Susie Kelpe has never been afraid of hard work.
Not during a career that saw her swim for the University of Kansas, become a state championship high school coach in her native Kansas and then relocate to Clovis, where she helped put what’s now become the Central Section’s premier swimming and diving program on the map.
And it won’t change as Kelpe heads into retirement following a 31-year career in Clovis Unified where she won a combined nine girls and boys section swimming and diving titles, according to historian Bob Barnett, at Clovis West High before moving over to Clovis, where her girls have been runner-up four years running.
“I wasn’t hired here to be mediocre,” Kelpe said. “That’s not what we do here.”
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Kelpe has been anything but mediocre since arriving in Clovis in 1984, when then Clovis Unified Aquatics Director Rick Klatt recommended her hiring as a math teacher at Clovis West and the age group coach for the Clovis Swim Club following an informal interview while both were attending a meet in Florida.
“I just felt she was a great fit for the job,” said Klatt, who was on hand for a ceremony recognizing Kelpe’s accomplishments during Thursday’s Clovis-Clovis West dual meet. “She was well prepared to do exactly what she’s done: Be a successful teacher in the classroom and a very successful swimming coach at the same time. She’s been a good influence, my own children included, on every kid she’s come in contact with.”
Clovis West’s girls had never won a section title when she took over as coach in 1988. Kelpe led the Golden Eagles, bolstered by the girls she had developed in the youth program, to the first of five straight section championships that year, the springboard to a program that has now won a section-best 23 titles.
“I’m proud of the kids and what they wanted to accomplish and how hard they worked,” Kelpe said. “You plant a dream in their heads and then see how hard they will work for it. The fun thing about being a coach is getting kids to believe in themselves.”
Kelpe took over the boys team, too, in 1991 and directed it to three straight titles and then a fourth in 1995 after a one-year break from coaching.
“She is so organized on how she runs a program,” said Clovis boys coach Peter Tragitt, who lured Kelpe back into coaching with the Cougars girls in 1997 after an 11-year hiatus. “If (Clovis West) didn’t have someone like her, I don’t know if they would have so many championships.”
After the 1995 season, Kelpe decided to get out of coaching in order to spend more time with her parents. And it was during that time that a safari she took to Africa with her father, Robert, would alter the course of her future.
Kelpe encountered people who needed help. People who had little to nothing. People who need an education.
So she went on a ministry mission to South Africa roughly 12 years ago, and has spent every summer there ever since. She’s done everything from teaching English to digging wells.
And once Kelpe finishes coaching and helping run the inaugural CIF State Swimming Division Championships on May 22-23 at the Clovis West Aquatics Complex, she will head back to South Africa, where she will set up semi-permanent residence and continue her missionary work.
“I will take all the things Clovis Unified taught me in 31 years and all the things Kansas taught me during my upbringing,” Kelpe said. “It’s all about coaching people to be better, whether it’s in the pool or in life.”
Kelpe will likely have at least one swimmer, Jillian Hatch, reach the state finals. Hatch won the 200 free, was second in the 100 free and helped power the winning 200 free relay during Kelpe’s final regular season dual meet, a 120-66 loss to Clovis West which received a big day from freshman sensation Caitlyn Snyder, who the 200 individual medley and 100 breat individually and the 200 medley and 400 free relays.
On the boys side, Clovis West edged Clovis 100-86 as Colin Cavanaugh won two events (200 free and 500 free) individually and was a member of the winning 200 medley relay.
Golden Eagles coach Adam Reid said he expects the Tri-River Athletic Conference finals, set for May 9 at Clovis East, and the Central Section Division I championships, to be held May 15-16 in Bakersfield, to be a dead heat between the Clovis West and Clovis boys.