Making waves: a look back at Dorothy ‘Dot’ Vilardo’s coaching legacy

South Orange native was passionate in starting Seton Hall University swim program in 1979

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Dorothy ‘Dot’ Vilardo, center, rejoices during her time as the Seton Hall University women’s swim team head coach.

MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Most people know that Seton Hall University has various athletic programs.

One of the sports is swimming.

But did you know that it was started by a South Orange resident more than four decades ago?

In 1979, Dorothy “Dot” Vilardo formed the first women’s swimming and diving team at Seton Hall University in South Orange. Being a long-time resident of South Orange, this was the ideal location for Vilardo to pursue her lifelong passion for swimming. 

Vilardo began her swimming career in Newark, where she swam competitively at the Hayes Pool, the Newark Athletic Club and in the AAU at the Military Park Hotel Pool.  

Later in life, Vilardo became the head swim coach at the South Orange Community Pool, as well as the pool manager and swim instructor. In the winter months, she coached indoors at the YMCA in Orange and was a swim official and starter. All these positions provided her with the necessary experience to convince Richie Regan, who was the athletic director in 1979 at Seton Hall, that she was the most qualified candidate for the job. This was a monumental task because, in the 1970s, college athletics were dominated by males, so she had many obstacles to overcome.  

Seton Hall, among many other universities, was not equipped to handle a newly formed all-female team. There were no women’s locker rooms, training facilities, transportation or recruiting strategies at all. Vilardo needed to start everything from scratch. And that she did.

Vilardo was pioneering with training techniques. She implemented early morning practices and added weight training and nautilus to workouts. This is commonplace today, but it was groundbreaking in 1979.  

She developed a recruiting strategy and pursued scholarship monies for her female swimmers. She even drove the team van to away swim meets. Her strategies proved to be incredibly effective, because the Pirates, also known as the “Bucettes,” posted a winning season in their first year. The next season, a few of her swimmers qualified to compete in the nationals. The team was in desperate need of divers, so Vilardo took it upon herself to convince some of the female gymnasts to try out for the squad. A few of them did, and so she built the diving squad as well.  

Vilardo’s persistence, leadership, commitment to excellence and sheer talent provided her with the necessary skills to build a successful program at SHU that still stands to this day. She accomplished all of this at Seton Hall while raising five children, who all attended the public schools in South Orange/Maplewood and were all athletes and excellent swimmers and lifeguards.  

Margaret Feeley Bauer, in an email to the News-Record, mentioned how Vilardo was such a strong mentor to her at SHU and the South Orange pool.  

“Coach Vilardo is such an important part of the history of South Orange,” Feeley Bauer said. “She positively influenced countless athletes, ran the South Orange pool for many years, and started the first women’s swimming program at Seton Hall University in 1979. I had the honor of swimming for coach from age 9 with the recreation team at the pool in the summer. She also coached those of us who wanted to participate in winter swimming at the Orange Y. Swimming for coach meant you were provided with impeccable technical stroke skills. It also meant that you learned valuable life lessons, how to be a humble competitor and a great work ethic, to treat others, including our competitors, with respect and kindness and support each other. 

“In 1981, when I finished high school, coach was at SHU and she offered me a partial swimming scholarship,” Feeley Bauer added. “There were many challenges at SHU in the early days of Title IX. She understood what we all, as women, were up against. It is in no way cliche to say that she encouraged us to ‘go high when many others were going low.’ She made sure that nothing stopped us from accomplishing successful winning seasons. Under her guidance, some of us even qualified and competed at the national championships, against many frustrating odds. I was able to go to nationals. It was one of the most incredible sporting experiences of my life. Coach is a trailblazer for the women who have and currently coach and compete in Seton Hall athletics. I can’t thank her enough for the lessons on morals, values and humility she so freely taught us. They helped me grow as a woman, guided me as I raised my three sons and continue to help me in some way, every day.”

Vilardo stayed at SHU until 1985. But she never really retired from swimming. She continued to be a swim official and starter-up until about five years ago in New Jersey. She needed to get a gun permit for her starter’s pistol. 

Vilardo, 82, currently resides in Chevy Chase, Md. She relocated from New Jersey so she could spend time with her grandchildren. Her condominium unit has a balcony that overlooks the building’s pool. It’s the perfect location for her to relax, remember her youth and trailblazing journey through college athletics. 

Photos Courtesy of Matt Vilardo (Dorothy Vilardo’s son)