Hoof Prints: ‘Grandpa,’ beloved coach talks about 70 years of swimming

Junior Sophia Bisch receives advice from assistant coach Elmer Luke on Nov. 9 before the Section Finals meet. (Photo by Vickey Weiss)
Junior Sophia Bisch receives advice from assistant coach Elmer Luke on Nov. 9 before the Section Finals meet. (Photo by Vickey Weiss)


This piece is provided by Hoof Prints, a partnership between the Stillwater Gazette and The Pony Express, Stillwater Area High School’s student newspaper.

“Swimming has been my life — I never get tired of it,” said Elmer Luke, who volunteers as assistant coach for the Stillwater Area High School swim and dive teams. Known as “Grandpa” by the swimmers, Elmer Luke, father of coach Brian Luke, has a lifelong history of being involved in the sport.

He first began swimming in high school and was the state champion of the 220 freestyle.

After high school he fought in World War II. During that time he joined a military swim team and competed in the Pacific Army Olympics.

Upon coming home, he returned to swimming at Gustavus Adolphus College. He held school records in multiple events for many years.

Graduated and married, Luke transitioned from a swimmer to a coach. He was hired as assistant coach at Hopkins-Lindbergh. Thirteen years later he became the new head coach of Hopkins when the high school split into two. In 1972 girls swimming started and so did the legacy. Luke holds the current Minnesota record for dual meet wins with 124. During that winning streak his teams won 13 conference championships, five regional titles, two state crowns and produced 14 all-American swimmers. He was named Coach of the Year in 1979 and again in 1980. In 1990 he was inducted into the Minnesota Coaches Swimming Hall of Fame.

While still coaching, Luke was diagnosed with myositis, a progressive muscle weakening disease. He decided to not let it get the best of him and continued coaching. After retirement, he moved down to Florida with his wife and returned to swimming. A natural competitor, he joined the Mavericks, part of U.S. Masters’ Swimming, a league for older swimmers, and went on to the national meet. The Mavericks were national champions the two years Luke was on the team.

Although he enjoyed swimming and retirement, he yearned to return to coaching.

“It’s in my blood. I enjoy doing it, working with kids,” Luke said.

So he called up his son and started the next day. He’s been volunteering as assistant coach for the Stillwater Ponies ever since.

“My favorite team is the one that I’m coaching,” Luke said. “I’ve had some great teams. Great swimmers. Great gals. Great guys. But now it’s Stillwater, and they’re my team.”

Luke is a strong believer in encouraging. He thinks it is the most powerful tool for coaching.

Senior Kristin Erf can attest to this.

“Some of the best advice Grandpa has ever given me is to believe that I can go as fast as I want and that nothing is impossible. He encourages me to visualize the perfect race.”

Luke loves to see it when the entire team comes together to win something. He and his son Brian are more team-orientated and believe in no-cut teams. Both of them were on the committee for bringing True Team State to the sport of swimming nine years ago. In True Team State the whole team qualifies, not just a single athlete.

Elmer Luke has been coaching so long he seems to know all the tricks of the trade. But what really makes him a great coach is the compassion he has for his swimmers.

“Before state this year he told us that he believed in every single one of us and that it was an honor to coach such amazing swimmers,” Erf said. “Grandpa is the perfect coach. He supports you, he tells you what to improve on, but most importantly believes in you.”

With his myositis progressing, Luke’s future is uncertain.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll do this,” said Luke, who is unable to walk anymore because he has almost no muscle left in his body. “I’m 87 years old. I may be fooling myself, but I still think I have a mind. And I have desire.”

“I don’t have to walk around,” he said. “I can just wheel myself. The kids don’t mind that I’m in a wheelchair. I may miss occasional meet if it’s hard to get to, but I make most of all of them.”

Luke said he is bothered that his disease is hereditary.

“I don’t want that to happen to my kids and grandkids,” he said.

Time will tell if his kids inherit the disease, but he certainly passed on his love of swimming.

“Swimming was my life and my kids’ life,” he said.

Elmer Luke plans to coach with his son as long as possible.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m 87 years old,” he said.”I don’t know what 87 is supposed to be like — like this I guess. If it weren’t for this muscle disease, I’d be great. But I got it, and you live accordingly.”

As he spoke, he wheeled over to grab his jacket to attend the boys’ swim and dive practice, where he would spread words of encouragement and his love of swimming.