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A version of this story first appeared in SwimSwam Magazine’s Spring 2021 Issue. To subscribe to SwimSwam, order back issues or access them digitally, click HERE.
The US Ambassador to Chile (center) with Jim Montrella and Jill Griese (seated) and swimmers (standing.)
“We saw people’s heads blown off, were shot at, and saw bombs planted on bridges.” Part of a group of young swimmers representing the United States, Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno travelled to Chile in September 1973. Of her travel trip, Kirkpatrick-Reno said, “We all came home with PTSD.”
The swimmers were led by a young coach from Lakewood Aquatics in Southern California named Jim Montrella. They found themselves in the thick of the coup led by Augusto Pinochet that ousted Chilean President Salvador Allende.
“The trip to Peru and then Chile during a coup was a stand-alone event 47 years ago,” Montrella said. “The team was selected from the National Swimming Championships held in Louisville, Ky. Three teams were selected to travel to South America while the first and second-place finishers went on to the World Championships in Belgrade.”
Montrella’s group included eight swimmers, plus chaperone and assistant coach Jill Griese from Ohio. The swimmers were Nancy Kirkpatrick, Michelle Mercer, Anne Brodell, Sandi Johnson, Tom Szuba, Tim McDonnell, Steve Tallman and future Olympic gold medalist Mike Bruner.
A birthday celebration for one of the swimmers prior to the Chilean coup d’état .
Kirkpatrick-Reno was a promising 16-year-old swimmer from the Santa Clara Swim Club who trained with George Haines. “It was a post-Olympic year and a lot of us were hopefuls for the 1976 Olympic Team,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said. “We were coming in third and fourth places and moving up to the top of the ladder. It was before Title IX and we were a lot younger then.”
“The trip was sponsored by the United States Information Services; it went through the State Department,” Montrella said. “It was a People to People-type program to expose U.S. swimmers and athletes to different areas in Latin America.” Other sponsors were the Amateur Athletic Union and Phillips 66.
The trip began without incident in Lima, Peru. Over the first few days, the coaches and swimmers were treated like royalty. Prelims were held in the morning with the Peruvian swimmers. Then Montrella gave coaches’ clinics with his swimmers demonstrating. In the evenings they held finals.
“During the time in Lima, we had someone from the State Department taking us from the hotel to the pool. There was a female TV reporter who was with us and acted as an interpreter,” explained Montrella. “When we told the people in Lima we were headed to Santiago, they encouraged us not to go to because in their own words, they knew there was going to be a coup d’etat and we’d be at risk.”
Montrella said he talked to the ambassador or an assistant to the ambassador in Lima. He was told that it would be fine and that it was under control.
Swimmers relaxing in Peru. The fun part of the trip.
“From Lima we went to Santiago. There was a gentleman there from Washington D.C. who was in the Peace Corps and was coaching the Chilean National Team, Mark Lautman. We were supposed to do the same thing we did in Peru, competition and clinics.”
Kirkpatrick-Reno recalled her first days in Santiago:
“When we first arrived, we had a formal dinner with the Ambassador to Chile. We were told, ‘We’ve been having strikes, unrest and protests. We don’t want you to stay in the Presidential Hotel in downtown Santiago [which was next to La Moneda, the presidential palace.] We’re going to put you with families instead. Don’t wear USA sweats or uniforms because you would make good political prisoners.’”
Arriving at the airport in Santiago. Jim Montrella, far left, and and Nancy Kirkpatrick, third from left.
Kirkpatrick-Reno stayed with the president of the Chilean Swimming Federation. She said the family was welcoming but poor. The mother had to wait in line for hours for food. Kirkpatrick-Reno needed to get to the pool and the family didn’t have a car. Since the kids in the family were swimmers, she rode on the public bus with them and arrived late at the pool. “Jim was upset I was on the bus,” she said.
“My family didn’t have food and I felt really bad for them. They gave me a small loaf of bread, a couple cold cuts and a hard boiled egg. They had nothing to eat. They took me to my room and there was a portable heater. They didn’t have heat in the rest of the house. I tried to dry my wet towel with it. September in Chile is freezing cold.”
Kirkpatrick-Reno said that another swimmer on the trip, Tom Szuba, lived with a family whose parents worked as dentists. Unlike the family she stayed with, they had plenty of money and food. Szuba told her that he and the swimmer he was staying with would be able to use an extra family car to drive her to and from the pool. “They gave me a bag of food without letting my family know,” she said.
She explained that after a couple days of competition, the team was supposed to leave their host families and gather together and travel to a seaside resort town.
The Chilean swimmers and hosts. The swimmer Tom Szuba stayed with is on the far left.
“The Chilean coach Lautman picked up me and I think Tom, Tim, Michelle and Jim. We were heading to meet the rest of the team, but on the way there, military trucks were coming toward us. We watched as people opened their car doors and ran for cover. The coach told us to get down. I fell on the floor in the second seat. Tom fell on top of me to protect me. We heard bullets and saw charges being planted on a bridge. Lautman was driving like crazy against the traffic. Swimmers were all lying on the floor of the car. Lautman was trying to get us out of the area. He didn’t know where to go so he took us back to his apartment.
“On our way to meet up with everyone, the revolution had begun. Lautman had packed to go on the trip with us so he had almost no food in his apartment. He filled up bathtubs and sinks in his apartment with water so at least we’d have that. He had a bowl of fruit that we shared. We were stuck in his apartment for around three days.”
Montrella remembers that time, “We were staying in an apartment building on the 6th or 7th floor and we heard tanks in the street. Next door was the headquarters of a political faction. It was a two or three-story structure. I heard shooting.They absolutely shot up the political headquarters right next to us. It didn’t look like the same building after the tank got through with it.
“People in our building were shooting down at the tank. Right away I moved the kids into the interior of the apartment. We had a bullet come through one of our windows. It ricocheted off the ceiling and down into the interior. Then I got them out of the interior walls and I moved them closer to the windows and made sure all the blinds were closed. That way they didn’t get shot at through the walls or ricocheted off the stone ceilings to the interior.”
Kirkpatrick-Reno remembers them staying on the floor for most of the time and putting mattresses against the walls to protect from stray bullets. According to Montrella, she saved Mercer’s life by pulling her off a bunk bed where bullets came through moments later.
“We were in a 21-story apartment building. We watched them bomb the presidential palace. There were two bomber planes that swooped between the towers and dropped bombs on it. We saw 10 passes,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.
“The building shook every time a bomb was dropped. There was a a 24-hour curfew and we couldn’t go outside. Jim kept us in shape by having us run up and down the flights of stairs. But that made us hungry and we had hardly any food. It did get our mind off what was going on, though.”
She said that she and Mercer had candy bars hidden in their swim bags and they’d sneak bites once in a while. Then the boys found out and ate them all. “All we talked about was eating steak,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.
After three days, the government lifted the curfew during the day to allow people to buy food and other essentials. At that time the State Department had the swimmers moved further out of town to stay with embassy employees.
“It was kind of shocking once we moved outside of Santiago,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said. “It was a tale of two economies. The local people living there, like the family I stayed with, were poor and had nothing. They moved us to stay with an American woman in a big estate, who worked in the embassy. She had any kind of food you wanted in her freezers. It was sad to see the differences between the locals and Americans working for the State Department.”
Kirkpatrick and Szuba hanging with other swimmers out during the trip of a lifetime.
“We were told that Kissinger got us a flight out of Santiago,” Montrella said. “We thought the U.S. was going to supply a plane. What happened was we went to location A at the airport, dressed in our uniforms, and sat and sat and sat. Then we went to location B and we sat some more. Finally, we were walked out to a turbo prop plane.”
Montrella said he and Jill tried to stay positive for the swimmers, but when he saw the other passengers, he felt concerned. The plane was filled with passengers who were not Americans–perhaps Eastern Europeans or Soviets. Then the plane took off in the wrong direction.
“I didn’t know if it was by plan or chance, but we were literally flying through the Andes down deep mountain ravines and canyons. We weren’t flying over the Andes. Mountains were on either side of us,” Montrella said. “We landed in Buenos Aires. They offloaded everybody and we were in the furthest concourse away from everyone. All the Eastern Europeans walked away and they kept us at the end of the concourse.”
When the team was at the airport, Montrella spotted men in uniform 30 yards away. He told Jill to stay with the swimmers and he’d try to find out what was happening. The uniformed men told him, “You know why you were going through the Andes? Fighter pilots out of Argentina wanted to kill the Russians.” To this day, Montrella doesn’t know if this was fact or rumor.
“Theoretically we could have been shot out of the sky. So we were hiding in the mountains rather than going over them,” Montrella said.
Montrella, Jill and the swimmers were eventually flown to Miami where everyone went their separate ways. Montrella said he remembers being debriefed before heading to an ASCA clinic in Chicago. It wasn’t until the team landed in the U.S. that the kids were able to call their parents.
