That the Kenai Peninsula left an indelible mark on Sohail Marey is no surprise. That part of that indelible mark is a tattoo is a surprise.
The permanent impression the Peninsula left in Marey’s mind is easy to understand.
Marey lived on the Peninsula from 1985 until moving back to Israel at the end of the school year.
In his time here, he taught at Peninsula schools, had four of his children go through Peninsula schools, coached youth swimming starting in 1987 and even served as a firefighter and emergency medical technician when he first came to the Peninsula.
The permanent impression the Peninsula left on Marey’s skin? That takes a little more explaining.
Where’d you get that
The year was 2002 and Marey was trying to pull off the toughest of coaching feats — win a state title for Soldotna High School in both girls and boys swimming.
Success in swimming when it comes to state team titles is a numbers game, and that doesn’t favor Peninsula schools, which have less students than the big schools in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys.
It’s why, before 2002, the only Peninsula school to win a state swimming title was the 1993 Soldotna boys.
But Marey figured he had the talent to take girls and boys titles in 2002.
“If you’re a good coach, you always have to convince kids they can do something, and then you have to motivate them to do it,” Marey said.
Part of his motivation and convincing that year involved a promise — win the state titles, and Marey would get his ears pierced and get a tattoo.
“I very much forgot all about it,” he said.
The first Stars squad to clinch the state title was the girls, scoring 94 points to runner-up Service’s 92. It was a moment that made Marey think of Steve Johnston, the former SoHi coach who won the 1993 title and brought Marey into the Silver Salmon program in 1987.
Marey began learning about coaching swimming in Israel, but he said Johnston is one of the biggest influences on his coaching career.
“I had this euphoria,” Marey said. “I’d finally achieved something. I had lots of respect for Steve Johnston and I showed him I could do it even though it was a small-school program.”
But even in that minute of euphoria, the swimming-coach part of Marey’s brain was still calculating. Just as it had been calculating the week before, when the SoHi boys ceded the Region III title to Homer in order to place swimmers in events that would give the Stars a better chance at state.
“I kept track of every top swimmer in the state,” Marey said. “I knew the pool of swimmers.
“If I took a chance, I knew that maybe we’d be second at regions, but at state Homer would lose more than us.”
After taking a minute to compose himself after clinching the girls victory, Marey realized that if the boys won the meet-concluding 400 freestyle relay, SoHi would own both state titles.
“I said to the boys, ‘If you win this race, you will be state champions. The bottom line is it is all up to you,’” Marey said. “They were so motivated they couldn’t stand still.”
The boys dropped a huge amount of time and won the event in 3 minutes, 36.19 seconds. That knotted Soldotna at the top of the team points standings with Juneau.
Marey still remembers the feeling of seeing Nick Sorrell close out the victory.
“I was a little dizzy,” Marey said. “There was so much excitement in my body I couldn’t stand.
“I had to go back and lean against the wall and sit on the floor. I felt like sitting on the floor. I sat there a few minutes until the kids found me sitting down.
“It’s definitely an experience I will cherish for life.”
And, oh yeah, the tattoo.
“I have a tattoo in the middle of my upper back,” Marey said. “It’s in Arabic calligraphy. It’s the shape of a circle. It says, ‘A star.’”
The earrings? He did get both ears pierced.
“I had them for 10 days,” he said. “That was enough. It was a pain. They never told me to wear the earrings, they only told me to pierce my ears.”
What the tattoos, the earrings and telling the boys it was all up to them were really about was various methods of motivation. Jenna Syverson, the captain of that 2002 girls team and a 2003 SoHi graduate, said that was no mistake.
“He used all types of different motivational techniques,” Syverson said. “He knew how to read kids really well.
“Some coaches just yell and try to motivate in a negative way. It’s becoming more known with the psychology that positive motivation is more effective. He was ahead of his time.”
Syverson said Marey may have been able to relate to each individual well because Marey had so many varying experiences himself, from growing up in Israel to going to college in Missouri to moving to Alaska.
Marey’s refusal to use one-size-fits-all motivation is apparent in the case of Syverson. She doesn’t even remember the tattoo.
She does remember the conversations with Marey about athletes and what makes them great — Marey’s favorite athlete was Mohammed Ali, Syverson’s was Michael Jordan.
“He really appealed to my competitive edge,” Syverson said. “Through hard work and dedication, he definitely pushed us to work together as a team.”
But Marey taught Syverson other lessons she used to swim at a Division I level at the University of New Mexico and open her own rolfing business in Arizona.
“He was one of those guys who worked hard and played hard,” Syverson said. “There were days he could see us fading out at practice, so we’d just play a game like baseball.
“He always knew how hard to push us. He never pushed us over the edge. And he was always laughing at practice. You have to love what you do, and he never made it seem like work because he was so passionate about what he did.”
Moving back home to Israel
So it was with those memories, and with his tattoo, that Marey, 54, packed up and moved to Ma’alot Tarshiha, Israel, after the school year. He moved with his wife and two young sons.
