By JOHN GORALSKI
Matt Crispino slipped into the pool like a Navy Seal and clawed his way toward the frontrunners at the 1999 Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) conference meet. All around him, scholarship swimmers were straining to find an edge in the water, but Crispino—a freshman—was matching them stroke-for-stroke.
He shot into the turn as if he was angry at the wall, and he exploded in the opposite direction like a missile. The freshman swimmer didn’t win his leg of the 800 freestyle relay, but he was right there at the front and put his team in a position to set a school record that took more than a decade to break.
“Those three guys that were part of that relay with me were three of the best that we ever had here. It was pretty special to be a part of that,” he said. “I thought we’d break it again the next year, but we actually went a little slower. I certainly didn’t think that it would be a record as long as it was.”
It might have surprised Crispino, but it was no surprise to his former teammates at Southington High School. In a sport that has always had to fight to be noticed, Crispino helped put swimming on the map. Sure, there were pioneers before him, but anybody that followed swimming at the turn of the millennium knows that Crispino lifted the sport to a different level…and hasn’t stopped.
It may surprise fans that it wasn’t love at first sight when he first spied the YMCA pool at his rookie Stingrays practice. After all, soccer was the sport that danced through his daydreams.
“I wasn’t naturally gifted. I was actually afraid of the water when I was really young, so it’s sort of ironic that I ended up doing what I’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s a hard sport. It’s not like you’re out there playing a game. You’re pretty much out there grinding away and training all the time. That can be monotonous and boring, so it took a while for me to learn to love it.”
On the other hand, success didn’t take long to find him. His Stingray teams dominated the regional YMCA competitions, and Crispino was holding his own against more experienced swimmers. By the time he was 10 years old, the fledgling swimmer had already worked his way onto the Connecticut team roster.
It was no surprise to Don Prigitano, Crispino’s coach on the Stingrays, and later, at the high school. “You could see just by the way he went about it when you gave him instructions and workouts that he was going to be good,” said the coach. “I don’t recall ever hearing that it’s too hard or he can’t do it, like you get from some kids that aren’t as dedicated. He epitomized everything that a coach would want in an athlete.”
Soon, it was apparent that soccer would have to be his secondary sport. Crispino was making waves in the program and burst onto the high school scene. He was part of that first freshman class to attend all four years at the high school, and Crispino hit the ground running.
“You could see his work ethic right away, the retention of stroke analysis, and his ability to make adjustments,” said Prigitano. “He just started picking it up and became a fish in the water. As he got older, he really put on a little weight and the training that he did just intensified. What you gave him to do, he did. He never short-changed you.”
It paid off right away. In his freshman year, Crispino qualified for the state open in the 500 freestyle. In his sophomore year, he snatched the Class LL title and led the Blue Knights to their first of three consecutive conference titles.
For three seasons, Crispino held a stranglehold over the signature distance event, collecting a trio of Class LL titles in the 500 free and working his way to second place in the 200 free and the 500 free at the state open championships. In the 200 free, he finished second to John Waters, a future all-American at Stanford. In the 500 free, he was edged by Dan Shevchik, a future all-American at Harvard.
“I did not go on to be an all-American, but I felt like I was in good company to get beat by those guys,” he said. “It was fun. They were two of the better swimmers that Connecticut produced, and it felt good to know that I could compete at that level.”
It was no surprise that colleges wanted to get a hold of Southington’s rising star. Crispino waded through a wave of offers—some from top schools with smaller swim teams, others from lesser schools with powerhouse programs. He settled into William & Mary for its mix of athletics and academics, and the Southington star held his own at the tiny division one program.
“I wanted to find a place to combine really good academics with a high level of swimming—preferably division one,” he said. “I went from being one of the best at the high school level to being at the lower end of the roster when I got to college. It was a complete shock to the system. The training was different. The team environment was different, and the coaching was different. It was a real shock at first. It took a little while to adapt.”