Kirkpatrick-Reno said her parents had gone to the San Francisco airport on the day she was supposed to return. That was the first time they learned something was wrong. They were told by the airline employees that no planes were leaving Chile, that the airport had been bombed along with the communication towers.
Her dad called the State Department, congressmen, assemblymen as well as the press. When she arrived home after 50 hours of travel, she was met by a crowd of press. She said she was surprised that nobody from the government or AAU ever reached out to them with a letter or phone call.
“I don’t remember who told us to stay with families, rather than the hotel by the Presidential Palace, and not to wear our uniforms. But they must have known something was going on. In hindsight they must have thought it would look funny if we didn’t come,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.
Montrella wasn’t sure if the U.S. government thought they’d be okay, or if they were considered expendable. He was very upset and angry at having been put in the middle of a coup if the government was aware. “My total concern was for the kids’ safety. I felt responsible for the kids and also I knew their coaches personally and professionally,” he added.
In a lighter tone Montrella said, “We had t-shirts made up later and mailed them to the swimmers that said Chilean Coup Crew 1973. I still have my shirt.”
Nancy Kirkpatrick back home with newspapers she smuggled out of Chile.
1973 Time Magazine cover of the Coup
A Newsweek cover from 1973.
Jim Montrella’s legendary coaching career includes becoming an NCAA-winning Ohio State Women’s Swimming and US Olympic coach. Montrella also produced the first commercially sold hand paddles.
Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno was one of the first female swimmers to be awarded a college scholarship under Title IX. She is the head coach of Conejo Valley Multisport Masters and was USMS Coach of the Year in 2009.
Paul Jeffers grew up in Orange County in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. During much of that time, his home club was the Sammy Lee Swim School. According to Jeffers, “I was extremely fortunate to have joined the Sammy Lee Swim School, which gave young swimmers and divers a chance to compete on a local, regional and national level.”
One of Jeffers teammates at the Sammy Lee Swim School and at University of Southern California was Bill Brown. Brown majored in Cinema at USC and is working on a documentary about Dr. Sammy Lee. “I am assisting in the collection of stories, photos and related memorabilia from that period of time,” Jeffers said.
Lee was the 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medalist on the 10 meter platform event, making him the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving. He was also the first Asian-American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.
Lee, of Korean descent, rose to fame in the United States in a difficult time for Asian-Americans. He won his first gold medal in the first Olympic Games after the end of World War II, during which the United States interred many citizens of Asian descent.
Korea was controlled by the United States until the end of World War II, Two years after his first gold medal, on June 25th, 1950, civil war broke out in Korea between the communist-support north and the American-supported south, further raising tensions. The war didn’t end until after Lee earned his second Olympic gold medal.
Jeffers moved to Anaheim in 1955 with his family when Disneyland opened. “Upon my arrival, I joined the Hawaiian Village Recreation Club. They were just starting a swim team,” Jeffers said. This club team wasn’t affiliated with AAU but had seven swim teams in their league including the Blue Buoys Swim School and Sea Horse in Garden Grove. Jeffers described it as a wonderful league for club swimming. In 1961, Jeffers migrated to Sammy Lee Swim School which was located at 2511 Lincoln Blvd.in Anaheim. Rick Rowland was his swim coach and was also the Garden Grove High School coach. Rowland brought over his high school swimmers to the Sammy Lee Swim School. In the next two years, Rowland left and was replaced by Lee Arth. Arth alsocoached Fullerton High School swimmers and he brought them to the team as well. The diving program was entirely Dr. Sammy Lee’s domain, according to Jeffers.
“The swim school had a great reputation and was a hotbed of great swimmers, the most notable was Gary Hall. We were winning championships at Junior Olympics for example. That’s when the Sammy Lee Swim School became a dominant part of my teenage life. I was going to meets every weekend. We had dual meets and we had AAU sanctioned meets that we trained for. Those were all over Orange County and Los Angeles,” Jeffers said.
In this July 28, 1960, file photo, Paula Jean Myers Pope, right, who hopes to qualify for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Women’s Diving Team, goes through a workout on a trampoline under the watchful eye of her coach, Olympic star Sammy Lee in Anaheim, Calif. Lee, a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning diver who later mentored four-time Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. Lee died Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 of pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif., the University of Southern California said Saturday, Dec. 3. He was 96. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)
“I arrived at age 13, so Gary Hall was in the 7-8 age group. Every time he moved up an age group, he’d dominate his group. He was the Don Schollander of younger age group swimming. Gary’s mother was a fantastic fan, she was in the stands at every meet and practice. She was the classic swim mom. His father was a doctor. The pool was beginning to fill up with some good swimmers, with Gary being the most famous.”
In 1964 , Jeffers qualified for Olympic Trials with several teammates including Dennis West, Andy Strenk and the coach’s daughter Sydney. According to Jeffers, “We were represented in good force at the Olympic Trials where we had many Olympians attending from our area.”
Jeffers remembered the excitement of his trip to Olympic Trials with the Sammy Lee Swim School. “It was my first trip to New York. One of the swimmers on the team was originally from New York and her dad was a vice president with Squibb (now Bristol Myers Squibb). We stayed in a luxury setting in Larchmont. They took us to see all the sights. That was during the 1964/1965 World’s Fair. That was a fantastic trip for an 18 year old to see NewYork.”
Jeffers said that Sammy Lee was on the upper level of competitive teams. “I was a breaststroker. I wasn’t a speed demon, but I had endurance so 200s were my forte. I got into the finals at Olympic Trials and I got 7th. I was a few spots short of qualifying for the 1964 team. I look back on it and I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I do,” he said.
“One of my teammates, Gary Hall, Sr., went on to compete on the grandest stage of all to become the flag bearer at the 1972 Olympic Games in Montreal. His son, Gary Hall, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps to become a Gold Medal winner 20 years later at the Olympic Games. There were six other SLSS swimmers that went on to capture medals at the Olympic Games, including Steve Furniss in 1972, his brother Bruce Furniss in 1976, Dana Schrader in 1968, Andy Strenk in 1968, Rod Strachan in 1976 and Bill Johnson in 1968.”
Gary Hall, Sr. as flag bearer at the 1972 Olympic Games in Montreal.
Dr. Sammy Lee coached two Olympic Divers, Bob Webster and Paula Jean Myers-Pope. They trained in the diving end of the pool while Jeffers swam. They went on to win gold medals in Olympic competition. Webster duplicated Lee’s two consecutive gold medals on the Tower in 1960 in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo. Dr. Sammy Lee also coached Greg Louganis who has been called “the greatest American diver,” having won back-to-back gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics.
Jeffers swim career continued after graduating from Anaheim and Savanna High Schools. “I enrolled at the University of Southern California and swam on a three-time NCAA national championship team under Peter Daland. Southern California was truly the hotbed for the sport of swimming at that time and attracted swimmers from all over the world to compete with the many clubs and colleges that had advanced swim programs to offer,” he said.
“When I went to USC and swam with Peter Daland, he already had established a championship team the year before I got there. I got to enjoy National Championships for the next three years. One of my teammates from USC did make the Olympic team in ’64, Wayne Anderson.”
Paul Jeffers at USA Wall of Champions
According to Jeffers, his best swimming success was in his sophomore year when he placed second at NCAAs in Ames, Iowa. “At that time there were only six finalists and four of them were from USC. Jeffers said breaststroke teammates included Kim Doesburg, from Newport High, who made the ’68 Olympic team, and Bill Craig who won the 100 breast. Craig qualified for the ’68 Olympic medley relay team and came home with a gold medal.
“Swimming on a top flight team, you’re looking across the pool at Olympians and gold medal winners. It was exhilarating to share a pool with some of the world’s greatest swimmers. I got to see from the ground up, from club swimming to AAU age grouper, to collegiate swimmer. That experience was my life.”
Gary Hall’s Sammy Lee Swim School sweats.
Jeffers parents weren’t involved with swimming except for one glaring exception — the year Jeffers qualified for Olympic Trials at age 18. “That was the Olympic year 1964. My dad had been detached from swimming, but the excitement of Olympic competition got to him and he went and bought a stopwatch. He’d be on the deck of the Buena Park 50-meter pool at 6 a.m. with his stopwatch. That’s when I knew this was really serious,” he said.
“I was surrounded by the best swimmers and divers in the world from right here at home in Orange County. My roots in the sport are deep and long lasting. I am now living in Laguna Woods and thoroughly enjoy swimming for fun and exercise,” Jeffers said.
Swimmers from the Sammy Lee Swim School at the podium.
Dr. Sammy Lee, Olympic Gold Medalist and Doctor:
Dr. Lee overcame years of racial prejudice with a positive attitude and hard work. As a young diver aspiring to be an Olympian, he was only allowed to practice diving Wednesdays at the Pasadena’s Brookside Park segregated public pool on “International Day.” The pool was drained after International Day and white children swam the other six days a week. His coach at the time, dug a hole and filled it with sand so Sammy Lee could practice the rest of the week. He believed diving into sand made his legs stronger and was helpful to his Olympic aspirations.
