St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, head varsity football coach Rich Carroll is so passionate about the school’s sports program that he was willing to risk his life for its betterment.
Coach Carroll took part Aug. 7 in the annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim – a 2-mile swim across the San Francisco Bay from the infamous Alcatraz federal prison to the St. Francis Yacht Club.
Yes, you read that correctly. “Sharkfest” gets its name from the shark-infested waters that surround the island, not to mention the heavy rip currents and low visibility to swimmers. Because Carroll lives and breathes St. Francis Prep, the Sharkfest swim was no match for this dedicated coach.
From 1934 until the prison closed in 1963, 36 prisoners attempted to escape the maximum-security prison at Alcatraz. Most of them were either caught or did not survive. On the night of June 12, 1962, the Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris successfully completed their “great escape” from Alcatraz, and the Sharkfest Swim follows their route.
The swim became a challenging athletic event for only the most experienced swimmers. Sharkfest is an open-water tour group that guides the swimmers throughout the course and has safety teams and shark spotters at the ready in case “Jaws” makes an appearance.
During Carroll’s swim, he said he didn’t see any sharks but did see a few sea lions. The most challenging parts, he said, were the strong currents and low temperature of the water.
“It was intense,” Carroll said. “That was the coldest water I had ever been in. But it makes you alert!”
Swimmers had 75 minutes to complete the course, which was closed off to boats during that time. This was Carroll’s first open-water swim event, so the training in the ocean off the Rockaways and Long Beach, L.I., certainly came in handy as he dove in.
“There’s no floating,” Carroll said. “This was absolutely not the lazy river. I had to get in there and get going.”
A former member of St. Francis Prep’s swim team, Carroll has been coaching football at the Prep for 20 years. He took over the varsity program in the fall of 2015 following the passing of the late great Vince O’Connor, who coached the Terriers for 62 years.
Carroll recently became an avid swimmer once again. The 54-year-old coach had total knee replacement surgery in 2019, and his doctor advised him that swimming would be an effective form of physical therapy.
Still, even if the Alcatraz swim was a bucket-list challenge for Carroll, the question remained: Why swim 2 miles – the equivalent of 35 football fields – through treacherous rip currents potentially surrounded by Great Whites when you could just as easily enjoy the calmer waters of a controlled swimming pool?
Well, being a competitive person goes hand-in-hand with being a football coach, so Carroll accepted this challenge head on as he began training last summer.
“If your goals don’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough,” he said.
The swim wound up taking on a greater meaning for the Prep’s sports program. Carroll turned his participation into a fundraiser for a portable scoreboard to be placed at the school’s freshmen/junior varsity home football field at 73rd Avenue and Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens – which also serves as a baseball, soccer, and lacrosse field.
“Every year when I’m watching the St. Francis Prep freshmen and JV football games, I’m asking people what the score is,” Carroll said. “And every year I say we have to get a scoreboard.”
Even before diving into the San Francisco Bay, Carroll had eclipsed his $10,000 fundraising goal thanks to the enormous support from the St. Francis Prep community – especially the Friends of St. Francis Football, a group that works to enhance the experience of Terriers student-athletes.
“I watched the fundraiser grow week after week,” Carroll said. “The amount of support for these kids and for what we’re doing is just tremendous. I could feel the Prep community behind me when I was going out on the ferry to start the swim.”
As he looks back at this “magical” experience as he called it, Carroll will always cherish the encouragement and support he received along the journey from the St. Francis Prep faithful.
Soon when he watches the freshmen and junior varsity football games, not only will he know the score, but he’ll also be reminded of the time he pulled off the “great escape” swim from Alcatraz.
That’s a memory that will never “escape” him.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.