t have done it at the (University of Minnesota),” Cindy said. “To have the final section meet in Northfield, at the Northfield pool with the girls and with my mom, you couldn’t have scripted it.”
Skip was never able to watch any of his granddaughters swim. After he retired from teaching and coaching in the spring of 1997, he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease on the ensuing Halloween and died two weeks later.
Hannah, the oldest granddaughter, was 1, and Cindy was pregnant with her second child, Benjamin, who as he grew up started to go by Skip.
So while neither of the four grandchildren have any memories of meeting their grandfather, they all still saw plenty of him going to and from the pool at Northfield Middle School, where a mural of Skip is painted on the wall next to the entrance to the pool.
“It was really special and kind of a little bragging rights,” Ellen said. “I remember even in gym class I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my grandpa over there,’ and then if you look in the side pictures you can see my oldest sister and my mom and my grandma.”
“When I started swimming, I didn’t really think about how his picture was on the wall,” Maya added. “It was just like, ‘Oh, I’m going to swim practice,’ but once you kind of find people that knew him, everybody always has something nice to say or has a story about something he did to make them feel really good. He just sounded like the most incredible person.”
Cindy was a competitive swimmer from an early age.
The third generation, however, took a bit longer to catch. Hannah was initially turned off from the sport, and while the three oldest grandchildren all learned the swim early on, none of them were angling to join the Northfield Swim Club.
Then, the family moved to a house without an outdoor pool when Ellen, the youngest, was a child, so she didn’t immediately learn to swim.
“Then she started swimming in swim club and she started, and then Maya started and Hannah started and (Benjamin) started,” Cindy said. “It’s funny that Ellen, the youngest one, was the one that started it because she went in and said, ‘This is fun, I like the water.’”
The carefree approach toward the sport quickly caught on with Maya and Benjamin, but Hannah took a bit longer to fully shed her reservations.
“I’m a super type-A person who’s like, ‘I have to be the best because my grandpa’s name was up there and my mom was this great athlete and I want to make my grandma proud,’” Hannah said. “My sisters were just having fun, and that made me want to go and remember that my grandpa would have wanted to make this fun and not, ‘You need to live up to me.’ He would have said, ‘Let’s make this fun.’”
That mentality was helped by Diane’s advice before each meet, which boiled down to, “Have fun, don’t drown.”
That’s also what Skip preached when he was coaching. Cindy remembers her father pulling athletes from other sports who weren’t receiving much playing time or burning out, and emphasizing there was always a place for them on his pool deck.
There was never outsized pressure on Cindy or her siblings to perform extraordinarily, and she strived to send the same message when she was coaching her children.
“We always knew that no matter what happened at any meet that you were loved exactly the same,” Cindy said. “Some people might wonder why we considered doing it or how we did it, and I’d do it again tomorrow. I’d coach my grandkids if I could. It doesn’t always work for every family, but they always knew like I always knew I was loved exactly the same by my mom and dad whether I made it to state or didn’t. It didn’t matter, you were always enough and you were always loved regardless.”