He attended Occidental College where he was able to dive each day in a pool with teammates and pursue his Olympic dreams. His parents, who sacrificed to come to America and start a small business, pressured Sammy to become a doctor. He was able to do both.
Although Dr. Sammy Lee served in the Army during the Korean War, was an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist — and an Olympic Gold Medalist — he encountered more prejudice. He was blocked from buying a home in Orange County.
Here’s an excerpt from an NPR article, Sammy Lee: Climbed Above Racism, Dove Into Olympic History by Karen Grigsby Bates:
As a civilian, Lee discovered that his status as a veteran didn’t shield him from prejudice. He and his wife Rosalind were turned away when they wanted to buy a home in one part of Orange County. Eventually, they bought a home nearby from a sympathetic developer. Eventually they owned a house with a pool, where Lee coached students. He also coached divers for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Later, he’d mentor Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, and he served as an ambassador to the Olympics under three presidents.
Jon Urbanchek got his start as a swim coach in Southern California at the Sammy Lee Swim School. Read his story here.
Here are memorabilia from Jeffers Sammy Lee Swim School Days:
AAU Age Group patches.
In response to this post, I received the following email from a former Sammie Lee swimmer and diver recalling their days at the swim and dive school:
My younger brother, Paul who was a Santa Ana High School swimmer in the early days just sent me your So Cal Swim History link.
I was so delighted to read about the early days at Sammy Lee Swim School.
So happens I was there at the very, very beginning of the organizing of Sammy Lee Swim School and thought you might like another’s perspective.
For me and my friend Dave Fielding it all started as a young teenagers on the Santa YMCA swim team.
Early on the Santa Ana Y got a new trampoline; this was a pretty big deal as it was in the 1950’s.
Bob Retchwig was the Physical Director at the Y and he set up regular times for trampoline practice.
Prior to that time Bob had organized a gymnastic program at the Y and Ray Reyes and Bob Webster (who was later an Olympic medal recipient in diving) were prominent participants at that time.
One of the helpers or coaches that I met in the trampoline program was Jim Gundry.
When Jim Gundry heard on the local news about Dr. Sammy Lee, former Olympic diving champion he made an appointment to get an ear exam but what he really wanted was to introduce Sammy to Bobby Webster who was a very talented gymnast, trampoline performer and beginning diver.
This all speaks very well about Jim and his enthusiasm for others because though now forgotten, Jim was the essential link to it all happening.
Eventually Sammy invited Jim, Ray, Bobby and others including myself to his home, then in Garden Grove to practice on his diving board which was combined not with a pool but a back yard pile of sand. So all “dives” had to end up feet first.
As time went on, Sammy’s very charming wife put on a birthday party for Sammy and invited us all to the party. During the party Sammy mentioned the need for a swim facility with diving boards where we all could practice.
In the following days while speaking with Bob Retchwig he mentioned that Sammy’s comments got his attention and he had a follow up conversation with him regarding starting a swim school.
Bob and Ralph Longbothem, who worked then as head of either the Santa Ana or Orange County Recreation Departments worked together as a result looking for such a facility.
Next thing I knew there was a Sammy Lee Swim School on Lincoln Ave in Anaheim with Sammy, Bob and Ralph as organizers. One of my first jobs in life was as lifeguard a Sammy Lee Swim School, Ray Reyes was the manager and diving coach.
Vivid in my memory was Ray and Sammy coaching me in learning a forward 2 1/2 tuck on the one meter board. I kept opening up early with a big slap on the face with each try but they encouraged me to keep trying and eventually I got it.
Something I should have mentioned is that when Rick Rowland came over from Garden Grove High School where he was also a swimming coach, he brought with him Jim Griffiths. Jim was a diving coach and worked a lot with Linda Cooper who went on to earn an Olympic medal for diving.
So there were two from Sammy Lee swim school divers who earned Olympic medals that I knew: Linda Cooper and Bob Webster who when he was younger we all knew him as Bobby Webster. After I went to college in 1960 and gave up on diving I worked out once with Sammy at the City of industry swim pool and I believe it was Greg Louganis that Sammy was coaching. Someone who was a Sammy Lee Swim School employee back then who I think may have been a children’s swim teacher with whom I once had a conversation about careers was Judy Woodruff who told me then that she wanted to be a news broadcaster and now we all recognize Judy Woodruff of PBS fame. Her sister Karen was a regular at the swim school back then as well. Also, someone who was an up and comer diver was Jack Fury, I don’t know what ever happened to him. Would love to touch base with any of those I have mentioned as I’ve totally lost contact.
Wagner had landed the job as head coach of Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team (FAST) in April of that year, and with the role came the responsibility of coaching arguably the most dominant figure in the sport at the time.
“Bud (McAllister) had been the coach before, and there were a lot of good kids on that team,” said Wagner during a phone interview. “That was a great experience. I was there for three years, I really enjoyed it.”
After graduating from the University of Nebraska, the now 62-year-old Wagner moved out to Arizona with a friend looking to get their coaching careers underway.
“Our first job was moving tables and chairs at a hotel, but we got a small club going, and then I wound up moving to Scottsdale Aquatic Club,” he said. “I became the head coach there.”
After finding success in Scottsdale, Wagner was hired to become the assistant coach at the University of Arizona underDick Jochums. After six years Jochums departed, and Frank Busch was hired as the new head coach.
“(Frank) brought his own staff, so I was out of a job,” said Wagner.
As it turned out, it didn’t take Wagner long to be hired, as just days later he received a call from Janet’s mother, Barbara Evans, telling him about the vacant position with FAST.
“It was just kind of coincidence,” he said. “The same week I found out I wasn’t going to be working anymore at Arizona she called me and said, ‘Look we have an opening at Fullerton, are you interested?’ And I said, ‘Ya,’ and so I came out in April (1989), and started working with the world’s best swimmer.”
Evans, 17 at the time, was less than a year removed from a dominant performance at the 1988 Olympics where she won three gold medals in the women’s 400 free, 800 free and 400 IM. She was also the world record holder in the 400, 800 and 1500 free at the time.
31 years later, one practice in particular still stands out in Wagner’s mind.
“We did 6×400, alternating one free and one IM,” he said. “I think the freestyles were on 6:00, and the IM was 6:30, and they were descending. She got down to 4:11 in the freestyle and then 4:49 in the 400 IM — and that was on back-to-back repeats.
“I was in the presence of greatness. As a coach, think about how many times you have people like that that you get to work with.”
For context on how absurdly fast those swims were, Evans’ world record at the time in the 400 free (which incredibly wasn’t broken until 2006) was 4:03.85, and the 400 IM record was 4:36.10 (she had set the American Record in Seoul in 4:37.76).
“So she swam fast all spring and all summer, and she won five events at Nationals,” said Wagner. “We had the girls 16 & over team break the national record in the 800 free relay.
“There was a good supporting cast of kids that trained with her, she made everybody a lot better. Practices, I really enjoyed them. They were a lot of fun. I think everybody had a pretty good time.”
After Nationals, Wagner was selected to coach for the U.S. at the 1989 Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo.
“That’s where things kind of changed for me,” he said.
Wagner recalls the final night of competition, in particular, was electric. Four world records went down, including Evans resetting her mark in the 800 free.
“Tom Jager won the 50, Dave Wharton was 2:00.1, that was a world record (in the 200 IM),Mike Barrowman won the 200 breast and that was a world record, and then Janet broke the world record in the 800 free.”
It was only one day earlier when Evans annihilated the field in the 400 free, winning by almost seven seconds in 4:04.53. However, she had missed her PB from the previous year of 4:03.8.
“She won that by 25 yards,” said Wagner. “I mean, she was all by herself.
“I remember telling her (before the 800), I said ‘You know, I think you can break the world record.’ And she did not like that. She said: ‘I’m not interested in that, I want to go my best time.’ Well, her best time was the world record,” he laughed.
Final results of the women’s 800 freestyle.[/caption]
Evans would knock her record of 8:17.12 from March of 1988 down to the legendary 8:16.22, a mark that would stand for almost 19 years.
Having brought the race home sub-1:01 over the final 100, Evans had jammed her hand on the finish, which Wagner believes led to a broken finger.
“I remember she was really happy, but she was holding her hand, and there’s blood coming down her finger, and, it was just an amazing moment in time.”
From there, Evans would attend Stanford to begin her college career, while Wagner got hired to be an assistant to Mark Schubert at USC, where Evans ended up coming to train.
“You had some amazing sets (at USC),” he said. “I remember those guys were doing, 10 or 12 300s on 3:10 (SCY), it was a pretty tight interval, and she was holding 2:50s on all of them. I saw that and I was like, ‘Holy cow’. And I think she beat all the guys.
