Hillsborough Aquatic Club head coach and former UNC swimmer Vinny Pryor encourages some of his swimmers on Tuesday night.
Michael Pryor, Vinny’s younger brother, was 3 years old when he competed in his first swim meet.
He sat along the edge of the pool, ready to jump in at the sound of the buzzer.
But he didn’t — at least not at first.
“Vinny just came up and pushed me in the pool,” Michael said.
Pryor and his family moved from Orlando to Jaffrey, New Hampshire when he was 10 years old. When he wasn’t swimming, he would mountain bike and play pond hockey. Swimming wasn’t big in New Hampshire, but it was for Pryor.
He and Michael would travel to and from Gardner, Massachusetts — a 30-minute drive — four days every week for club practice throughout high school.
“It was pretty much like having a part-time job in high school, but one that you get to do stuff you really enjoy doing,” he said.
In practice, the brothers trained together and occasionally went head-to-head. Sometimes, they’d fight in practice due to their competitive nature. But they’d hop in the car and ride home after, like nothing happened.
Pryor was always in Michael’s ear, pushing him like he did all those years ago.
A blessing in disguise
The summer after he graduated from Conant High School, Pryor arrived at club practice one day — just as he had thousands of times before. But nearly nine years later, this practice still stands out.
When he walked into practice, Pryor was under the impression he’d be heading to Rutgers in the fall to swim.
“Someone came up and said, ‘Hey, did you hear about Rutgers? They cut their program,’” Pryor said.
He was now faced with a choice: go to Rutgers and transfer after the program was shut down, or sit out a year, go to community college and redo the recruiting process.
Pryor chose the latter.
After committing to Rutgers in December of his senior year, he significantly improved as a swimmer, and he was recruited more heavily.
For Pryor, it was a blessing in disguise. He committed to UNC.
"(UNC) was really the only place where as soon as I set foot on campus, I felt like, ‘Yeah, this is definitely where I belong,’” he said.
One of his first days on campus, he and his teammates opened training with a run: from the Smith Center to Franklin Street and back.
“He crushed me, crushed most of us,” said Flynn Jones, a UNC teammate. “He probably came in first, if not second or third at the worst.”
The New Hampshire breaststroker’s run left a lasting impression on his teammates.
Pryor went home each night and wrote down every workout, filling numerous notebooks. His times were ingrained in his mind, compressed by his swim cap.
He pushed his teammates, much like he once did with his younger brother.
“You knew you could count on Vinny to give 100 percent when he dove in the water,” Coach Rich DeSelm said.
On Saturdays after practice, Pryor would head to his job at Sutton’s Drug Store, where he’s still greeted with a smile.
Not much has changed.
But for a short while in Pryor’s college swimming career, things did change.
Pryor sat numbly, his insides feeling like ice water.
With his mother by his side, just like every appointment before that, he sat frozen as his cardiologist informed him he couldn’t swim anymore because of an enlarged aorta.
He didn’t want to believe it. Pryor’s mother took him to another hospital to get a second opinion. But the results came back the same.
“I remember being in the car with my mom, being an almost grown man, being like, ‘My mom isn’t going to see me cry,’” he said. “So I crawled in the backseat and cried the whole way home instead.”
Heart complications were an issue for Pryor when he was in high school. Whether it was in the middle of a workout or even sitting around the pool, his heart would spike to nearly 180 beats per minute — around twice the average.
He was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, caused by the heart’s electrical system working incorrectly.
Pryor was entering his junior season when he received the news from his cardiologist. He had just set a school record in the 100-yard breaststroke.
With his teammates gathered around him, he fought backs tears as he stood outside Koury Natatorium and announced the uncertainty of his swimming future.
Pryor watched from the pool deck as a water boy during practices. Instead of being in the water, he now served it.
Jones said Pryor kept a brave face — but there were many times where Pryor said he had to leave during practice to get away and cry.
But he refused to accept his swimming career was over. He’d call his cardiologist constantly, pleading for other alternatives. He even met with a surgeon to discuss bypass surgery to switch out his aorta.
“It was not something I was ready to give up yet,” he said. “I was going to keep fighting until there were no more options.”
Finally, after endless begging, Pryor’s cardiologist made a set of guidelines and gave him the OK to swim again.
He hung up the phone, sprinted to the pool deck and rejoiced with his teammates.
“Just knowing someone that had the opportunity to do something they love renewed kind of makes you appreciate your own opportunity even more,” Jones said.
It’s this same appreciation Pryor now teaches his students.
A new joy
Before practice begins, children flock toward the coach.
Two girls come up to Pryor and ask for help putting their swim caps on, like it’s routine.
A boy, no older than age 9, approaches the coach as his practice ends on the other end of the pool. He waits patiently, with a broad grin on his face, for Pryor to acknowledge him.
As soon as the coach turns his head, he holds up his hand for a high-five. The child jumps up and smacks Pryor’s hand before running to his parents.
Practice is officially over now that he’s gotten a high-five from his coach.
Moments like these make up for the small paycheck.
“Where it’s not rewarding in some places, it’s more rewarding in others,” he said.
Pryor is in his second year as head coach and director of the Hillsborough Aquatic Club, a program that began nearly four years ago.
In his first year with the club, it grew from approximately 65 children to more than 100. He hopes to build the program by fostering a love for swimming in the children similar to his as a child.
Just like when he was competing, he’s still straightforward, but not jumping down anyone’s throat.
He still obsesses over the technical aspects and keeps papers overflowing with notes like he did in college.
Jones, who has lived with Pryor in Raleigh since they graduated in 2011, says Pryor comes home with notes from the children, raving about their beloved coach.
“It all boils down to caring. He legitimately cares about them and their performance as people,” Michael said.
Pryor’s heart is now devoted to the children. And the children are devoted to swimming, just like their coach.
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