The Matthaei Center opened on Wayne State’s campus in 1968, and the following year, Peter Roberts started as Wayne State’s swimming and diving coach. “I tell everyone they built it for me,” he joked.
More than 53 years later, Roberts is still working at Wayne State, now as an assistant professor of lifestyle fitness activities.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be here for more than 50 years,” Roberts said. “I actually reached one of my goals very early in life. I figured I'd become a college coach when I was in my 40s, and I was 24 when I got the Wayne State job. I was sort of perplexed at that. I thought, ‘Where do I go from here?’ Well, it was starting a family. I had a daughter and now I have two grandchildren, who are the highlights of my life.”
Roberts no longer coaches the swimming and diving team — in fact, that’s a position he left in 1983, but his tenure as coach made for some memorable moments. None likely bigger than discovering women’s diver Dacia Schileru in 1972.
Roberts saw Schileru diving during an open swim and encouraged her to come out for the men’s team since there was no women’s swimming and diving team at the time.
Title IX had just been passed in 1972 and the NCAA had rescinded a ban that barred women from postseason competition.
Schileru had captured the national championship in her native Romania at the age of 16 but declined an invitation to the 1968 Olympics so that her family could move out of Romania.
She accepted Roberts’ invitation to join the Wayne State team and began competing against men during the 1972-73 season. She qualified for the championships and, on March 15, 1973, became the first woman to compete in an NCAA championship.
“The top 12 were All-Americans, and she placed 13th,” Roberts said. “I always thought some of the judges weren’t ready for a woman to be in the top 12."
Roberts later coached a national champion when Don Mason won the 3-meter diving national championship in 1982.
“I had, like, 30 All-Americans and one national champion during my tenure,” Roberts said. “I always tried to make it fun. Swimming is not easy. They are spending three hours a day in the pool, six days a week. I tried to make it upbeat. Every winter, I took my team down to Florida to the Swimming Hall of Fame. It was a huge event with teams from all over the country. My team would see all these top-notch swimmers and I would tell them, ‘Look — they got two arms and two legs just like you. If you want it really bad you can do it too.’ ”
Roberts stopped coaching in 1983 but hopes all his athletes remember their time at Wayne State as a positive influence in their life.
“I was always hoping that they appreciated what I did for them and that they would go out and be successful, and some of my philosophy rubbed off on them,” Roberts said.
Roberts continued to teach after his coaching days were over and doesn’t plan on retiring for a few more years.
“I don’t have any sort of deadline, but I would like to do it for at least two more years,” Roberts said. “I think my health is important and I've tried to stay healthy. I swim and it’s probably the best all-around exercise you can do. If you swim right, then you can work just about every muscle group in your body. I haven’t really thought about what I would do after I’m done, I’m just so happy doing this."
Roberts has also worked with the Red Cross outside of Wayne State for more than 50 years, teaching people how to swim and train as a lifeguard. That’s where he met his wife.
“She was the director for Washtenaw County, and we would go to a Red Cross camp in the summer,” Roberts said. “The kids would learn how to swim and be lifeguards. That’s how I met her.”
Roberts’ wife was alongside him when he was recently honored at the Wayne State Employee Recognition Ceremony for working at the university for more than 50 years.
“That was a fun moment,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he hopes that when he eventually leaves Wayne State he’s remembered for his positive attitude.
“I’m usually pretty upbeat,” Roberts said. “I’ve always tried to keep up to date with stuff. Things have really changed, you know. Fifty years ago, we didn’t have videos, we just had a huge projector and a big screen. Now you can do it on your phone. The technological advances have been amazing. But what hasn’t changed is interacting with young people — that’s still my favorite part.”