“Getting 20 seconds of rest and holding that, I thought that was really, really impressive. Maybe someone else has done something like that since, but when I saw it I hadn’t seen or heard of anybody doing anything quite like that. She was really amazing.”
Wagner would go on to coach at several major international competitions, including acting as head women’s coach at the 1995 World University Games in Fukuoka. He was also an assistant coach at the 1990 Goodwill Games and the 1991 Pan Pacs.
“They were fantastic experiences, and I made a number of other trips and I attribute all of it to having the opportunity to work with Janet.”
After USC, he served as the head coach for four years at both Texas A&M University and the University of Alabama.
“I got to rub elbows with every great coach, and people tell me that I’ve met everybody,” he said. “And I feel like throughout my career in swimming I have met pretty much everybody.”
For the last seven years, Wagner has been running his own team, Phoenix Aquatic Club, located in Palisades, New York.
“I’ve got about 120 kids, we’re not very big but we’ve got a lot of good kids,” he said. “It’s kind of a family environment. My son Ryan, who has just finished grad school, is now my assistant So I have four really, really good coaches.”
With the Tri-state area being particularly hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wagner isn’t sure when his swimmers will be able to get back in a pool, but they are planning to begin open water swimming in New Jersey shortly while maintaining their daily Zoom dryland workouts.
Once things begin to be reopened, he’s looking forward to helping out the kids who have had their summer league seasons cancelled.
“One of the things that we want to do is try to provide summer league experience for a lot of those kids,” he said. “That’s their summer, and we think we’ve got the space to do it, and accommodate them and do it under the CDC guidelines.”
Wagner has thoroughly enjoyed running his own program since 2013, and will continue sharing his love for the sport with the next generation.
“I always want to coach from a positive perspective, and if I can make it fun for them it’s fun for me. And that’s how I like to do it, and my coaches feel the same way.”
Steve Quan on deck at the Palm Springs Memorial Weekend meet.
Steve Quan has been a fixture at meets in Southern California Swimming for close to three decades quietly working behind the scenes. His entry into the world of swimming was as a swim parent. He grew up in Southern California and earned an athletic scholarship for tennis at UC Irvine. He said his wife was the swimmer and she swam at Cal State Fullerton and Golden West. Her swim experience included coaching for Mike Dickson from Chaffey College and Hillside. Quan and his wife moved their young family to Steamboat Springs, CO where he worked with the local police department. The reason for the move was to be a ski family—not a swim family.
After several years, they returned to Mission Viejo where their adventure in swimming began on a Nadadores satellite summer league team 27 years ago.
“You have to time,” his wife told him at their first summer league meet. “I have to what?” he asked. He said his wife had to show him how to use a stop watch. He said his first years as a swim parent “were chained to the grill for 12 hours a day. I never got to see my kids swim.” Once the parent in charge of the timing system moved on, he jumped at the chance. Fast forward 23 years, and that’s what where you’ll find him. He said when they joined the Nadadores, it was around the same time that Bill Rose took over as Head Coach.
He volunteered at every single meet the Nadadores held and volunteered at Olympic Trials in Long Beach as deck security. The team told him he couldn’t volunteer anymore after his kids had grown moved on from the swim program. From then on, he was paid to run the timing operation and maintain the equipment.
Quan owns his own timing system with touch pads and is hired by teams to help at their swim meets. He has worked at Sectional meets, the Janet Evans Invitational and age group meets, working at 75 meets per year. “Some meets are more fun to watch than others,” he said.“People forget that meets are meets. It’s fun to watch kids as they develop through their swimming careers.” You can find him at meets throughout California and Nevada including at Mission Viejo, Bakersfield, Las Vegas, Pam Springs, and Santa Maria.
THOUGHTS ABOUT SWIMMING
“Kids want to quit when they reach high school, if they don’t feel like there’s a place for them. Teams that coach to the swimmer’s ability and goals are the most successful,” Quan said. “It’s hard to let kids know that swimming is a journey. Until you take the entire journey, you won’t know where it will take you. There’s aways a place to swim, even though at the time it may not seem to go well. And when you’re done, there’s Masters–and Masters means so much to many people.”
Looking back at 27 years he’s been involved with swimming, Quan said, “Swimming hasn’t changed that much. Coaching hasn’t changed.” What he sees as the biggest change is dryland and core muscle development. “It has to begin after puberty. Late high school and college is the time to develop.”
According to Quan, “parents don’t realize that there is no correlation between age group and what they do as adults.” His advice to newer swim parents: “Let children develop to whatever they aspire to be.” He mentioned that in his years as an age group swim dad, he never knew his kids time and that made him popular with the coaches.
Quan has never aspired to serve on the board of his team, but instead said, “I’m a public service kind of guy with a public service ethic.”
Quan retired in 2008 as a sergeant with the UC Irvine Police Department after a 32-year career. He foresees working on deck for many more years.
Cal State Fullerton swim team, early 1970s. Hanauer on the ladder, near the bottom rung.
Did you know that the grab start—the dive used today—was developed by a Southern California swim coach? Eric Hanauer, former coach of Newport Harbor High School and Cal State Fullerton, described how the grab start began.
“My first real job was at Morgan Park High School in Chicago in the late ‘50s early ‘60s,” Hanauer explained. “We won a couple city championships, which had never been done by the school previously. There was another coach of a suburban school who had a swimmer who had polio and experienced trouble staying steady on the starting blocks. He looked up in the rule books and there was nothing against grabbing the blocks, so this swimmer, just to steady himself, would grab the block and then dive in. It wasn’t done to gain any advantage or anything. His legs weren’t strong enough to support him on the blocks.”
After leaving Chicago for graduate school at UCLA, Hanauer worked there as a volunteer assistant coach for swimming and water polo. His first job after UCLA was as a swimming and water polo coach at Newport Harbor High School.
Hanauer described his time as a high school coach: “We had a sprinter at Newport Harbor named Steve Farmer. He was a really good sprinter but had a tendency to false start. He qualified for CIF finals in the 50 yard free. We wanted to do something to prevent a false start so I remembered from my days in Chicago about grabbing the blocks. Back then, there was a week between CIF prelims and finals and during that week we had Steve work on the grab start. He added something to what I told him and that’s the pulldown which was the essential secret of the grab start at that time. At finals, I called over the starter and referee and Steve demonstrated the grab start. They could find nothing against it in the rule book, so the officials agreed he could use it. That’s what made it an advantage. At CIF finals, Steve got out in front, didn’t hit his turn and get the optimum push off and ended up second.”
After that year, Hanauer was offered the job to start the swim program at Cal State Fullerton and he taught all the swimmers the grab start. Steve enrolled at UC Irvine with coach Ted Newland and showed his team the grab start there.
“It started to go around in Southern California and eventually reached Northern California. Mark Spitz used the grab start in the 1972 Olympics and won seven medals and then it was well known throughout the world.”
Hanauer gave more details on the grab start being developed: “I went to grad school at USC for a Ph.D. in Kinesiology and wrote a paper on the grab start. We filmed a grab start and regular start in slow motion at 120 frames a second and analyzed it. I wrote up the advantages of the grab start for Swimming Technique and it was published in Swimming World magazine. There was a man in Ohio who wanted to make a chart on the grab start. I sent him the film and he drew the steps and I annotated them.”
“In 1981 I spent a month coaching in Kerala, India, preparing the state team for the national championships and running clinics for the coaches. I had been out of coaching 8 years, so I spent a lot of time at Mission Viejo watching Mark Schubert run his workouts. Mark’s reaction when I told him I was going to India: “Too bad you’re not going to Europe.” It turned out to be a fantastic experience, and triggered a wanderlust that continues to this day.”
Born in Germany, Hanauer said they moved to Chicago when he was three years old. He said he flunked YMCA Tadpole three times, but his mom kept him enrolled until he finally passed on the fourth time. Hanauer swam for his high school and college and “was a PE major and a water rat, so coaching kind of fit.”
“Cal State Fullerton dropped swimming in 1974,” Hanauer said. “A year prior, they moved from DII to DI because of football. Although we made the top 10 in Nationals twice in DII and had many All Americans, the budgets were cut in half for non-revenue producing sports, so Hanauer resigned. He had tenure in Kinesiology and began teaching Diving (scuba, not spring or platform).
From that time on, Hanauer became more involved with diving and is known in that community for his underwater videos and photography. He began writing for dive magazines and his articles are read worldwide. Peter Daland was an acquaintance and Hanauer saw him after several years at the 1984 Olympics, which Hanauer was attending as a spectator. “I told him I was really into diving and Peter asked where I was coaching spring and platform diving. I said, no I’m teaching scuba diving. The sports are in the water but there is so much separation between swim and dive and scuba diving.”
Although Eric Hanauer made his first dives in Chicago’s lakes and quarries in 1959, he didn’t focus primarily on diving until 15 years later. In the meantime he was a successful swimming and water polo coach at Morgan Park High School (Chicago) and at California State University Fullerton. He developed the grab start, which is now used by swimmers worldwide.
