COVID-19 Long Beach Poly Swimming

Judy Oatey Scholarship Still Supporting Poly Girls’ Swimming

Nothing is normal in 2020, but the Long Beach Poly girls’ swimming program didn’t allow the shortened COVID-19 season to end a special tradition.

Since 2000, the Judy Oatey Scholarship has been awarded to the senior Poly girls’ swimmer with the highest GPA. The scholarship started as a way to remember and honor the late Oatey’s time as coach at Poly from 1986-1990. Oatey passed away in 1999 after a battle with cancer, and the family asked mourners to donate money to the Poly girls’ swim program instead of sending flowers.

“The money in that (initial) fund has been gone for about 10 years,” current Poly girls’ swim coach Kalani Caldwell said. “Now this just comes out to the Oatey’s pocket. They just write the check, but I couldn’t assume it would keep going.”

While planning a virtual team banquet for her team last month, Caldwell contacted Shawn Oatey, Judy’s oldest son.

“I asked if they’re still going to do the scholarship even though we didn’t get to finish this season,” Caldwell said. “In all caps (Shawn) wrote back ‘ABSOLUTELY’.”

During the virtual banquet two weeks ago, the 21st Judy Oatey Scholarship was awarded to college-bound seniors Josie Liebzeit and Erin Babbitt. Each swimmer was sent a plaque and $1,000 scholarship for college expenses. This isn’t the first time the award has been shared because the GPAs were so similar, and almost 30 swimmers have benefited from the Oatey Scholarship.

Liebzeit and Babbitt are good friends out of the pool, and both said they never looked at the award as a competition. They’re both valedictorians with over 4.0 GPAs.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Liebzeit said. “Seeing our seniors get it every year at the banquet, and then getting it myself, really means a lot and it’s really generous of the family.”

“It’s really inspirational because we always talk about how we’re students and athletes,” Babbitt said. “Scholars & Champions is our motto. We’ve won team GPA awards as well, so just the acknowledgment of that work that we put in the pool and in the classroom is a really big deal.”

Judy Oatey was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1946 where she excelled as an age group swimmer. She had to stop swimming competitively at 16 when her parents separated and she needed to be at home looking after her six younger siblings.

A chance blind date with Robert Oatey led to marriage and a move to California where they raised their four children. Shawn, who played water polo and swam as a Jackrabbit, was the first Oatey to attend Poly in 1985-86.

“I got there and found that they didn’t really have a swim coach for the girls’ team,” Shawn said. “It took a little convincing and talking her into it because she had a full career (as a financial bookkeeper) but there was definitely a fire and a drive to get into it.”

Oatey took over the Poly girls’ swim program for the 1986 season and built it up with a nurturing approach. She was dealing with some students who had never swam before, but according to Caldwell, every swimmer was treated with the same respect. Oatey stayed on for an extra year in 1990 to mentor Caldwell in her first year as coach.

“She really had a ‘mom’ approach, which was great,” Cladwell said. “There was coaching going on as she was organizing a swim team, but it was coming with great love.”

“She probably killed you with softness, and pushed you with positivity,” Shawn said. “She was challenging you but there was no yelling. She got the most out of people by letting them develop and see what they were capable of.”

Shawn said while he was in high school everyone could see his mother growing into her leadership role.

“She started drawing more kids into the program just because there was this feeling of being a part of something,” Shawn said. “There was some energy around it.”

After her passing, and the initial donation to the program, Robert Oatey has been involved in choosing the scholarship winner ever since. He couldn’t be part of the virtual banquet last month but sent a message to the swimmers via Shawn, who has basically taken over the responsibilities for the fund.

“(Judy’s) five years of coaching at Poly were some of the happiest days of her life,” Robert wrote. “Each year we are blessed to celebrate her memory with this award.”

“Mr. Oatey always wanted to know about the (award winner), what they were involved in and where they were going to college,” Caldwell said. “He takes a personal interest and used to come hand out the award at the banquet.”

The Oatey legacy will continue as Shawn’s three children will also attend Poly. His oldest, Tyler, is a freshman this year. In his first full season as a water polo player, Tyler was named the freshman team MVP.

“I never got to meet my grandmother, but people at Poly know my last name and they say she was a really good coach,” Tyler said. “When I was growing up, my dad played in alumni games, and I knew I was going to Poly the first time I saw my dad play. I just thought of myself on the blocks or scoring a goal. I’ve waited to see that, and it’s actually happened, so that’s awesome.”

“It’s like going home,” Shawn said of returning to campus. “I’ve always been connected and supportive. Poly is such a special place. It’s made a big impact on me in my life, and now I’m just blessed to see it happening with my family.”

Liebzeit, who will be continuing her swimming career at Washington State University, echoed those sentiments about the Jackrabbit community.

“It’s generational and the Poly family is strong,” Liebzeit said. “There’s just something about it that keeps people wanting to come back. I’ve had a great experience here. It’s amazing.”

Shawn said his family plans to continue supporting the Poly swim program, even after his children have graduated.

“We’re gonna be around at Poly for a long time,” he said.

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JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.