Thomas Jefferson High School finally gets its pool
Twenty-one years ago, John Penn made a commitment to the TJ swimming community that he would be there to see them get a pool of their own.
Not even a move to Florida could keep the TJ swimming and diving head coach away from being there this year when the Jaguars made their first splash in TJ waters.
On Oct. 28, Penn joined more than 30 TJ swimmers as they jumped in unison for the first time into Thomas Jefferson High School’s inaugural pool inside the district’s $95 million building that opened to students this year.
“It’s the end goal. This is what he’s been working for for over two decades, and he finally gets to see it come true,” said Rebecca Penn Hoffmann, a 2005 TJ graduate and one of the school’s early swimmers, who also is Coach Penn’s youngest daughter.
Getting a pool of their own has been a long time in coming for TJ swimmers. For its first 60 years, Thomas Jefferson High School didn’t have a pool.
In 1998, a group of parents, including Penn, petitioned the West Jefferson Hills School Board — and got permission — to start a high school swim team. Many had kids who were participating in aquatic clubs in South Park or Baldwin and wanted to continue swimming into high school, Penn said.
For Penn, at first it was his daughters, Krissy and Rebecca, that he wanted to be able to swim into their high school years. Today, it’s his family of TJ swimmers — the entire team — that is his reason why.
The TJ swimming and diving team launched in 1999, with lots of support from parents. Three dads volunteered as assistant coaches, including Penn, because there was only money to pay a head coach.
The district was supportive in making the TJ team a reality, said Penn, who is known fondly as “J.P.” to the team.
With no TJ pool, the team was initially bused six days a week to Ringgold High School to use their facilities. Later, they moved to Steel Valley, where they rented time in the pool for nearly 10 years, before moving to Elizabeth Forward for the past 10 years.
While Penn praises the other schools for being great hosts, not having their own pool meant that TJ swimmers had to learn time management.
For the past 10 years, they would get on a bus at TJ at 4:15 p.m. five days a week, only to return to the at 7:30 p.m. In that time, they got in 90 minutes of practice, said Penn, who has been coaching the team for 21 years, the last six as head coach. On Saturdays, it was a similar routine.
While the team has excelled over the years, winning girls’ section championships and WPIAL championships, its numbers have “ebbed and flowed” as students knew there was an added time commitment to partake in the team.
Through that, the team bonded, Penn said. Each year, he watched as students improved, not just in the water, but also as they grew into adults.
“You see them become better athletes. You see them become better people, in general. You challenge them,” Penn said. “The camaraderie of the team here — they’re behind their teammates 100%,” he said.
The goal has always been for TJ to get a pool of its own, Penn said.
While parents had a swim facility designed on the old Thomas Jefferson High School property, the idea was halted when funding sources stopped being available after 9/11.
After that, parents were told the pool would come when a new high school was built.
As the new school at 830 Old Clairton Road became a reality over the past few years, Penn said the swim coaches were brought in to talk with architects about the design.
What was constructed far exceeds their expectations, he said. He raves about the eight-lane pool, something most South Hills schools do not have.
“This has just taken the lid off of what we can do here,” assistant coach Brian Peters said.
While coaches did their best to make Elizabeth Forward or Steel Valley feel like home for the team, and even hosted home meets at the respective schools, having their own pool means the team gets to have “pride in ownership,” Penn said.
For the coach, it’s also about pride, Penn Hoffmann said. “He has been so dedicated to this team for so many years,” she said.
The look on her dad’s face when he saw the TJ pool for the first time: “I’m pretty sure it was similar to the look he had when he walked me down the aisle. They might be a little hyperbolic. … But he was very proud.”
Penn, a 1977 TJ graduate, had planned with his wife, Donna, to move to Sarasota, Fla., after he retired from his job of 38 years with Eastman Chemical Co. This spring they found the perfect lot and moved forward with building their dream home. Everything was on schedule — except the opening of the new high school and the pool Penn has been waiting more than two decades for.
The opening of the new Thomas Jefferson High School, which was set for 2018-19, was delayed by a year. Penn still moved. But he had to return to be with the team and the pool in its first year.
“It was a commitment that I made, and I honored it,” he said. He hasn’t decided if he will stick around for more seasons.
That Penn is driving from Florida to Pittsburgh and staying with his daughter from November to March so he can coach the TJ swim team comes as no shock to his former swimmers.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t expect anything less from him,” said Elena Savikas, 18, who swam all four years at TJ and graduated in June.
“It just shows how he’s determined and that he’s proud of the team,” added Evan Savikas, 15, a TJ sophomore swimmer.
For current swimmers, Evan said, they’re excited that they no longer have to take the bus every day to practice.
With this, more kids plan to come out for the team. Winter sports starts Nov. 18. TJ will hold its first scrimmage Nov. 26.
Penn makes sure to give credit to everyone who has helped with the team over the years, from athletic director Bill Cherpak and his staff, who has challenged coaches to see improvements in their teams every year, to the boosters who provide unwavering support.
The new pool comes with a lot of big plans: Making sure every kid in the district can swim, launching a middle school team, training lifeguards and opening it up to the community.
“We’re ecstatic with what they’ve done,” Penn said.