Hanauer founded the scuba program at Cal State Fullerton, and when he moved from coaching into teaching began shooting pictures underwater instead of shooting fish. He introduced thousands of students to the underwater world during his 35 years as an associate professor of physical education. In 1977, he broke into a new field with his first article in Skin Diver magazine. Over the past 30 years, his photos and articles have been published in magazines, books, posters, and CDs worldwide. He has written guidebooks to the Red Sea and Micronesia, as well as an oral history of diving in America (see Publications page). Currently Hanauer is primarily shooting underwater video, and his work as been selected for showing in festivals, on the internet, on iTunes, and in TV commercials. He is past president of the San Diego Undersea Film Exhibition (UFEX).
Born in Stuttgart, Germany and raised in Chicago, Eric was educated in the Chicago Public Schools, then earned a BS in Physical Education at George Williams College, and an MS in Kinesiology at UCLA. His wife, Karen Straus, is also an active diver and underwater photographer. They live in San Diego.
Pearl Miller is loved and remembered by former Piranhas.
Pearl Miller, an early coach for the Piranha Swim Team, had a major impact on the community and her athletes. She grew the team from a small rec team of 25 in Palm Springs to league champions and her swimmers became competitive throughout Southern California. The team which began in 1967 flourished to more than 135 athletes under Pearl’s leadership from 1969 to 1974.
I learned from several “original” Piranha swimmers that they remember her fondly. They said she was an excellent stroke coach and brought out the best in her young athletes. She held a contest to name the team and because of her, it’s now the Piranha Swim Team. One swimmer, Bill Corrigan, whose team records still stand from 1979 to 1981, swam with her in 1969 when he joined the team. He said he took private lessons and swam with her as a young child through Masters until the early 1990s. Another swimmer, Jane Taylor Wang, remembers being coached by her as a young Piranha and swam laps with her as an adult.
The Piranha Swim Team, first known as the Palm Springs Swim Club, got its start two years before Pearl became head coach. Two lifeguards who worked for the city’s leisure services started the team at the pool which was located at Palm Springs High School. According to Taylor Wang, who was with the team from its inception, Phil Poist and Doug McKell charged swimmers a quarter to swim with the team after hours. During the first two years, the team had five different coaches beginning with George Wenzel.
Many swimmers throughout the area were taking private lessons from Pearl in their backyard pools. She previously coached in Seattle and for a local Coachella Valley team called the Corvinas. She was approached to take over as head coach by Palm Springs Leisure Services and a volunteer group of parents who ran the team. According to Taylor Wang, she was the first real head coach of the Piranhas. Taylor Wang also said it was a very small town and everybody knew each other. Everybody who was anybody was on the team, from the head of Chamber of Commerce to business executives, business owners and her own father, the local director of the FBI. The parent volunteers gave a lot of support to Pearl and helped the team with fundraising for a new pool and equipment, which is the home base for Piranhas today.
From Pearl Miller’s Obituary in the Seattle Times, 1993:
“The woman affectionately known as “coach” gave many infants and children swimming lessons. She taught Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandson, Delano; Bing Crosby’s kids and Rod Taylor’s daughter, among others.”
Taylor Wang said Pearl called her swimmers “Dum Dums” and followed up by rewarding swimmers with lollipops by the same name. The accomplishments of the swimmers grew because the swimmers worked hard for Pearl.
From a Desert Sun article from the early 1970s, the term “Pride of Palm Springs” was used to describe her athletes:
The Southern California Metropolitan Athletic Federation finals in Bell Gardens were next. The SCMAF finals attract the best swimmers from each southern California city’s recreational team. All swimmers must qualify in regional meets prior to the finals. Twenty three Piranhas had qualified at Corona on August 8. Coach Pearl Millers’ swimmers were swimming against 800 top swimmers with up to four heats in some events.
The results make this outstanding group of young athletes the “pride of Palm Springs.”
Pearl loved swimming and flew each year to Hawaii to compete in a Senior Olympic meet for US Masters Swimming. An accomplished swimmer who began swimming competitively for Masters at age 72, Pearl had numerous top swims in her age groups until she was 92. As a result of her success, Pearl was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Below are some of her accomplishments from the USMS database:
Following are articles and photos from Pearl’s legacy in Palm Springs:
With Pearl as head coach of the Piranha Swim Team, the swimmers raised funds for the pool which is the home base for Piranhas today. In addition to Palm Springs, Piranhas practice in Palm Desert and Grand Terrace.
May 8, 1972 The Desert Sun
Piranhas: Number One And Working To Stay There By JULIE BALMER Staff Writer
The Palm Springs Piranha Swim Team is working toward an enviable goal to remain in its place as Number One. The swim team, which has grown from a small team of 25 swimmers in 1968 to a membership of 135 is now practicing, five times a week in preparation for July 29. That’s when the Piranhas will defend their title of 1970-71 Valley Swim League Champion, competing against teams from Beaumont, Colton, Fontana, Bloomington, Yucaipa. San Jacinto-Hemet, and Grand Terrace. In addition, the team wants to make a good showing in dual swim meets which will be held each week beginning June 17. The group has decided this year to hold an International Swimming Hall of Fame Swim-A-Thon on June 10 in order to raise money for the transportation fund, it is hoped that the Piranhas will be able to rent buses for transportation to out-of-town meets. Part of the money raised will go to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, and to pay for sending American Swimmers abroad for international competition. Seventy per cent of the money raised will go to local programs. The team is sponsored by the Palm Springs Department of Leisure Services and supported by contributions from the Independent Poolmen’s Association, club dues and contributions from interested community citizens. Members, who range in age from six through 17, practice from 4 to 7 p.m. five days a week.
From September to April, they meet three times a week to practice and after that meet more often in an all-out effort to be ready for the summer swim meets. There are plenty of swimmers in the eight-and-under age groups to compete for team victories, but the Piranhas now need more swimmers in the 13-14-year-old category. In addition, the team would like to have black and Mexican swimmers, since the group is designed for all youths. The team swims all year, except in August, when it takes a one month break. Newcomers must be able to swim across the pool, but do not have to have strokes perfected because there are stroke coaches. Participants compete in the breast stroke, relays, butterfly stroke, free style, individual medleys and long-distance racing. The club coaches do not teach diving.
The team hopes that newcomers will join immediately because they will need as much time as possible to be taught strokes and to practice for the summer meets. About 50 more students are expected to join before the summer. Prior to the League Championship, the Palm Springs Piranhas will play every team in the league during dual meets. The swim team is coached by Pearl Miller, known for her leadership in competitive swimming and herself the 1970 and 1971 senior Olympics winner for persons 73 years and older. Mrs. Miller, well known for having developed swimmers throughout Southern California and the Northwest, came to the desert to retire from teaching and coaching. But once here, she became more active than ever. Along with Dick Whitmore, director of Coachella Valley recreation, she organized the Corvina Swim Club, producing many champions, some on the national level. When approached by the Palm Springs Club Council to help with this program, she agreed to help in stroke only. However, in time she consented to handle all the duties of coach, winning the League championship last year. Assistant coach is Tony Guimaraes. The group is guided by an adult advisory council which meets once a month to coordinate team activities. Council members are Ray Hutchison, president; Neil Williams, vice president: Marge Corrigan secretary; Emilie Warren, treasurer; Sally Givens, transportation; Gay Rosenberg, publicity; Tianna Sanders and Dr. A Milauskas, ways and means; Ken Gianotti, Leisure Services Department representative; and Dean Lively. The advisory council performs a number of tasks, including: Conducting surveys to determine community aquatic interests and needs. Arranging transportation for youth participating in swimmeets away from the community pool. Promoting publicity for community aquatic activities. Recruiting additional volunteers from within the community.Administering the Swim Club Trust Fund. Establishing a yearly financial plan related to the competitive swim program and special aquatic events. Planning fund-raising activities and events for community pool construction, swim scholarships and club supplies. Conducting in service training sessions for new members on how to effectively officiate at the swim meets. Officiating at the team swim meets. Developing and publishing a monthly newsletter. Planning and organizing a yearly awards banquet.
Swimmers are Kevin Ambler, leannie Brown, Yvette Batista, Clifford Bentsen, Nancy Bentsen, Mark Bescos, Bill Bobb, Steve Bramble, Matt Bramble, Bill Corringan Tom
On your mark, get set . . . they’re off and swimming in one of the practice sessions held by the Piranha Swim team at the high school pool. Students are planning dual meets with other league teams, a Swtm-A-Thon and the league championship. The hard work paid off last year, because the local swimmers won the league championship title.
