Don Richards, the coach who oversaw Cape Elizabeth High’s swimming dynasty in the 1970s and 1980s, has died after a bout with cancer. He was 83.

Don Richards

Richards died on the Fourth of July at his home in New Port Richey, Florida. He was remembered not only as a successful coach, but as someone who always sought to help others.

His son, James, who played golf for and swam for Richards at Cape Elizabeth, said his father loved to compete, but that his true calling was helping others.

“I think what was special about my dad was that he approached each individual that he came in contact with from the perspective of, ‘How can I be of service to this person? How can I lift them up?'” said James Richards. “That was his mission. It didn’t matter if you were the best swimmer, the worst swimmer or not even on the team, he was going to be there for you.”

Richards, who grew up in South Portland, was a math teacher and the swimming coach at Cape Elizabeth from 1961-91. Over that time, his dual meet record was 727-86-3 and the Capers won 11 state championships, with 15 second-place finishes, and won the Southwestern championships 20 times. His girls’ team won 286 consecutive dual meets from 1968-86. He coached five all-Americans while at Cape Elizabeth. He was Maine Swimming Coach of the Year eight times.

In recognition of not only his coaching career but his community service, Cape Elizabeth renamed its community swimming pool the Donald L. Richards Community Pool in 1991, which is when he moved to Florida.

There, he taught and coached at Tampa Preparatory School, where his swimming teams had a dual meet record of 176-12-2 from 1991-2000. Overall, he had a career mark of 903-98-5.

Phil Emery, the retired Bangor High swimming coach whose teams often went head-to-head with the Capers, recalled Richards as an innovator.

“He liked having things first,” said Emery. “His school, Cape Elizabeth, was the first to have an electronic timing system. He was the first coach to put entries on a computer. Remember, this is going back 50 years, so that was something. And he loved to organize things.”

Richards would have Emery and Lionel Bishop, the former longtime swimming coach at Old Town, stay at his Cape Elizabeth home two weeks each summer to help run a swim camp. “In addition to being archrivals in the swimming pool, we were close friends,” said Emery. “When we competed, it was knock-down, drag-out. But when the meet was over, we did our thing.”

Emery said that friendship continued long after Richards left Maine in 1991. The Richards family would rent a camp on Crescent Lake in Casco and Richards would invite many of his former coaching rivals down just to talk.

“We would just sit and talk and he would supply the lobster rolls,” said Emery.

James Richards said it wasn’t unusual for his father to get together with his swimming friends.

“I think swimming for my dad was a medium to connect with people, with both young people and coaches, fellow competitors,” he said. “He was very competitive and wanted to win, but more than that, he wanted to build relationships with people and build them up and help them see possibilities in them that maybe they didn’t see themselves.”

Don Richards was an avid fisherman and golfer and maintained his Maine roots even after moving to Florida. Courtesy of Richards family

Richards was also an avid golfer and fisherman and maintained his Maine roots. James Richards said his father read the Portland Press Herald daily and would print out its crossword puzzle every day to complete it. “He did the crossword every day up until the day before he died,” said James Richards. “It was his favorite.”

Don Richards was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2020. But the induction ceremony was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and rescheduled for this Sept. 26. Richards was diagnosed with ampullary cancer, a rare form of the disease in the small intestine, in February. Knowing that he would probably not last until September, his family reached out to the Maine Sports Hall of Fame to see if he could be inducted sooner.

So on June 28, MSHOF executive director Bill Green inducted Richards into the Hall via Zoom. It included testimonials from several swimmers that Richards coached at Cape Elizabeth. The champagne bucket trophy was shipped to him.

“We wanted to give that as a gift to him before he passed,” said James Richards. “I think that meant everything to him. He saw that induction as the culmination of his life’s work. For him to hear the words and the emotions from so many of the students that he touched over the years, that meant a lot to him.”

The family will hold a Celebration of Life for Don Richards on July 30 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Fort Williams Park Picnic Shelter overlooking Portland Head Light.

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