By Carlos Toro
The brakes on a bus failed in Flemington, New Jersey. The passengers were traveling home to Rider and had been on a bus for more than 12 hours.
It was mid-February, and in the freezing, bone-chilling weather, the passengers waited another hour for a new bus to arrive. But the new vehicle was also faulty — the driver couldn’t shut the door.
“At that point, you don’t mind riding home in a ‘convertible-style’ bus with the front door wide open, even if it’s 20 degrees out,” said Rider swimming and diving Head Coach Stephen Fletcher.
To everyone on that bus, the unlucky breaks did not overshadow the experience. Fletcher was proud of the young men and women inside the bus, and the students had much to thank him for.
They were returning from the 2016 MAAC Championships, with the men’s team winning its fifth straight MAAC title while the women finished in second.
Fletcher’s résumé is as good as any for a head coach in college swimming: eight MAAC championships, an ECAC championship and three straight MAAC Coach of the Year awards.
But to a lot of his athletes, Fletcher is a fun, energetic coach that creates a team environment that everyone enjoys. He once took the team to the town of Rincon, Puerto Rico, in early January. Senior Erin Westcott remembers Fletcher singing a ‘60s song to liven the team’s spirits.
“It was a good time when we went on a training trip in Puerto Rico, and during our jog one morning, he started singing ‘Doo Wah Diddy’ the whole time,” Westcott said. “He knows how to bring the team up if we’re not feeling practice that day and make that much more enjoyable. It’s goofy and fun and none of us would want it any other way.”
Junior William Molloy says that Fletcher takes every opportunity to make the environment a fun one, but at the same time, recognizes that there are moments both the coaching staff and the team need to take seriously.
“The thing about him is that you can always joke around him,” Molloy said. “He’s a great guy and it’s almost like he is one of the swimmers. He knows when to act serious, but at any other time, you can always have fun with him.”
The times that Fletcher does act silly are the ones that athletes remember fondly. During practice, the swimmers are able to go and pick out music that will be played throughout the practice at the Richard Coppola Pool at the Maurer Center.
“My best memories of Fletch have to be the times that he spontaneously starts dancing or singing on the pool deck during practice,” Molloy said. “It makes us all laugh and lightens the mood of the day.”
The 45-year-old coach tries his hardest to build a lasting relationship with his swimmers, something that he values deeply. Senior Jeffrey Prichard calls Fletcher the best coach he’s ever had. Sophomore Zack Molloy says that Fletcher really cares about every individual in the program.
Creating those kinds of connections was something that Fletcher learned when he was an assistant coach at Rider from 1992-1997, under former Head Coach Richard Coppola.
“I really admired Coppola’s ability to create relationships with his athletes,” Fletcher said. “It brings the best out of the athletes. It helps create a better team, and I don’t think I’ve mastered that at all. Coaching is not a transaction. It is a human relationship. That’s what attracted me to coaching in the first place.”
Even with his well polished résumé, Fletcher admits that he encounters problems as a coach. His attention to detail, according to him, has been the secret to him doing so well.
“I beat myself up for not giving a good pre-game speech,” Fletcher said. “I’m terrible at halftime locker room and pre-game speeches. It really bothers me that I can’t do that well. But I think what we do well is the daily stuff.”
But even so, Fletcher says that the program would not be where it is if it was not for the efforts of the athletes who have been under his tutelage. During Fletcher’s tenure as head coach, 47 of the 48 records at Rider were set.
Fletcher doesn’t rest on his laurels, and sometimes, he thinks about what he needs to do to maintain the level of success that he has obtained thus far. But at the same time, he thinks of it as a reminder that there is still work left to be done.
“In terms of championships, I would like the men and women to win together,” Fletcher said. “That’s a real challenge. There aren’t many combined programs with one coaching staff that are able to pull it off. Every day, or even in the middle of the night, you wonder if you can repeat the same thing you’ve done, and it is still a nightmare of sorts. As long as I’m waking up in the middle of the night and having that nightmare, there is still work left to be done.”
He believes that the success of the program is a result of the athletes’ hard work and effort, and is blessed to coach teams that have won many championships.
“As a coach, you’re only as good as the athletes,” Fletcher said. “They are really guiding the direction of the program. They just make the coaches look good, and we’re lucky that we have such a great group.”
The long bus rides to different meets off-state can get boring. Fletcher remedies that with his own brand of creativity. He already knows that he’s not great with speeches, so he plays punk rock music for the team to listen to. His favorite piece is “Shark Attack” by the Bouncing Souls, which has turned into a sort of official team song.
“I’m a big fan of punk rock,” Fletcher said. “I shouldn’t be, with me being 45 years old, but I like to impose my musical tastes on the athletes as a way for them to try new things.”
Some laugh, some aren’t into it, some are. But they’ve all accepted it as another part of his personality. The bus ride home may not help swimmers shave seconds off of their backstroke, but it’s the little things that Fletcher emphasizes that have made the difference in these students’ college experience.