“I was born and raised here,” Marey said. “My mother is still here and I have family here. I had always had that in my mind — the possibility of moving back.
“I just wanted to be close to my mother.”
Marey said his mother, Ranziyah Marey, is in fine health, but he didn’t want a repeat of what happened when his father died in 1988. The dead are buried within 24 hours, and Marey could not make it back in time.
“That stuck in my mind,” he said. “I never liked that.”
Marey, who is Palestinian, also would like to see if he can be a small positive force for change in the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“I thought I could be involved on a low level, whether writing articles or being involved in the community making things better for Palestinians,” Marey said. “Not being a negative force, but getting the two sides closer to understand each other.”
Coming to America
Marey got his teaching degree in Israel, but, under encouragement from his mother, came to America in late 1982 and earned a bachelor’s in physical education and a master’s in sport science from Truman University in Kirksville, Mo.
Marey’s first stop in Alaska was Ninilchik in 1985, and he spent a summer working at a cannery in Ninilchik.
Marey moved to Soldotna in 1986 because there were more opportunities to teach and coach swimming.
“I personally believe that every person should be involved in their community — in something else other than doing their job,” Marey said. “That’s why I was an EMT before I started coaching — I wanted to be involved in something to help the community.”
Marey started with the Soldotna Silver Salmon — the feeder club program for the high school — in 1987. He taught at Sterling Elementary, Redoubt Elementary and Skyview High schools before becoming a teacher and head swim coach at Soldotna in 1999.
The Stars had immediate success, winning girls and boys region titles in 1999 and 2000. The Stars girls would go on to win regions five more times under Marey’s tenure.
Soldotna principal Todd Syverson got to see Marey’s work from all angles — both as administrator and swimming parent.
He said it’s no mistake that Marey placed four swimmers at the Division I level — Jenna, Abby Kiffmeyer, Joshua Gemmell and Lucas Petersen.
“With the amount of dedication needed to be a Division I swimmer, you have to have the caliber of coach that will give you the opportunity to swim at that high level,” Todd Syverson said.
Syverson said Marey provided swimmers with that opportunity due to his tireless work ethic.
“The early morning swims, the after-school practices, the dry-land practices, and then when you’re involved with the youth program, you’re talking about a year-round commitment,” he said.
The man after the man
Petersen graduated from Soldotna in 2001 before going on to swim for the University of Minnesota. He has been the swim assistant at Soldotna for the past four years and will take over for Marey as SoHi’s head coach.
Petersen has already been the head coach for the Silver Salmon for a year and a half.
“He was around when I was an age-group swimmer,” Petersen said. “His wisdom and knowledge are well-regarded in the state swimming community. Not having him around is going to be a tough one.”
Petersen said the fortunate thing is that Marey knew he would be leaving, so the transition is not a sudden one.
“He worked a lot with me before he left,” Petersen said. “We went through his computer trying to get all of his stuff accumulated.”
Petersen also said Marey did not leave the cupboard bare.
“I’m excited about next year,” he said. “Sohail left a great young group of talented swimmers in the program.”
Petersen works in the construction and contracting business with his dad. He said that job will allow him the flexibility to be a swim coach over the long term.
“I know there’s a good group of swimmers coming four or five years down the road,” he said. “My goal is to keep kids involved in the swimming program for years to come.”
Jenna Syverson is still good friends with fellow 2002 champs Kiffmeyer and Karina Petersen, who is Lucas’ sister.
Syverson said it’s never good for a community to lose a teacher and coach, like Marey, who has such a gift for working with kids. But she said Petersen will do well in replacing Marey.
“Lucas will do amazing and fantastic things,” Syverson said. “He’s good at the coaching that was embodied in Sohail.
“Lucas is a natural coach — he’s always watching, teaching and learning. I can’t wait to see what he does.”
Marey said he has confidence that Petersen would do a good job taking over the program, but he would like to see more support for the Silver Salmon. He points out that Juneau’s parks and recreation department is able to make it so swimmers don’t have to pay pool fees to participate in the club program.
“They need to be thinking this is one of the best youth programs in the community and it needs to be supported,” Marey said. “I believe they should do something not to put all the burden on the swim club.
“What ended up happening was that most of the year, we were fundraising.”
Marey has told Petersen that when questions come up, Marey will be available to answer them.
Marey also plans to visit Alaska once every two years to visit his three daughters and his son, who have all graduated high school and elected to stay in Alaska.
His daughter, Amirah, and son, Aladean, still live on the central Peninsula. Two of his other daughters, Adrienne and Lyla, live in Anchorage.
In the meantime, Marey said he is getting used to the heat and bustling nature of his town, and is enjoying a nice view of a valley that borders a natural preserve in front of his house.
“I definitely want to thank the community and the SoHi administration for the support they gave me,” Marey said. “Without them, our accomplishments would not have happened.”
Nor would the tattoo have happened.