(Close, Jim Coulton, Stacy Dajuiels, Lori DeCoito, Alan DesIrnond, Andrea Durazo. Robyn Eastman, Brent Eastman, Lisa Eckstrom, Drew Fitzmorris, Wendy Friedman, Tim Givens, Kelly Golding, Walter Golding, Jackie Gill, Terrie Heathman, Lars Holm, i Kathy Hutchison, Bill Hutchison, Colleen Kellogg, Curtis Kellogg, Julie Krauss, Julio Lively, Bobbie Lively, Brett Mattison, Doug Magill, Carleen Mandolfo, Tony Mandolfo, John Mayer, Kevin Milauskas, Michael Milauskas, Scott Miller, Perry Martineau, Caley Rhodes, Jeff Riddick, Scott Riddick, Denise Rosenberg, David Reichle. Kim Sanders, Jim Schilling, Heidi Schilling, Tina Schilling,
Vincent Schradie, Carl; Schroeder, Joe Schroeder. Taryn Smith. Brad Spivack. Ginny Staab, Scott Staab, Jane Taylor, Cathloen Thompson, Karen Tima. Joanne Valarino, Gail Warren, Grant Warren. Mike Wlefels, Laura Wills, Lisa Wilson, Nina Williams, Debby Williams.
Gregg Mandinach, Mark Pellon, John Sparato, Steve Wilson, George Gowland, Steve Fitzmorris and Randy Givens. Others are Doug Benson, Nori Snyder, Ann Fragen, Alan Fragen and Andy Fragen, Mark Pelton, Gary Gattuso. Joyce Miller, Danny Stuard and Kurt DeCrinis.
Obituary from the Seattle Times, 1993
Pearl Miller, Longtime Seattle Resident, Set World Backstroke Record At Age 90
By Daryl Strickland
There were few things Pearl Miller enjoyed more than swimming and teaching others how to swim – even at the age of 90.
The longtime Seattle resident, who began swimming competitively at the age of 72 and holds the world’s record for backstroke for women in her age group, died Wednesday in Palm Desert, Calif., from osteoporosis and bone cancer. She was 95.
“She had a wonderful sense of humor,” said Linda Barnett, Mrs. Miller’s granddaughter. “Whenever people would ask why, at her age, she kept on swimming. she’d say it kept her healthy, wealthy and mentally alert – and besides, who wouldn’t want to jump in the water with young men first thing every morning?”
Mrs. Miller was born in McHenry, Miss., in 1897, and attended college in Spokane. She enjoyed a career as a purchasing agent for The Boeing Co., living in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood and swimming in Lake Washington. Later, she moved to Palm Springs, Calif.
Mrs. Miller was a devout Christian, whose faith in God gave her strength. And while God was her strength, swimming was her life.
“Pearl Miller equated godliness and health with swimming,” said Jack Wartes, her son-in-law, whom she taught to swim. “The sport made her feel alive and young. She was so very bright and alert.
“I’d say she had a determination, a drive to keep moving, keep her blood circulating through her body and mind. Even at 90 she swam 20 laps every day.” Then, she played a game of golf.
Mrs. Miller’s aquatic devotion led her to swim competitively. In 1988, at the age of 90, Mrs. Miller set a world record and three national records in the backstroke in the U.S. Masters Short Course Swim Meet.
Her time for the 50-meter backstroke was 1:42.97 seconds, which broke world and national records for the 90-to-94 age bracket.
She also set national records for the 200-meter backstroke in 7:33:41 and 100-meter backstroke in 3:32. She also won gold medals in the 100-meter freestyle, 3:35:72, and 50-meter freestyle, 1:31:53, which she did while swimming on her back.
As a result, she was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. And she has been profiled in many magazines, including Time, Sports Illustrated and Modern Maturity.
The woman affectionately known as “coach” gave many infants and children swimming lessons. She taught Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandson, Delano; Bing Crosby’s kids and Rod Taylor’s daughter, among others.
Mrs. Miller lived out every ounce of life she had. “She used to say she intended to die young at an old age,” Barnett said.
Mrs. Miller is survived by her children, Irene Graff of Seattle, Carolyn Taber of Pasco and Joseph Miller of Dana Point, Calif. She also had 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. tomorrow at University Presbyterian Church, 4540 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.
Piranha Swim Team Coaches
Phil Poist and Doug McKell 1967
George Wenzel 1967
John Engelman 1968
Jim DiPaola 1968
Jeff Campbell 1968
Jim Dumphy 1969
Pearl Miller 1969 – 1974
Joe Wright 1975 – 1978
John Schauble 1978-79
Ron Buda 1980 – 1981
Joe Wright 1981 -1983
Bill Pullis 1983 – 1988
1988 – 1991 parents rotated as coaches
Tracey McFarlane 1991-92
Rob Mirande 1992 – 1995
Chris Duncan 1996 – 2000
John Cyganiewicz 2000 – 2003
Todd Lybeck 2003
Dwight Hernandez 2003 – 2008
Tim Hill 2008 – 2010
Adam Schmitt 2010 – 2012
Jeff Conwell 2012 – current CEO and Head Coach
Special thanks to Jane Taylor Wang for providing news articles, photos and memories, and to June, John and Bill Corrigan for their information and memories.
Shirley Babashoff with her Olympic Medals at the SPMS Clinic.
Legendary Shirley Babashoff, elite Olympian, spoke at a recent Southern Pacific Masters Swimming coaches clinic in Mission Viejo. As the featured speaker, she talked about her experience at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the state-sponsored doping of the East German women. She was generous with her time answering questions, letting attendees try on her Olympic medals and snap selfies with her. Her sense of humor, outspoken and down-to-earth answers were refreshing.
Babashoff is recognized as one of the all-time great U.S. women swimmers. She won gold at the ’72 Munich Olympics, but unfortunately, she competed against the East German women’s team in Montreal in ’76. Babashoff went public with her story in her 2016 book, “Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program.”
At the clinic, she spoke about life after her Olympic career. When she was a swimmer, the Amateur Athletic Union kept everyone on amateur status. She said she had worked for Arena and made a cotton commercial since representing the United States at the Olympics. When she wanted to swim with US Masters she was told no.
She coached and taught swimming for 10 years including at Los Caballeros, Fountain Valley to triathletes and children. She said had a lot of fun, “but I needed a job with benefits like health insurance, so I took a job with the U.S. Post Office as a letter carrier. I’m in Southern California on the beach and I can hear the waves crash while I’m outside at work.” Her life focused on raising her son and centered around her role as a mom.
Babashoff was asked if she swam now, and she said she did, “But I don’t get my hair wet.”
THE EARLY YEARS:
“We moved from pool to pool and I swam on lots of teams.”
At age eight, she took lessons at Cerritos College, not far from their house in Norwalk before switching to the Norwalk High School pool for Red Cross lessons and her first race. At nine years old, she and her older brother Jack joined the Buena Park Splashers. At 11, Shirley joined a team with both brothers Jack and Bill in El Monte. Jill Sterkel was on the El Monte team and the coach was Don La Mont.
By age 13, they swam on a team at Golden West College in Huntington Beach called Phillips 66, sponsored by the oil company, and she swam with one of the two most influential coaches she’d have—Ralph “Flip” Darr.
“In California, where the sun shines almost all year long, we could find a meet practically anywhere. We went to meets in San Diego, Redlands, Los Angeles, Apple Valley, Lakewood Buena Park and many other cities.”
Babashoff said the weekends going to swim meets were her life. She has great memories of going out of town, playing cards and clackers with other swimmers in between races. She said she remembers going to Indio for a meet, and her family drove all the way there and back in one day because they couldn’t afford money to stay in a motel.
“I loved going to those swim meets. There were hundreds of kids at them. I saw my friends from my own team and made new friends from other teams. I got to see my competition from a wider group of girls—not just from my own club, but from other cubs that were the ones to beat.” (p. 31 “Making Waves”)
MISSION VIEJO NADADORES AND MARK SCHUBERT:
In 1971, her mom moved them to Fountain Valley which was next to Huntington Beach. Flip Darr retired and she had to find another team. She said there were only two choices that made sense at her level. She could train at the Belmont Plaza or “I could go with the new guy in Mission Viejo—Mark Schubert.”
She said, “I didn’t even know where Mission Viejo was, which was 30 miles away. But back then you could drive 30 miles in 30 minutes.
“We heard all these horror stories of Schubert’s workouts of 15,000 yards a day and more. I went with a couple friends from our team to try it out and it was 8,000 to 9,000 yards, similar to what we were used to doing. After a couple days, I told Mark that we’d decided to join the team. The next day practice was 15,000 yards.
“It was a way of life. Practice before school, classes, practice at the high school and then back to Mission Viejo. I had three practices a day.”
ENCOUNTERS WITH THE EAST GERMAN WOMEN:
Babashoff talked about her first big meet after joining the Mission Viejo Nadadores. “My first FINA World Championships I felt stronger, I was so excited and full of myself. We were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia at the pool to warm up and the doors were all locked. They said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ That was strange because all the nations warmed up together. But they wouldn’t let us in when East Germans were there. I knew then something was up. Super shocking to see the women. They were huge. I’d never heard of steroids, it was so foreign to me. I was very naive.”
