OMAC Honoree’s First Love Was Swimming

Angelika Cruz coaches at the Y and teaches Spanish in Montauk
Angelika Cruz coaches the Hurricanes’ 7-through-11-year-old swimmers four times a week for an hour and a half at the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter. Jack Graves

Angelika Cruz was honored recently as the Old Montauk Athletic Club’s female athlete of the year for her top-notch triathlon finishes in 2018, an honor all the more notable for the fact that teaching, coaching, and parenting leave little time to train.

And yet Cruz, who teaches Spanish at the Montauk School, coaches the youngest group of the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter’s youth swim team, the Hurricanes — a team that includes her 10-year-old daughter, Daisy Pitches — did indeed do exceptionally well in the half-dozen East End endurance events she entered this past year, topping her age group each time and frequently finishing among the female division’s top 10 over all. 

She was especially happy, she said during a conversation over the weekend, to have won the Steve Tarpinian award (named after the late triathlon promoter and internationally known swimming coach), given to the top female swimmer in the Montauk Lighthouse Sprint triathlon.

Swimming, Cruz said, is her first love. “I think it’s the best sport ever. It’s about much more than medals. It teaches you time management, about setting goals and learning how to reach them, and it also teaches you how to handle disappointment — all valuable lessons in life.”

She began her swimming education, she said, when, at the age of 6, a coach who’d seen her taking lessons tapped her for the highly competitive summer league team in Pocantico Hills, in Westchester County.

Yanked out of her comfort zone, she was scared, and protested, not having any idea, she said, what to do. “What’s a team?” she said. 

“I was half-turned, arguing that I didn’t want to take my T-shirt off, when the race, one freestyle lap, started. My coach had to push me off the block.”

“I swam as fast as I could — it was a 25-yard pool, much shorter than the 50-meter Olympic-sized one we swam in, one of the few 50-meter pools then in the county. John D. Rockefeller had built it for his employees. . . . I was wiping my eyes — there was a debate about goggles then and I wasn’t wearing them — at the end of the race when I saw a woman staring at me. I was so shy then. She said, ‘What’s your name?’ I told her, but my name was not an easy one. Then she gave me a stick with a line on it. I didn’t know what it was for. Then my coach came over and told me I’d won! I was sold from that moment!” Cruz said with a bright smile. “I won a big ribbon, which I still have. I never looked back.”

At 6, then, she had begun to learn that “when you’re on the block, you’re on your own. It’s you and the clock and that’s it.” No excuses, no one else to blame or to complain about. Disappointed you were disqualified because in the butterfly you didn’t touch the wall with both hands? Don’t mope, you’ve learned from it. Get back up on the block.

At 14, Cruz switched from a White Plains Y team to the Badger Swim Club in Larchmont, “one of the oldest and most successful swim clubs in America,” according to its website. 

“There were a lot of college swimmers and Olympians. I felt so slow my first day there. . . .”

Lea Loveless Maurer, one of Cruz’s Badger Swim Club teammates, an Olympic gold medal winner at Barcelona in 1992, and the former coach of Stanford’s outstanding women’s team, told Hurricane clinic-takers here recently that her teenage summers spent swimming (with Cruz) for the Badgers were the best times of their lives.

On graduating from Brown University, where Cruz swam “anything from the 200 on up,” and where she majored in history, she forsook the pool for the outdoors, triathloning, with great success, in Southern California, and later, once she’d decided to become a teacher rather than a lawyer, scuba diving, mountain climbing, trail running, and hiking — and teaching English at the American School in Guayaquil — for six years in Ecuador, after which she returned to the U.S. for a master’s degree in education at N.Y.U.

“I was very happy I became a teacher . . . it can be frustrating, as any parent will tell you, but it’s a wonderful thing, the most important thing. . . . I teach Spanish to all ages at Montauk, and sometimes I’ll teach a computer class in the younger grades. It’s a tiny K-8 school that reminds me of the one I went to in Pocantico Hills. Like John D. Rockefeller, Carl Fisher built this one — both are in the Tudor style — for the employees of his who lived in Shepherd’s Neck.”

She would, Cruz said, in answer to a question, advise any English-speaking students here to plunge in when it comes to speaking Spanish. Persistence, and good humor regarding mistakes, would win the day.

And now to Daisy, who’s following in her mother’s footsteps. “I put her in the water at 6 months, and she loved it. She was so comfortable. . . . When she was 1, she kept her face in the water so long that I had to keep checking that she wasn’t growing gills! I was always nearby. Then she developed the strength in her neck so that she could pull up to get a breath. We sometimes were in the kids’ pool for four hours. She loved it. Friends would hold her so I could go swim. She’d watch, and do what I was doing in the kiddie pool. Most 2-year-olds will do a few strokes and then bring their head up — Daisy always breathed from the side.”

Daisy joined the Hurricanes at 7, and it is those younger ones, the 7-through-11-year-olds, primarily, whom Cruz, who used to help John McGeehan with the girls varsity team, coaches.

“I love my group [of about 23]. We practice four days a week for an hour and a half, September through March.” She had, she said, taken a number of them with her to the Red Devil and Montauk Playhouse ocean swims last summer.

In answer to a question, Cruz said that “the Hurricane parents,” in contrast to some she’d seen not long ago in Westchester, “are very supportive, very laid-back. It may have something to do with our being a little more isolated. No one feels they have to prove something or needs to put on a show. That kind of thing leads to burnout.”

She agreed that, because of the Hurricanes’ increasing successes, swimming has become East Hampton High School’s strongest sport. And the nice thing was, she said, that “anybody can do it, and for their whole lives.”

A friend of hers who had been a sprinter in college and who, following a long hiatus, had begun masters training at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Conn., reported proudly that he had swum a hundred 100s, a Chelsea Piers tradition, this New Year’s Day. “He said he wouldn’t have been able to do that four or five years ago. It goes to show you, if you try to make the effort, it’s never too late. He’s 51, two years older than me.”

She, as a matter of fact, was another example. “Two women who were training for their first triathlons at the Y a few years ago asked me why I didn’t do them. I told them I didn’t have the time to train. They said, ‘Who cares? Do it for fun.’ And they were right. I did the swim leg in a relay that year in the Lighthouse Sprint, and came out of the water in first place . . . of all the women. I might have beaten the men too. And our relay won! We were ecstatic. My friends were right — who cares? Have fun.”

Despite not having any time to train, Angelika Cruz, who teaches, coaches, and is the mother of a 10-year-old, has been doing very well in triathlons and ocean swims here, and having fun. Jack Graves