Jeff Tunstall said some friends asked him why he and his wife Leah are building an addition onto their house.
“Two of your children are grown, and a third is a senior. Why do you need more space now?” they asked.
It’s so the kids and their families have plenty of room to come home for holidays, he replied.
At one time, considering North Carolina as home would have seemed odd to the Pittsburgh natives, but after 20 years in Surry County, the Tunstalls have dug deep roots.
Jeff is the assistant superintendent of Surry County Schools. Leah is the assistant director of the Armfield Civic and Recreation Center and an award-winning coach for East Surry.
All four daughters have earned all-conference honors on the East Surry swim team, and athletes from several schools owe part of their success to the Tunstalls’ swim group, the North Piedmont Aquatic Club.
Swimming as a sport didn’t exist in Surry County until the Tunstalls came along, and after two decades, they could be viewed as swimming royalty.
The story begins in the high school of Bethel Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s.
Jeff and Leah swam on a historic team that had won several conference championships and multiple state titles.
That established program was a great foundation for learning the sport, said Jeff.
Bethel Park’s league didn’t have any sort of all-conference honor, but the Tunstalls would have earned those recognitions if they were available.
Lean was an all-American swimmer and a Junior National qualifier.
In 1987, she was part of a girls’ team that won the state title.
At that state meet, Leah said she had no idea what the team scores were in real time.
Going into the final event, a relay race, the coach told the four girls that they needed to finish at least as high as fourth to clinch the title, she said.
The team finished in fifth, and the girls were so dejected. Then Leah saw her dad up in the stands celebrating. Why is he celebrating when we lost, she wondered. But, that made her curious because her dad was a meticulous note-taker at matches and filled a stack of notebooks over her high school years.
Sure enough, fifth place did give the team enough points to clinch the title.
Leah said she can still recall that race and the feeling of winning just like it was yesterday.
While they were on the same team for a couple of seasons, Jeff said he was two years ahead of Leah and didn’t know her at the time.
However, when he was a junior at the University of West Virginia, Leah joined his college team, too, and the pair quickly hit it off.
Jeff graduated in 1988 and worked in the Pittsburgh area for a couple of years.
In 1990, the two were married and soon moved to North Carolina when Jeff accepted a job at North Davidson High School.
Leah worked for a student loan company, but then they soon had two daughters, and she stayed home to raise them.
After five years teaching and coaching at North Davidson, Jeff said he was approached by some folks from Mount Airy, including Carol Burke, then a member of the Mount Airy City Schools board.
Reeves Community Center was building an indoor pool, and the school system wanted to start a swim team.
Jeff accepted the offer and moved to Mount Airy Middle School. Leah said she spent three or four years coaching swimming at the YWCA in Winston-Salem, but the long drive back and forth became too much.
While at North Davidson, Jeff had begun helping coach a swim team called North Piedmont Aquatic Club (PAC). Then, he said, he sort of inherited the team from the previous coach.
With the Tunstalls living in Surry County, Jeff decided to move the team up here, and Leah could join in.
Moving to this area seemed so crazy at the time, Leah said. There wasn’t even an indoor pool in the county, and yet they were uprooting themselves and two kids to come here.
During that five years at North Davidson, Jeff said the couple had discussions about going back to Pittsburgh and finding jobs.
“After moving to Mount Airy, that talk just sort of faded away,” he said.
Through the PAC team, the Tunstalls met Pilot Mountain attorney Tom Anderson.
Pilot was working on designs for a new civic center and wanted to include an indoor pool like RCC.
Jeff said he and Leah gladly gave their input to Anderson when asked, and a few years later the Armfield Civic and Recreation Center opened.
In 2001, Leah took over the swim team at East Surry.
Leah said the Mount Airy community was welcoming to the family when the Tunstalls first came here in 1995. Then when she began coaching at East Surry, the Pilot Mountain community was just as welcoming.
She’s about to start her 15th season with the Cardinals.
Leah says she’s not exactly sure how many coaching awards she’s garnered.
Jeff says he thinks she has earned seven Northwest Conference coach of the year awards in 14 seasons.
The award doesn’t automatically go to the best team, he pointed out. The coaches vote on the honor, so it shows the respect that Leah has earned from her peers.
The awards are flattering, but coaching has always been about the relationships built, she said. Watching these children grow into young adults. Tom and Ann Anderson’s daughter Cathy was on the PAC team in the early days; now she sends Leah messages about her swim team in Hong Kong.
Last year, the Tunstalls had their first second-generation swimmer as Anna Flippen, daughter of North Surry assistant principal Amber Flippen, joined the PAC team.
In 2003, Jeff left Mount Airy Middle to become assistant principal at Copeland Elementary.
Just a couple of years later he moved to Cedar Ridge Elementary to step up to principal.