She said that from ’72 to ’76, Mark (Schubert) had to deal with the East Germans saying, “new suits, high altitude training, etc. They never said, oh we’re taking steroids. We beat them sometimes. They did testing back then, but on testing-day, the East Germans didn’t show up (if they knew they wouldn’t pass) because they had a “runny nose.” She said one difference today is that there is random testing and the athlete’s whereabouts are known every day.
The Belmont Pool, site of the 1976 Olympic Trials where Shirley Babashoff won six events.
Schubert asked her to describe the ’76 Olympic trials. He said she had “the best meet that had ever been swum.” In Belmont at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she won the 100, 200, 400, 800 free and the 200 and 400 IM. She won them all.
1976 MONTREAL OLYMPICS:
Babshoff said when she made the Olympic team, she wasn’t allowed to be with Mark as her coach. The U.S. Olympic team went to West Point to train and she didn’t swim the back, fly or breast once during practice and she was swimming the IM in Montreal. She wasn’t happy with the training but enjoyed the time with her teammates. Also, at Montreal, they took out the 200 IM from the program to save time.
She recalled seeing President Gerald Ford for the second time in a couple months. They were in Pittsburg which was a staging area for the US athletes before they left for the Games. After he spoke at the Pittsburg Air Force Base where the athletes joined him on stage, he shook hands with all the athletes. Then he asked, “Where is Shirley Babashoff?” She said it was surreal to hear the President of the United ask for her.
“Shirley,” President Ford said, “It’s so good to see you again.” He asked her how many events she was going to swim and he said, “Ah, just like that guy Jack Spitz.”
It was on their first trip to the aquatics venue in Montreal when she first heard and saw the East Germans at the ’76 Olympics. She said they were changing in the locker room, and heard low masculine voices. They all screamed because they thought men were in the locker room. Later they saw them with their muscles, broad shoulders and thunder thighs bigger than ever before.
The backlash in the media against Babashoff began when she told the truth about what she was seeing. From her book (p. 137), she explained the scene on her way to the team bus with the media asking questions with lights flashing, and microphones in their faces:
“Shirley, Shirley! What do you think of the East German team?”
“What can you tell us about the East German team?”
The questions were all redundant and overlapping. But I stopped for a moment and said into one of the reporters’ microphones, “Well except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine.”
I saw some eyes widen and a couple of jaws drop. The reporters then fired off a couple of follow-up questions, which I answered basically the same way. Then I got on the bus and went back to the village to have dinner with my teammates.
Jim Montrella said he wished that USA Swimming back in the 1970s had coached or better prepared their athletes for talking to the media. He apologized and said he felt they had let her down as her coaches of the Olympic Team. The backlash she received for speaking to the media was overwhelming.
Babashoff thanked Montrella but said she was proud of what she said. “It was the truth.” She said she has a sister 13 years younger and her sister said they watched a video on how to talk to the press and that they used Shirley as an example of how not to do it.
She said it was so obvious that the East German’s were doping and everyone ignored it. She worked so hard and lost because of cheating. “I’m still bitter about it now,” she said. The media called her “Surly Shirley” but her teammates supported her for being outspoken about the East German team. She was the only one who spoke out about it at the time.
She said she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I learned to swim at eight years old and seven years later, I was breaking World records and swimming in the Olympics. ‘Is that the same Olympics on TV?’ I remember asking my mom after making the U.S. Olympic team in 1972.”
VIDEO OF THE 4 x 100 FREE RELAY WHERE THE US WOMEN’S TEAM WON GOLD AT THE 1976 OLYMPICS:
At the ’76 Olympics, Babashoff won four silver medals and the relay team of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Babashoff won the gold.
“When I’m at work and tell my co-workers that I’ve been to Morocco, Japan, Yugoslavia, etc. they think I’m lying. I loved to compete. I loved to travel. Going on all the trips, even to go on an airplane was amazing. Our family didn’t have money and that wasn’t something we got to do.”
THE RECORD BOOKS:
Babashoff said she’d like to get the records corrected for the 1976 Olympics. “The East German women swimmers sued their own country. The doping has been proven, they’ve admitted it. They didn’t have swim coaches, they had scientists and doctors. They couldn’t swim breaststroke correctly, but they were big and strong.”
The Olympic Committee told her no because it had been longer than eight years. She said the Berlin Wall didn’t come down for 13 years later in 1989, so she didn’t think the eight-year rule should apply.
“A lot of women deserve medals,” she said. “There were women who got fifth or sixth who had two or three East Germans beat them. These women are someone’s grandmothers now, and wouldn’t it be nice for them to finally get the medals they earned and share this with their families?”
The same year her book was published, a documentary came out about the East German state-sponsored doping program called “The Last Gold.” “Weird how things happen,” Babashoff said. “I decided to work on a book 40 years later, it comes out along with a documentary about the East German’s, and then there’s controversy about Russian doping in the 2016 Olympics. It’s coincidental.”
She was asked if her son who is now grown and married ever swam. She said she tried to teach him when he was young and he wasn’t interested and wouldn’t swim for her. She recalled the time she was with him at Mission Bay in San Diego. She watched him swim like Michael Phelps.
I asked him, “What are you doing?”
“Swimming,“ he answered.
“Yes, but you’re really swimming. I’ve never seen you swim like this before.”
He answered her, “I was afraid you’d put me on a swim team.”
“Like I’d drop him off with Schubert,” she said laughing.
Most of her mail customers don’t know who she is or that she’s an Olympic star. She did, however, have a connection with the co-author of her book Chris Epstein through her route. She heard his name and recalled having an Epstein on her mail route. She asked Mrs. Epstein if she knew Chris. Mrs. Epstein said, “That’s my baby.” Another coincidence, Babashoff explained, “It turns out that his mom, who was my customer, had been at the 1976 Olympics, too.”
Babashoff swam briefly at UCLA, but the weight trainer gave her flashbacks of the East Germans, she said. The trainer worked them out so hard their legs were jello before they got into the pool. It wasn’t how she wanted to train and Shirley said, “I just had enough.” That’s when she officially retired.
Today, she still loves to travel and has a motorhome and travels throughout the country. She’s been to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and enjoys the time outside on her own.
About the ’72 and ’76 Olympics: “Everyone knew East Germans were doping but back then there was no way to prove it.” Babashoff says if she had to do it over again, she wouldn’t change a thing.
If you haven’t read “Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program” here’s a link to Amazon to purchase Shirley Babashoff’s courageous life story:
Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead, age 13, on her first national team trip, Leningrad, Russia. Photos courtesy of Sippy Woodhead.
Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead’s phenomenal swim career includes seven world records beginning at age 14 at the 1978 World Championships in Berlin and a silver medal from the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, six years later. She holds numerous So Cal Swimming records and two National Age Group Records–the longest-standing records on the books for girls. She trained with Riverside Aquatics Association in a pool which is now named the Sippy Woodhead Pool. She remembers her dad driving her by the pool to show her its new name.
How did you get involved with swimming?
“I grew up in Riverside and it was 100 degrees and more in the summer. There was a swimming pool a block away from my house. I waited at the gates for the pool to open at 10 a.m. and it closed at 6 p.m. I spent the entire day there. We just played–everyone played sharks and minnows and we hunted for lizards around the deck.
“At the end of the day, we’d walk home. My brother and sister swam in summer league. I wasn’t old enough to swim but they’d let me get in once in a while. They’d humor me. I could barely swim a stroke properly. When I was old enough, I joined the team. I swam summers until I was 11 years old. That was the first year I swam year-round.”
She began her swimming career with Chuck Riggs and the Riverside Aquatics Association. “I saw Chuck for the first time in about 20 years at a meet a few weeks ago, at JAG,” she said. “It was fun to see him. I stayed at RAA until I was 16. Then I went to Mission Viejo for two years and swam with Mark Schubert and then at USC.
At USC, she swam for Don LaMont and Peter Daland. “I felt so lucky to be able to swim with Peter Daland. He had a way of delivering a set and that’s what you’re going to do. You didn’t question him. He’s there in his button-down shirt delivering a set and you didn’t disrespect him.” Sippy said she trained with Peter Daland for the 1984 Olympics, where she earned a silver medal in the 200 free.
Her many accomplishments in swimming are highlighted in the Riverside Sports Hall of Fame:
Cynthia Woodhead Brennan
Her success came so quickly, her rise in the sport so meteoric. “Sippy” began her swimming career as a youth in Riverside’s public pools, competing in a summer recreation league. She decided to focus on competitive swimming at age 12 for the Riverside Aquatics Association. The next year, 1978, she stunned the swimming world by winning three gold medals and two silver medals at the World Championships.
In 1979, she won five gold medals at the Pan American Games and four gold medals at the World Cup.
Though she was denied a chance to be a star of the 1980 Olympics by a political boycott, her place was secure as one of the finest swimmers ever.
