Friday, December 8, 2023

WAC Fires Founder Harold Baker, Sparks Outrage Among Members

A young girl holds up a sign support Harold Baker. (Ty Hodges/WYDaily)
« of 6 »
Harold Baker poses with a trio of young swimmers. (Submitted)
Harold Baker poses with a trio of young swimmers. (Submitted)

The Williamsburg Aquatic Club Board of Directors terminated the employment of Coach Harold Baker, who founded the club in 1979, on Tuesday morning.

Members of WAC received an email at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday under the subject line “Important WAC Announcement.” The email outlined three “gaps” within the program the Board of Directors said had been met with resistance or indifference from Baker: failure to certify coaches, failure to support/implement best practices and poor communication.

“Our vision now is to continue to provide a club that is inclusive to all swimmers, regardless of ability,” the email read. “The difference will be a focus on providing structure that will better address club management to include: dry/wet side administration, safety, and effective communication to parents and swimmers.

In the email, the board mentioned how failing to have certified coaches could lead to the club having its liability coverage from USA Swimming removed.

The Board also expressed its desire to operate under the USA Swimming “best practices,” which says two coaches or a coach and one adult should be present during practices. The email also cited poor communication that “causes confusion with scheduling, practice cancellation, and most importantly club response to safety concerns or mishaps.”

The email from the Board of Directors also said Baker will be retained as head coach through Aug. 2 “in order to attend Junior Nationals.”

Baker could not be reached for comment before the publication of this article. Rebecca Cristol, the president of the Board of Directors, refused to comment.

Sarah Podolin, a parent of two swimmers in WAC, said Baker sent an email to members last Sunday saying he was concerned his job as head coach with the club was in jeopardy.

Upon receiving this news from Baker, outraged members of WAC began an outpouring of support on WAC’s official Facebook page, which page administrators began removing.

“We tried to respond on the Facebook page and our posts were blocked,” Podolin said. “We were told we were being divisive when all that we’ve been requesting is transparency from the board as to the reasons behind their decisions. They’ve refused to give that to us.”

In response to the deletion of posts on the WAC Facebook page, Podolin started a counter page called Williamsburg Aquatic Club Concerned Parents and Alumni where current and former members are encouraged to come voice their opinions on the state of affairs within WAC and show support for Baker.

Despite the creation of the protest Facebook page, the Board of Directors went forward with the termination of Baker on Tuesday.

After receiving the notice of Baker’s termination, more than 100 concerned parents and swimmers held an impromptu rally in support of Baker at the Eastern State Hospital swimming pool, known simply as “the bubble.”

The rally was initially meant to be held in conjunction with a coaches-only meeting that was scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. Tuesday. The meeting was not held at that location.

Instead, young and old alike turned out to the rally with signs in their hands and tears in their eyes. With emotions swelling, members of WAC stood on a picnic table outside the gates of the pool and voiced their concerns with the Board of Directors.

“Without Harold Baker, we have no WAC. I don’t care what they call it, I don’t care what they do. Harold Baker is the institution of the Williamsburg Aquatic Club,” Patrick Sensiba said to a chorus of applause and cheers. “Harold deserves our support, and we deserve Harold.”

Betsy Lavin, a former WAC swimmer that coached with Baker for seven years, was unable to make it through her speech, overcome with emotion and tears.

“[My three kids] love Harold, I love Harold, my entire family loves Harold,” she said. “This disgusts me.”

One of the biggest complaints voiced during the rally was an overall lack of transparency from the Board of Directors, as well as a failure to act in the best interest of and cooperate with the whole membership.

“A group of parents, a small minority, maybe six parents, decided they don’t like the way [Baker is] running the top group, and they wanted him out,” Lavin told WYDaily. “The meetings have happened in secret. There have been no minutes kept. The membership was not informed of any of this.”

In addition to offering their thoughts about Baker’s firing and the Board of Directors, the protesters collected 97 signatures on a petition that hopes to reinstate Baker as the head coach.

Those in attendance at the rally were not the only ones upset at Baker’s firing.

The Board of Directors, which normally consists of five members, has seen one member – Member At-Large Kara Burrows – resign from her position on the board, while another – Treasurer Anna Kostelni – is in the process of resigning over the decision.

“I resigned 10 days ago because I’m in full support of Harold,” Burrows said.

Since Tuesday’s rally, the concerned members have put together an action plan they hope to fulfill. The plan includes reinstating Baker as the head coach, dissolving the Board of Directors in its entirety, expanding the future board to seven members, amending the future board’s makeup, rewriting WAC bylaws and creating a fund to help cover Baker’s legal expenses, if necessary.

Two petitions have been added online, one to reinstate Harold Baker and one to dissolve the Board of Directors.

The group also plans to organize a members-only meeting with the remaining Board of Directors members to discuss the issues listed above.

In order to organize a meeting, Podolin said, a letter including five signatures from active WAC members in good standing must be sent to the president of the Board of Directors. The meeting can take place no sooner than 10 days after the letter has been received by the Board and the Board must provide written or electronic notice of proposed changes to all members at least 10 days before meeting.

At the meeting, Podolin hopes to conduct a vote to dissolve the current Board of Directors, which she said would require a two-thirds majority of all members in attendance at the meeting, a number she is confident they will receive given Tuesday’s show of support in favor of Baker.

Should the Board of Directors uphold Baker’s firing, some parents have already decided they would pull their kids from participating in WAC swimming.

“Under the direction of the board and the current decision at this point, my family will no longer support the board or swim for what they are identifying as WAC,” said Jenny Olsen, a mother of three kids who have competed under Baker.

In addition to Baker’s firing, Lavin told WYDaily that board members have been engaging in recruiting activities, which she said are against USA Swimming regulations.

At one point, according to Lavin, a board member served as an assistant coach without holding the proper certifications. Lavin took issue with this, citing the hypocrisy of firing Baker over uncertified coaches when a board member was coaching uncertified.

“If we have uncertified coaches on deck, we can be sued by USA Swimming if something happens,” Lavin told WYDaily. “The board and coaches were under the impression you only need one certified coach on deck, but it’s their job to know the rules and regulations and to make sure we are in compliance with the rules. As soon as the board and the staff learned the club wasn’t in compliance, the coaching staff took the necessary steps to make sure all coaches became certified before returning to work.”

Lavin asserts all current coaches with WAC are properly certified.

The meeting between the Board of Directors and members has not yet been set.

Correction: The status of certified coaches in WAC at this time has been updated. Previous versions of this story were unclear of the coaching certifications of current coaches.

Related Articles