WHEN SEAMUS McAnee embarked on a family trip to the United States in 1981, little did he know it would mark the beginning of a remarkable relationship which would last for 35 years!
A chance meeting with American, Bill Nunnally in the doorway of a pub in Belmar, Central Jersey, set the wheels in motion for an annual swimming trip which would have a lasting effect on members of City of Derry Swimming Club.
The first trip to the States in July 1982 involved 24 swimmers and seven coaches and chaperones from the William Street club who spent two weeks with host families in Philadelphia and Avon-By-The-Sea in New Jersey - the first time an Irish swim club had undertaken such a venture.
Since then the club has been responsible for around 300 Derry youngsters making the annual excursion to the United States until 2015 when it staged its final trip.
Next Wednesday, December 27th at the City Hotel at 7.30 p.m. some of the American host families and past and present members of City of Derry Swimming Club will reunite to revive memories of those ‘magical’ summer trips.
It’s set to be a special occasion for the club, which brings to an end its 57th year, as they gather to celebrate the first ever reunion of ‘Team USA’ and bring together those who participated between 1982 and 2015.
The American trip plays a huge part in the history of the club and was the brainchild of both Seamus and coach, Carmel Gorman who felt the need to revive the interest in swimming in the city during the time of the Hunger Strikes in the Maze prison, as conflict raged in N. Ireland.
It was a chance to escape the unrest of the Troubles and the interest the trips abroad generated kept the club afloat during those uncertain times. It also gave swimmers a chance to experience a different culture and train with Olympic coaches.
Some of those members who experienced the memorable trips are now spread across the globe in places like Cork, London, California, Atlanta, France and the Philippines and it’s hoped they can make the journey home to meet up with some old friends and familiar faces this Christmas.
The yearly American trips proved life-changing for several members who decided to uproot and set up new lives in the United States, including Seamus’ own son, Jim who was on the original trip and now lives in New Jersey. Lasting relationships were formed between host families and swimmers, many of whom travelled back and forth for social occasions.
One of the club’s most high profile swimmers, Ryan Harrison who once held three Irish swimming records and former Ulster champion, Adam McNulty also benefited from the annual City of Derry trips to Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore. Both are currently based in the States, in Atlanta and California respectively.
Club Secretary, Seamus, recalls how the connection with Nunnally was made all those years ago, in 1979, when he went on a singing trip with the Sean O’Neill Band to Belmar with his late wife, Margaret and their children Linda and John.
He then formed a relationship with internationally renown swimming coach, Dick Shoulberg, who had four men on the 1992 American Olympic team, and the deal was done.
“I had been in America singing in 1976 and in 1979 I went to a place called Belmar in New Jersey and stayed there for six weeks with a group from Belfast. During that time I went out for a walk along with Margaret and went into a pub called Reggies. I was standing at the door and a guy came over to me and asked if I was the singer in the hotel the previous night. He introduced himself as Bill Nunnally and I built up a friendship with him. He had two sons who were swimming and I had John and Linda with me who were also swimming. I asked him about training for them while I was there and he made arrangements through his connections with Avon Swimming Club for them to go there to train. I wrote to him in 1980 and asked if he would be interested in a team coming out. I also had a connection with Dick Shoulberg who was an American Olympic Swim coach. He had a set up in Philadelphia called Germantown Academy Aquatic Club and I contacted him. He agreed he would take them as well and would make arrangements for the children to be housed in Philadelphia while Bill Nunnally arranged for them to be housed in Avon-by-the-Sea on the Jersey Shore.
We took part in mile ocean swims and some of the kids did very well. But the trip to New York, staying in the Halloran House Hotel and visiting the historic landmarks was probably the stand-out memory.Seamus McAnee
“We got it all fixed up, done the fundraising and got the money together and in 1981 for two weeks in July we stayed in America. We stayed eight days in Philadelphia and seven days in Avon.”
The club were greeted by New Jersey State Governor, Tom Kean in a trip in 1984, went on boat trips on Jersey Shore and took in a New York Yankees game - just some of the highlights of the 35 year programme.
“We took part in mile ocean swims and some of the kids did very well,” added Seamus. “But the trip to New York, staying in the Halloran House Hotel and visiting the historic landmarks was probably the stand-out memory.
“We stayed for about four weeks from around 1990 and were put up in houses and entertained at baseball matches, water parks around the Jersey Shore. And that continued for 35 years.”
In was very much a case of the luck of the Irish as the American connection grew despite Nunnelly’s children outgrowing the programme.
It was amazingly a bulletin on the door of St Catherine’s Church in Spring Lake which sparked the interest of a woman named Liz McNulty who had links with Derry and she and her husband became the cornerstone of the programme. She noticed the programme was seeking host families to carry on the tradition and jumped at the chance.
“Mark and Liz McNulty took over the organisation of the housing of the children,” continued Seamus. “We had nine years with Bill Nunnelly and 26 years with the McNultys and Matt and Betsy Sheprow who did most of the organisation. It lasted for 35 years.
“The people who were doing the organising of the housing, their families were getting older and they went out of the loop so it was getting harder to get houses for the kids and myself and Carmel weren’t getting any younger, so we called an end to it.”
The USA trip was a vital part of the success of City of Derry Swimming Club and Seamus is hoping past members can show their appreciation to some of those responsible at Wednesday’s reunion.
“We’re expecting over 100 to turn up but hopefully as many as possibly can for what should be a very special evening.”