But it didn’t take long. In his first collegiate race, Crispino led off an 800 freestyle relay that won the event and clinched a dual meet victory over Virginia Tech. Crispino went on to set the school record in the event before shrugging off the spotlight for the good of his team.
Over his four-year college career, Crispino bounced from the 500m to the mile and filled in wherever they needed him. As a senior, he dropped six seconds in the 200 individual medley, an event he hadn’t even practiced since high school.
“If you’re swimming at this level, you really need to be disciplined, and you need to have good time management skills,” he said. “At William & Mary, the academic workload can be overwhelming at times, but your coaches are still going to expect 20 hours a week of your time in the pool or weight room. There’s really no break from it, so it has to be something you love. You have to be surrounded by good teammates that support and encourage you along the way, and really good coaches that keep you motivated and focused at times when it gets tough.”
Crispino grew to love the process, and he quickly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches. He worked his way up to captain in his senior season. His efforts in the pool, in practice, and with his teammates earned him recognition as the team’s Most Valuable Swimmer. He didn’t know it at the time, but Crispino was already starting to transition into a second career as a coach and mentor.
“My dad’s an attorney, so my original plan was to go to law school or something along those lines. As I really thought about it, the only thing that I was really passionate about was athletics—swimming for sure—but athletics in general,” he said. “I wanted to keep working with college sports. I didn’t know if it would be coaching, administration, or something else, but I thought that, if I could find a way to work in college sports, that would be a dream scenario.”
As a graduate student at Florida State University, Crispino got his chance as a graduate assistant. The following year, he landed at West Point as an assistant men’s and women’s coach for a three-year stint, followed by a short stop as the Colgate University head coach in 2006, before receiving a call from William & Mary the following summer.
Crispino jumped at the chance to return to his alma mater to finish what he started
as a student.
“He came to us as a very young coach with a program that had some turnover, but he established himself pretty quickly on the deck—not only technically—but with all the other elements that it takes to really coach a team well,” said William & Mary Athletic Director Terry Driscoll. “He provided leadership to develop a very positive training and working environment and a very positive team image. He’s worked really, really hard with his assistants to provide all of the individual training and teaching that’s necessary when you’re a swimmer.”
It was a grassroots process. The program doesn’t have athletic scholarships, but they compete in a conference that’s littered with scholarship swimmers. The Tribe doesn’t have a dedicated practice pool, a team locker room, or any of the perks that come at some of the bigger division one programs in the conference, but the young coach embraced the challenge.
“It all happened really quickly,” he said. “I had no assistant coach, and I had no idea what I was doing as the head coach. It was a whirlwind that first year, but I was really happy to be here.”
Once again, it didn’t take long for Crispino to make his mark. Over the next eight years, the coach assembled a staff, recruited young swimmers, and built a men’s program that went from last place in the CAA to a first place finish in 2015. His women’s teams are just a step behind, claiming winning records in almost every season and finishing in the top 4 of the conference in each of his eight seasons at the helm.
“Our goal was always to have swimmers, individually, be able to compete at the national level, and we have done that,” he said. “We’ve had people at the NCAA championships. We’ve had people at the Olympic Trials and at Nationals. It’s nice to see a school like William & Mary, that’s small by division one standards and doesn’t even offer scholarships, to be able to compete at times with some of those big guns.”
Between practices, Crispino has served as school ambassador for a national anti-hazing campaign. Coupled with his success in the pool, his efforts earned him recognition as the CAA Men’s Swimming Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2015.
“He has the ability, not only to coach them with their technique, but to work with the mental part of swimming that’s so important,” said Driscoll. “He has a coaching maturity that’s been demonstrated by his success. He means a great deal to our program and the coaches here, and he’s a great resource for all of our coaches.”
It’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee took notice, naming Crispino as a member of the Class of 2015 and the first swimmer in the town’s hall of fame. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“It’s very humbling to find out that my swimming and coaching career are well-thought of in Southington,” he said. “I went on the website and saw some of the ones that are in it already—just to be mentioned in the same breath with those folks is incredibly humbling.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640. To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.