Former VMI Coach Charles Arnold Built Swimming Powerhouse

black and white photo of three men

George Collins ’62 and Ware Smith ’62, swim team captains, with Charles Arnold, longtime swimming coach. Photo courtesy VMI Keydets.

VMI Athletics has lost one of its coaching icons.

Charles Arnold, the coach who led VMI men’s swimming to a decade of dominance in the Southern Conference, died Aug. 10, 2020, in Penn Laird, Virginia. He was 92.

Arnold served as VMI swimming coach as a faculty member from 1955-66 and established a remarkable legacy for the sport during his tenure.

At a time when VMI football was experiencing a “golden age” in the late ’50s and early ’60s under John McKenna and concurrent excellence in track and field under Walt Cormack, Arnold’s swimming teams were compiling an era of supremacy in the pool as well.

Arnold led VMI swimming to seven Southern Conference titles including five straight crowns from 1958-62. His teams also placed second three times in SoCon championship meets.

“He was mission oriented, focused and championship bound every season,” said George Collins ’62, VMI Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was twice named Southern Conference most outstanding swimmer. “He was a legend in his ability to work with little talent and with limited time, demands of tight military scheduling, and winning championship after championship. From the opening practice, he figured out the extra points needed to squeeze out another championship. He scheduled meets with the best teams in the nation – North Carolina, NC State, Maryland, Virginia, West Point – all nationally ranked.”

Under Arnold’s guidance, 58 Keydet swimmers captured individual events in Southern Conference championship meets. Over his 11-season tenure, VMI swimming compiled a 29-2 record against Southern Conference opponents.

After leaving VMI, Arnold directed the aquatics programs at both the University of New Hampshire and Rhode Island before returning to the Commonwealth to establish the swimming program at James Madison University. He guided the Dukes to their first Colonial Athletic Association title and was named Coach of the Year.

Arnold was also active in the national YMCA swimming program and edited The Aquatic Safety and Life Saving Program manual used throughout the country. He retired in 1992 after a 40-year career of teaching and coaching swimming.

Arnold was inducted into the VMI Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.

  • Wade Branner ’83 Sports Information Director