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Posted October 27, 2021

Honoring a Legacy

Coach Cal Caplan Scholarship Recognizes Pioneer Aquatics Student-Athletes

Cal Caplan, center, with members of the Cal State East Bay swimming team.

Coming from a small central California farming town, Lori Stilson-Armstrong, ’83, couldn’t have imagined she would have a stellar college diving career, much less success as a Hollywood costumer.

Stilson-Armstrong, who began her professional career on the iconic TV series “Moonlighting” and went on to work on countless shows and films, including 2003’s “Tears of the Sun,” attributes much of her can-do attitude to her years swimming at Cal State East Bay— and the influence of Coach Cal Caplan.

“No one is stopping you, he would say,” recalls Stilson-Armstrong, who was inducted into the Pioneer Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000. “He was the perfect mentor for me. I listened to him—and at that age I didn’t listen to anyone. He is responsible for the career I have now.”

A three-time All-American diver during her years at the university, Stilson-Armstrong was back on campus poolside as Pioneer Athletics launched the Cal Caplan Aquatics Scholarship on Sept. 2. Joining her were the two fellow alumni who helped her create the scholarship in Coach Caplan’s name:  swimming star Brad Gothberg, ’85, and water polo goalie Steve Victorson, ’82. 

After months of planning — and postponement wrought by the coronavirus pandemic — the founding donors stunned Coach Caplan with the news of his namesake scholarship at a surprise ceremony. 

“For me to say that I was speechless would be a gift to everybody,” Coach Caplan joked of the scholarship announcement. “I had absolutely no idea this was going on.” 

In fact, he thought the ceremony preparations were for his birthday, just a few days away. Nonetheless, he managed to express just how much the legacy scholarship means to him.

“It shows me that the people whose lives I touched were strengthened by our interactions, because we cared about more than just our own sport."
Cal Caplan

“This scholarship fulfills a recognition that we are more than individuals or islands in sports,” he explained. “It shows me that the people whose lives I touched were strengthened by our interactions, because we cared about more than just our own sport. I’m grateful that the scholarship is for all aquatics, not just water polo.”

Inspiration for Dry Land 

Besides honoring Coach Caplan, the scholarship’s goal is to help the swimming and water polo coaches recruit and retain strong student-athletes who exemplify the coach and his values. 

“Following Coach Caplan’s model, the coaches will recommend students who show promise for qualities of leadership, teamwork, and/or high achievement in their sport and academics,” the university’s scholarship document states. 

Those attributes are easy to recall for Stilson-Armstrong’s fellow scholarship founders. Gothberg, who now works in Bay Area residential real estate, credits Coach Caplan with motivating him to perform to his highest potential.

“I was one of Cal State East Bay’s top swimmers — I went to nationals and was in the top five every year,” Gothberg said. “I feel the scholarship should go to a good athlete with a good GPA. 

“Cal taught me to act toward others as you’d want to be treated,” he added. “Put your full effort into everything you do.” 

He’s also proud that the scholarship is for aquatics. 

“Lori, Steve, and I agreed that it was important, because we never seemed to get as much recognition as athletes in football, baseball and track. Yet, we were always in the top five or top ten in nationals.”

Victorson, who operates his own water-based fitness center outside Boston, went on to earn his doctorate in kinesiology. He says he employs the lessons Coach Caplan taught him every day.

“Cal made you want to work for him. He had a way of motivating you to get you to want to work hard. Still, he had a lot of patience with us,” he said. “As an athlete for Cal, I felt bad if I didn’t perform the way I was supposed to.”

Fifty-Three Years and Counting

After 53 years as a coach and professor, Coach Caplan is still on campus, only now as a volunteer assistant who specializes in coaching goalies. He was inducted into the Pioneer Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006, and is recognized for playing a key role in development of the university’s physical education and kinesiology department. He is known for his leadership, teamwork and high achievement. 

“I’m a positive coach,” he said. “You’ll never hear me tell a player what not to do. I try to tell them what they should do.” 

It’s an impressive legacy and model, even for newly minted Pioneers on the Cal State East Bay campus. 

Recently hired Director of Athletics Allison Kern met Coach Caplan on just her second day at the university — and then learned he would be honored during her second week on campus. 

“I can’t think of a better way to be welcomed into a community than immediately understanding how invested our alumni are in our success and the great people who have been here, and how invested we are in our student-athletes and supporting them,” Kern told the crowd. “This is exactly what we’re about at Pioneer Athletics.”

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