“Success Comes In ‘Cans'”: Meet Coach Holbrook

Boys Swim Coach A Retired Air Force Pilot


Maddy Forse ('21)

The Trophy case on Main Street at RMHS.

Will Xia ('21), Orbit Contributor

On the deck of the YMCA, Coach Ken Holbrook leads the RMHS Men’s swim team in a routine practice. He blows a whistle and rows of swimmers dive in the pool in unison. On the surface, Coach Holbrook seems like the average coach. He lists the sets for the day, instructs in swimming drills and exercises, and strategizes with the team. What people don’t know is that beneath the surface, Ken Holbrook is an Air Force pilot with several years of military experience.

Holbrook was born in Brockton, MA in 1937, just 30 minutes south of Boston. He went to East Bridgewater High school and graduated from Boston University in 1959 studying history and government. After graduating college, Holbrook joined the Air Force as an active duty soldier. A person who is active duty is in the military full time. They work for the military full time, may live on a military base, and can be deployed at any time.

“It was both fulfilling and enjoyable. You felt like you were doing something useful.

— Coach Ken Holbrook


First, Holbrook began training a 13 months-long training program to become an Air Force pilot. He finished training in 1961 and began flying. Holbrook’s tools of choice were the KC-97 Stratofreighter and the KC-135 Stratotanker. The KC-97 was a strategic tanker, meaning its job was to carry fuel and perform air-to-air refueling on other planes. The KC-97 was succeeded by the KC-135, which had the same job. Though it may not seem like the most glamorous job, air-to-air refueling is imperative to military strategy. 

Being able to refuel mid-flight allows an aircraft to carry more cargo such as weapons, provisions, and personnel. It also allows for a faster take-off, as an aircraft can take off with a near-empty tank, making it much lighter, and refuel mid air. During the Cold War, the KC-97 and KC-135 Stratotankers were used by the United States to be able to keep fleets of nuclear-ready bombers in the air constantly. Either to threaten retaliation against a Soviet strike for mutual assured destruction, or to bomb the U.S.S.R. first had it been ordered to do so by the President of the United States. 

The KC-97 and KC-135 were also used by the US during the Vietnam war. They allowed bombers to carry a larger payload of bombs and rockets, as well as extending their range. They were also used to fuel planes so they could travel across the Pacific Ocean. In rare cases, a Stratotanker could hook up to a plane with a combat-damaged fuel tank and guide it to safety using its large fuel stores. Coach Holbrook had several missions stationed in southeast Asia near Vietnam, and he was one of those very pilots. Holbrook was not on the front lines of combat, but his job was equally as important. 

“It was both fulfilling and enjoyable. You felt like you were doing something useful.” says Holbrook, commenting on his time in the Air Force. Holbrook would go on to spend 8 years as an active duty pilot.

During that time, Holbrook had his fair share of memorable moments. His most memorable one was when he was almost caught in a 70-thousand foot thunderstorm. After a refueling mission off the North Vietnamese coast, a massive thunderstorm appeared, blocking the path back to base. Holbrook had to choose between flying through the storm, or flying down the North Vietnamese coast. The problem was, the coast was within SAM range. SAMs (or Surface-to-Air Missiles) were used by the Vietnamese to shoot down American aircraft. The Vietnamese were previously unable to shoot down high-altitude aircraft with their outdated weaponry, but they were provided SAMs by the Soviet Union sometime around 1965. This just happened to be during Holbrook’s time in the military.

Always believe you can do more than you think you can. Success comes in ‘Cans’.

— Coach Ken Holbrook


Holbrook chose to fly down the coast and risk being shot down, rather than face the thunderstorm.

“The SAM sites only had a 10% hit rate while the thunderstorm would have spit me out like a toothpick,” recalls Holbrook, who escaped safely. 

After his time in active duty, Holbrook continued his passion for flying. He became an airline pilot for Pan Am Airlines and joined the Air Force Reserve. After two years, he was furloughed from Pan Am due to the 1970s recession. During that time, Holbrook started doing sales work and customer service working for the Boston Globe.

In 1979, Holbrook’s oldest daughter started swimming at the North Suburban YMCA and he began his involvement in swim coaching. It was also around this time that he retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1982, totaling 22 years of military service. 

Now known as Coach Holbrook, he coached the Framingham girls team for 10 years. During that time, he took the team from a bottom 3 team in the Bay State Conference to one of the top 3. He was also awarded the Coach of the Year award.

In 1992, Holbrook began coaching for the RMHS boys swim team. Between 2010 and 2012, our team won two Middlesex League titles and had a track record of 27 meets won in a row under Coach Holbrook. Coach Holbrook has also been awarded the Coach of the Year award twice during his time in Reading.

Coach Holbrook is still coaching at RMHS to this day, this year being his 29th year as the RMHS Men’s swim coach.  At the end of the day, Holbrook has had a remarkable career in both the air and the water.

When asked if he had one message to share to the RMHS community before retiring, Holbrook said, ”Always believe you can do more than you think you can. Success comes in ‘Cans’.” That mantra is the same one that he’s repeated to the team, time and time again. It’s the same mantra that the team will follow in the coming months. Even though swimming has been delayed due to the pandemic, Holbrook and the team are ready as ever to face the upcoming season.