Above the pool at Sachem High School North, until last January, hung a large blackboard with white letters and numbers on it, proudly broadcasting the school swimming records. The letters and numbers of the scores and scorers were prone to falling off. A replacement was due.
In the end, the records themselves proved far more durable than the old board. And none were more durable than those set by Shirlee Manoogian.
The four-year varsity swimmer and 2002 graduate set an incredibly high standard over a two-season span, establishing records in a jaw-dropping nine out of 12 swimming events (including all female individual events), all of which remain unbroken to this day. The complete list includes the 200-yard freestyle (1:53.25, set in 2001), the 200-yard individual medley (2:09.08, 2000), the 50-yard freestyle (23.87 seconds, 2001), the 100-yard butterfly (58.72 seconds, 2000), the 100-yard freestyle (52.03 seconds, 2001), the 500-yard freestyle (5:04.82, 2001), the 100-yard backstroke (58.88 seconds, 2000), the 100-yard breaststroke (1:08.81, 2000) and a four-way shared record in the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:37.69, 2001), which she anchored.
Now 27 years old, her legendary status secure and sharply focused on the future, an aura of confidence still surrounds her – easygoing but driven, relaxed but fueled by the same strong passion for her sport. She channels that energy into coaching for the the Islanders Aquatics (formerly Islip Aquatics) organization, having previously worked with the North Shore and Sachem swim clubs. (She is coaching the Junior Olympics upstate in West Nyack, to be held March 16-18).
Beginning swimming at the age of 4, when older cousins of hers who swam competitively first took note of her nascent talent, the Holbrook native had cemented a formidable reputation before junior high school – she had joined the North Shore Swim Club only a few years before. Eighth graders would get called up to varsity, and Manoogian had very briefly considered a move up before then as a seventh grader.
She said she was ultimately dissuaded by her coaches, Al Scott and John DeMarie, to wait another season, citing concerns over jealous upperclassman swimmers and other potential repercussions.
“It's one thing on a club team where you're not taking spots,” she said. “But [instead of] coming in as a seventh grader and taking senior spots, I decided to wait until I was a freshman. Team camaraderie doesn't really work when you're being singled out.”
The wait to join varsity swimming may have meant a delayed payoff, but the reservoir of experience she gained translated into greater focus, polish and versatility. An instant threat to competing teams, she was also an all-arounder from the get-go, making it to states as a freshman in the 200 IM and in the 100 free. As a sophomore, she won the state 100 free, held that year at Eisenhower Park in Levittown.
"My dad and all my neighbors, they painted a sign across bedsheets and put it up on our house,” she remembered. “It felt cool coming home to that.”
Beyond the support system at home, through club and school competition, coaches Scott and DeMarie have been like second fathers to Manoogian. She never hesitates to credit both of them with looking out for all her best interests, and not merely the athletic ones.
“She's definitely one of the best swimmers I've ever coached,” said Scott, who took over as head high school coach in 2001 and had co-coached at North Shore alongside DeMarie. “The heart, the soul, the work ethic - you couldn't ask for a better kid.”
Seeking to produce well-rounded competitors, DeMarie's approach was to train all swimmers for the individual medley, or IM. Made up of four different strokes – the butterfly, the backstroke, the breaststroke and the freestyle, in that order – over a total distance of 200 meters, it is still to him the truest test of a swimmer's ability, demanding a seamless combination of speed and grace in and out of transitions.
The breaststroke was the most critical, being the slowest of the four strokes and placed directly before the fastest and final leg of the race. DeMarie's persistence became contagious. It wasn't long before she had added another weapon to her arsenal.
“Sometimes you gotta give 'em the medicine they don't wanna take,” said DeMarie with a laugh.
Scott, who coached her for her senior year of high school, recalled her performance in the 500 free for her final school record.
“She said 'I can win it,' and sure enough she didn't win it, she blew everyone out of the water,” he said. “The year she was a senior, she had won her second state championship. I wrote her up as female athlete of the year. I almost fell off my chair when she didn't get it.”
Even without receiving that honor, Manoogian's commitment to swimming was unshakable. She left Sachem with an athletic scholarship at the University of Maryland and returning to the lanes for the Terrapins.
But as her freshman year at the University of Maryland drew to a close, a more sinister challenge forced a drastic change of plans. A routine Pap smear in the summer of 2003 came back abnormal. The diagnosis was cervical cancer.
The odds were 60/40 that she would be fully recover once they removed it, the doctors said, but the diagnosis threatened to interrupt her academic career. In order to receive treatment and continue her college career, Manoogian returned to Long Island to attend Stony Brook University that fall.
“When I found out she was sick, I spent two hours at Stony Brook trying to console her, telling her not to worry and that everything would be fine,” said Scott. “Fortunately, I turned out to be right.”
Scott's prediction did prove correct in this instance. But another setback complicated matters further: An intense weight training session resulted in three herniated discs in the lumbar region of her spine.
She underwent a three-year-long regimen of physical therapy, deciding against the surgery advised by doctors.
“I would've had to redshirt, and I didn't redshirt for cancer,” she said.
The cancer remitted, and Manoogian rebounded academically. Overcoming the obstacles and refocusing, her sophomore GPA at Stony Brook dropped to 2.0, but rose to 3.5 her senior year. Majoring in history with a minor in medieval studies, she received a second bachelors' degree in math.
Now pursuing a masters in math education at Dowling College, she recalled how Dave Alexander, who still coaches at Stony Brook and had worked alongside DeMarie prior to his retirement, was particularly mindful of his swimmers' academic goals.
“If we were struggling with something, we could make up a practice,” she said, crediting Alexander as another “father figure” in her life. Alexander was unable to comment for this article.
Joining all of these incredible accomplishments is one simple fact: Manoogian really hates to lose. It's been the prime motivator for every challenge she's faced. She said Scott used to joke that no matter how far behind the team was, she'd get them.
“The coaches didn't have to say anything when I was behind the blocks,” she remembered. “I would focus, clear my head, and repeat the race I was doing to myself. '100 free, 100 free...' All the coaches would do is say 'Don't let the person next to you beat you.'"
“Even as a 10-year-old, it was just there,” said DeMarie. “The kid loved to race, and not every swimmer loves to race. She'd always say, 'Coach, lemme loose,' I'm not saying she won every single race she was in, but she believed that she would. That's the difference. It was her heart and her instinct. It's a quality that can't be coached into somebody.”
She may live and breathe swimming - she's also worked for many years as a lifeguard as part of the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps - but an opportunity for some very different challenges briefly led her out on the gridiron. On the advice of Alexander, she tried out for the New York Sharks women's professional football team, joining the team's defensive and offensive lines during the 2007 season.
Manoogian jumped back into competition this past September, persuaded by Marc Danin, the Islanders Aquatics' head coach. It was her first time back in a pool competing since February 2006, but definitely not her last. She qualified for this year's Summer Sectionals, to be held at Lehman College in the Bronx this August.
“It was painful,” she said, laughing about it in retrospect. “I needed a three-hour nap afterward.”