In 2007, Jeff was promoted to Surry County Schools’ central office to become the director of student accountability.
During this time, the Tunstalls’ second child, Courtney, caught the acting bug as a child. She appeared in Surry Arts Council plays at the Andy Griffith Playhouse.
Jeff decided to give it a try himself, saying that he thought his first play was one he did with Courtney, “My Fair Lady.”
She has a beautiful singing voice and did a great job to be so young, he spoke of Courtney.
Jeff didn’t do too badly himself, winning an award from the arts council in 2006. He received the Opie for most outstanding newcomer.
Leah had her own hobby she started back then. She joined the hand bell choir at Central Methodist Church. Jeff joined her a few years later.
With both parents coaching and all four girls swimming, there really wasn’t much free time left over for anything else, Jeff noted. Swimming was a family affair.
That didn’t always make for the best dinner conversations, Leah admitted. Being the coaches for the girls did result in bringing the work home with them at times.
In November 2008, the eldest child, Kaitlyn, announced that she had chosen Campbell University over Catawba to continue her swimming career.
Caitlin was a four-time all-conference honoree. She also competed in the state 1A/2A in individual events and made top-six finishes to earn all-state status.
In her senior season in college, Caitlyn bested her mom’s best time in the 500 freestyle.
That was a big deal in the Tunstall household, said Jeff. Whenever the girls got a little too proud of their accomplishments, the parents could always remind them, “You’re not really fast until you’re faster than Mom.”
In January 2011, Surry County Schools recognized Jeff for completing his doctorate in educational leadership.
A few months later, Courtney announced that she wouldn’t be following her big sister to college, choosing Catawba over Campbell. However, teammate Chelsea Lawson did pick Campbell.
Like Caitlyn, Courtney was a four-time all-conference winner who competed at the state championship. She was conference champion in the 100 backstroke and finished 13th in the state in the 100 butterfly.
In June 2014, Jeff was promoted to assistant superintendent for student accountability and student services after the retirement of Terri Mosley.
These days, the Tunstalls’ two youngest children are both Cardinals.
Anne-Louise got her first all-conference honor as a freshman.
Kelsey, the third of the four girls, might be the most celebrated of the bunch when all is said and done.
The senior already has earned a whopping 12 all-conference honors — getting a high finish in four different events for all three seasons.
She has been a conference champion, regional champion, all-region honoree and state qualifier. For two of her three seasons, Kelsey earned all-state status.
And as for family bragging rights, Kelsey broke the Tunstall record in the 200 backstroke as a junior.
The family had a party for that, said Jeff. Not only did she beat her mom’s best time, but she did it with another year left in high school.
With two parents who were good swimmers, these four girls obviously have some good genes, but talent is only part of it, Jeff said. The parents are proud of the hard work the girls have put behind their talent in order to shine.
The coaching might have had a little bit to do with that as well.
Leah said she and Jeff had opposite strengths as swimmers themselves and that difference has given them fresh vantage points for coaching.
“We are very fortunate to have the Tunstalls working for Surry County Schools,” said Randy Marion, East Surry athletic director. Leah has built the swim program from scratch. Jeff has always been there to support her, help organize the meets and even drive the team bus.
Unlike baseball or basketball, Pilot Mountain doesn’t have a rich history of swimming, so it took bringing in some outside talent to develop a foundation here, Marion said.
It’s not just the Pilot kids who have benefited, either.
Students from Mount Airy, Surry Central and Elkin have taken part in the PAC team.
Leah said one of her favorite photographs shows some members of the team all wearing a sweatshirt representing their schools. However, on their heads, each swimmer wore a PAC hat, showing their unity.
Sure competition between rivals can bring out the best in kids, but those lines get blurry when the swimmers know each other outside school competition, said Leah.
One family that has seen this benefit are the Tuckers, whose children are in the Surry Central school district. Mark Tucker, athletic director at Surry Community College, said his oldest daughter, Avery, started swimming with the PAC team at age 7 and now is 14. Her younger sister Hadly, 12, also joined when she was 7.
“We knew Jeff and Leah well before we had children,” Tucker said of he and his wife Wendy. When the girls showed an interest in swimming, it was an easy decision to let them learn from the Tunstalls.
“Kids have had a great experience with Jeff and Leah,” Tucker said. Both coaches have tried to make the kids not only better swimmers, but better young people. The Tunstalls instill values and life lessons into coaching. Swimming is a big time commitment, but the girls are having a blast.
Kaitlyn and Courtney have now graduated from college. Both were four-year swimmers in college and team captains as seniors.
Kaitlyn, 24, is married and works as an accountant in Raleigh.
Courtney, fresh out of college, is in her first year at Rockford Elementary.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.