South Charlotte

'My kids have always made me look good'

In her 14-year career as Providence High's head boys' and girls' swim coach, Sandy Martin has won 13 state championships (10 girls, 3 boys) and led the Panthers to a combined 24 regional championships and 25 Southwestern 4A conference titles.

While most swimmers and colleagues would point to her as the constant in Providence's success, she is quick to credit others.

"I've been very lucky to have been the coach at Providence," Martin said. "The wealth of talent that we have had come through here is amazing. My kids have always made me look good."

Martin's hundreds of swimmers would be even quicker to give credit to the coach who has guided more than a decade of Panthers to statewide dominance.

Ardrey Kell head swim coach William Keith knows all about the Panthers' winning tradition.

"Southwestern 4A swimming has always been about Providence," said Keith, who swam for Martin from 1998 to 2001. "Coach Martin has been a huge part of Providence swimming. She really unified the team and got them to focus on one common goal: winning. Her success speaks for itself."

Martin, 58, a 1970 South Mecklenburg graduate, didn't grow up as a swimmer. Martin was a head cheerleader on the Sabre squad, something she said still helps her today.

"Being a cheerleader is kind of like being a swimming coach," Martin said, laughing. "You have to be able to motivate and encourage people and keep a positive attitude no matter what happens."

While Martin now expects to win championships on a regular basis, her path to becoming one of Charlotte's top swim coaches wasn't typical.

Martin was an elementary schoolteacher at Irwin Avenue Elementary school until the mid-1990s, when she expressed interest in being a coach if the opportunity arose.

Martin, a close friend of Independence football coach Bill Geiler - who then was at West Charlotte (under former Independence and West Charlotte coach Tom Knotts) - finally got a break in 1994.

"One day, Geiler calls me up and says the West Charlotte swim coach quit," Martin said. "He said, 'Get in your car and get over here.'"

The next thing Martin knew, she said, she was moving to West Charlotte High. Martin coached the Lions for nearly three seasons before getting the job at Providence.

At Providence, Martin immediately turned a successful program into a dominant one. Upon her arrival, the girls' squad won five straight state titles, from 1998 to 2002. The Panther boys won the state championship in 1998 and 1999, Martin's first two seasons.

The Panthers since have established themselves as one of the states' elite teams. Martin has been the constant, producing great teams and dozens of college swimmers.

"I can't say I like one team more than another, because all of my kids are special," Martin said.

This year's Providence boys' team is led by senior Kip Darmody, who has signed with NCAA powerhouse Texas.

Darmody is one of the better swimmers in the country. His younger brother, Kyle, a sophomore, also is a leader on a team that hasn't been challenged this year.

The boys' team, the defending 4A state champions, hope to give Martin her 14th state title in 14 years as head coach. To do so the Panthers will have to dominate both regionals (Feb. 5) and the 4A state meet (Feb. 12).

Meanwhile, the Providence girls, who have won five of the last seven state titles (2004-07, 2009) are among the top teams in the state but not as dominant as they once were.

"Our motto is that you can't build a reputation on what you are going to do," Martin said, quoting automaker Henry Ford. "We have to focus each year on living up to our reputation and tradition."

While championships are an almost annual tradition for Martin and the Providence swim team, Martin said she cherishes every year like it is her first.

"We have had an unbelievable run here at Providence for the last decade or so," Martin said, who plans to retire in two years. "But every year is a new experience. Every team has to go out and prove that they can win."