Gabriel's love for swimming comes full circle with Jodie Harrison Lifetime Achievement Award
Aaron Gabriel's love for swimming was born at a young age, and it became a lifetime passion that is alive and well today.
Now, Gabriel's accomplishments and lifelong dedication to the sport will be recognized with the ultimate honor an athlete can receive from his high school alma mater.
On Friday night, Gabriel will be honored by St. Charles East High School with the prestigious Jodie Harrison Lifetime Achievement Award. He will join wrestler Steve Alf, soccer player Danielle Thomas Galvin and wrestler Jason Potter as part of the hall of fame Class of 2019. The ceremony will take place in between the sophomore and varsity boys basketball games between St. Charles East and North.
"I was in the right place at the right time and I'm just thrilled to receive this honor," said Gabriel, a 1983 St. Charles High School graduate who went on to swim at the University of Wisconsin.
Gabriel, who was also High School Sports Editor for the Daily Herald from 1995 until this past September, grew up in Addison and Elmhurst. But when he was seven years old his parents -- Jerry, who passed away in 2008, and Beth -- made the decision to move the family, which included older brother Eric and sister Kirsten, settling in Geneva and eventually just west of St. Charles.
Why the move? To swim.
"I had gotten very much into swimming but mostly park district stuff," said Gabriel, whose older brother Eric was also a swimmer. "As a family we made a tough decision to move, because in St. Charles you could swim year-round. The Norris Center was just being built and many families moved to St. Charles for that reason. We were part of St. Charles becoming a big swimming town. Everybody accused us of recruiting but it was the pool that did the recruiting. It was really cool to be a part of."
Gabriel was a champion swimmer on championship teams. His best event was the 500-yard freestyle. He finished second in that race at the IHSA state finals in 1982 and 1983. He was also third in the 200 free in 1983 and anchored the Saints' 400 free relay team his junior and senior years. He helped St. Charles win state championships in three of his four high school seasons under coaches Bob Teichart, Dave Bart and distance specialist Kent Pearson. His senior year, Gabriel was a tri-captain of the team along with hall of famer Stryker Reed and Mike Edmondson.
Gabriel went on to swim at Wisconsin, where he majored in history and journalism. Swimming for coach Jack Pettinger, who passed away this past summer, Gabriel was a Big Ten champion in 1984 in the 500 and 1,650 freestyle races. He also swam in the Olympic trials and was an NCAA qualifier.
But swimming wasn't Gabriel's only sport.
"I was your prototypical multisport athlete. I played football, baseball and soccer," said Gabriel, who now lives in Palatine with his wife Deb (the former food editor of the Daily Herald), and their sons Jerome, a freshman at Illinois State, and Henry, a sophomore at Palatine High School. Both sons are and were avid swimmers.
"I just always enjoyed competing," Gabriel said. "But I showed aptitude early on in swimming. For me, generally, I liked practice and if you enjoy going to practice and doing what you're doing you're going to have good results."
Gabriel also formed a love for writing, which became his career after graduating from Wisconsin. He started as a Daily Herald freelancer in 1988 and was hired full-time a couple years later, eventually taking over the leadership of the high school sports department in 1995.
"I became fascinated in how our young people behave as they encounter what is likely their first endeavor in which they are truly treated like adults," he said. "I believe firmly in the value of sport in developing our kids. My outlook is that sports, performed correctly, are both a revealer and builder of character, and that it was an honor of the highest order to document this for the communities covered by the Daily Herald."
He remains an active swimmer today.
"I started swimming seriously again about 2003, after the birth of Henry," he said. "Basically, I figured out that I'm a happier person when I'm being competitive, and swimming served that purpose well even in middle age. So I've regularly done 5K open-water swims in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior each summer, and just recently I've jumped back into pool racing a bit. I'm a lot slower than I used to be but I'm finding I enjoy the competitive aspect just as much as ever."
Gabriel said he hopes to continue writing by contributing to USA Swimming's national member publication, Splash. He is also considering teaching as a next step professionally, and he began coaching three years ago with a new club called Reach Aquatics, whose home base is Conant High School. The club is owned and operated by Monika Chiappetta, who is Rolling Meadows' boys and girls high school swimming coach.
He credits his family and his coaches for steering his life's path.
"In our family swimming was a high priority and a way of life for us," he said. "None of what I achieved would have been possible had people not had that structure for me.
"And Dave Bart is super special to me. As a kid coming up through the park district program he was my coach for eight years and then he became my high school coach. To this day I'd walk through a wall for that guy."
Or swim through one.