As a 15-year-old in the 1980 Olympic Trials, held after the Moscow Games, she won the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events, finished second in the 400 and 800 and also qualified in two relays. For her career, she set seven world records and 18 American records. She retired from competitive swimming after winning a silver medal in the 200 freestyle in the 1984 Olympics. Her U.S. record in the 200-meter freestyle stood from 1978 until 1992.
Sippy—a nickname given to her as an infant from her 2-year-old sister—attended Poly High School for two years before transferring to Mission Viejo. She was the first four-time California high school swimmer of the year. She was a three-time All-America at USC and is a member of the USC Hall of Fame. She was a runner-up for the Sullivan Award, given to the country’s finest amateur athlete. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1994. Sippy Woodhead Pool, a public pool in Riverside was re-named in her honor.
She graduated from USC with a degree in journalism and later earned a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling. She was an assistant swim coach at USC from 1989-97 and has done television commentary.
How Has Swimming Changed?
As a swim parent, Sippy notices many changes through the years. She’s the mother of twins who started swimming at age nine and 11. They just turned 14 and will be entering the eighth grade.
“We did a lot more yardage, I swam with Chuck Riggs. We did a whole lot of swimming and not much race pace. That’s just the way it was back then. That’s what I see as the biggest change. But at the gym, my kids’ workout is about identical to what I did. They’ve gone back to circuit training very much like what I was doing.”
Tech suits weren’t around when Sippy was breaking world records and she told her kids they weren’t getting tech suits until they went to sectionals. “Now they both got their sectional cuts, so here we go. I felt like I had to draw the line somewhere. The kids need to know it’s not the suit—it’s the hard work and consistently showing up for practice that makes them fast. The suit is a bonus.
“It used to be a much more friendly environment for the kids,” she said about meets. “Now there’s officials and yellow tape blocking parent’s access. I think it’s necessary because I don’t think parents used to hover so much. But, I feel it’s not as user-friendly for the kids.”
She remembered the time she was late for an event and how it was handled so differently than at meets today. “I went to a B meet in Mont Clair because I had to get times for an A meet. I literally walked through the gates and I’d never seen a 50-meter pool before in my life and they called my name. I was in my sweats and I took my clothes off behind the blocks and they waited for me. I got on the blocks and swam. I didn’t even know how many laps were in a 200 free in a long course pool. I ended up being way ahead of everybody. I thought I’d look up and I knew if the timers were standing up with their stop watches, it would be the end of my race. That was my first experience of being late. I ended up breaking the world record in the 200 free, the event I almost missed, literally three years later.”
In contrast to her experience, her son missed an event at the second meet of his life. She said he was already nervous about having to swim in the afternoon session with the older kids. “He was new to swimming, but he’s is tall and looks older, and he was in a fast heat so the official probably assumed he’d been swimming a while.” She said her son felt awful and was embarrassed.
“I don’t remember the parents being so wrapped around their kids,” Sippy said. “I honestly don’t remember seeing my parents at a meet. I know they were there, but I don’t think I ever communicated with them. It was more like a playdate. I don’t see that anymore. I see a lot more hovering and parents carrying towels, getting kids their heats and lanes. It didn’t use to be that way.”
Sippy said their team traveled to meets in Palm Springs, East LA, Mission Viejo and Long Beach. She said that Southern California Swimming had one Junior Olympics, not three like we have today. “We didn’t have all the meets or the swimmers.” The big teams and coaches she remembers were Dick Jochums in Long Beach, Jon Urbanchek in Anaheim, Jim Montrella at Lakewood and El Monte Aquatics where Jill Sterkel swam with Don LaMont “Dick Jochums had a bunch of guys swimming for him like Tim Shaw. He had a great group of guys down there.”
The swimmers all knew each other and they knew the officials. “One official would come up to me after I swam and say ‘Sippy, you’re getting a little close on that back to breast turn.’ He’d give me a warning like ‘I’m getting ready to call you on it just so you know.’ It was so helpful, I’d practice it so it wasn’t questionable.”
She said the starters used guns that shot blanks. Also, they had a person hand out cards with their heats and lanes. “You’d pick up your card and hand it to the timer behind the blocks. It was like a feeding frenzy when the person came out with the cards. Maybe that’s why parents weren’t involved, kids were doing everything.”
Sippy’s first world record at the World Championships in Berlin at age 14 in 1978.
What Advice Do You Have for Swim Parents?
“I treat my kids the way I was treated. Swimming was my thing and I want this to be their thing. I don’t want them to think I’m taking credit. I don’t want to hover and I don’t want them to think that their swimming is because of me or something I did.
“I give them their food bags and put $20 in them. I leave them with the team. I check on their water bottles and refill them because I want to make sure they’re drinking, but they don’t notice that I was even there. If I run into them on the deck I’ll say something like, ‘good job.’ But I don’t hunt them down, I want them to be free. The most fun I had at meets was hanging out with my friends. You felt like your parents weren’t there. It was fun to be at meets, it wasn’t stressful. I want them to have that same experience.
“When they were younger and practices were an hour, I would wait and watch practice. I was happy to sit by the pool and listen to the water. I love the sound of kids swimming, the splashing.”
Sippy offers advice to newer swim parents: “Leave your kids alone. Let swimming be their thing as much as possible. You’re there to provide equipment and food and get out of the way. Swimmers put so much pressure on themselves. It’s so much easier to be a parent than the swimmer. I don’t mind going to these meets, there’s no pressure on me. I go sit in my Tommy Bahama chair all day.”
One of the things Sippy enjoys about swim meets is seeing the kids of other swimmers, who are her friends. “I was timing and saw Janet Evans across the pool watching her daughter, who was in my lane. Her daughter got out so upset with her swim and I stood up and gave her a hug and told her it was going to be okay, that she’d get that girl the next time.” Sippy said there are kids running around on the deck with famous swim parents, but because their last names are different, they’re under the radar of most people. She thinks it’s better for them to be unknown and have less pressure.
Sippy Woodhead held many records including age group records in Southern California. Her following records are still on the books:
Jon Urbanchek grew up in Hungary and came to the United States to attend the University of Michigan. “I got my start in big-time swimming at the University of Michigan where I was part of three NCAA championship teams there—although I only contributed a second place in the mile,” Urbanchek said. “It was a strange way to get into coaching, but I was enrolled at Michigan as an engineering student. After three semesters, it was highly recommended by my counselor that maybe I should change majors,” he joked. “I fell in love with physiology through my professor who I credit with getting me into coaching.” After graduating with a degree in Physical Education, Urbanchek coached for one year in Michigan. He said that he’s a people person and coaching was a much better career choice for him than sitting in an office with a slide rule or computer. “In 1963, I came west young man in my small Austin Healey and ended up in Anaheim and was lucky to get a job at Sammy Lee Swim School.”
Early Years Coaching
His first job in Southern California was as an age group coach for the Sammy Lee Swim School on Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim. The head coach was Lee Arth and Urbanchek learned about how to coach from him. Sammy Lee was the first platform diver to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympics and is the first Asian-American to become a gold medalist. An ear, nose and throat doctor, Lee faced racial discrimination during the 50s and 60s.
Back in those days, Urbanchek said there were only 16 teams in the Orange County conference. According to Urbanchek, “Lee Arth hired me as his assistant and I coached the 12 and unders. In that young age group, there were some outstanding athletes, probably not because of my coaching.”
Urbanchek’s group had swimmers that went on to Olympic fame. “Gary Hall Sr. was in that group. He was the oldest one of the group at about 12 years old. There was a family of four Furniss boys. I coached Bruce and Steve Furniss. You’ve heard of the company TYR? Steve started the business from scratch. Bruce got the world record at Montreal 1976 Olympics. That was my first trip where one of my swimmers won a gold medal. I started with him when he was an eight-year-old. Rod Strachan became an anesthesiologist. I had him from age eight until he left for USC. He returned and swam with me after graduation until he retired from swimming. He also won an Olympic gold medal. He’s the only one I can say I had from start to finish,” he said.
“These kids are part of the building blocks of the Olympic culture of Orange County. Orange County was the hotbed of swimming in the 1960s.”
Urbanchek said “Sammy Lee Swim School was the best. In 1967, Lee Arth took a job at Rio Honda Junior College in Whittier as head coach and we disbanded Sammy Lee Swim School. I was very much involved with the kids,” he added. “Coming out of college and being on the best college team for years, I had a lot of confidence in my swimming, but I learned the trade with Lee Arth. I learned about coaching from the bottom up. I was giving private lessons for five, six, and seven-year-olds, as well.”
After Sammy Lee ended in 1967, the swimmers and families stayed with Urbanchek. “I started a new team called Anaheim Aquatics and we ran the program through the Parks and Rec Department. We had access to the high schools and community pools in Anaheim which helped us run the program. Anaheim Aquatics was very successful. Our kids were very good at the Junior National, National and Olympic levels. We had people on the world championship level. In the late 1960s, it was a very strong swim team.”
About other successful Orange County programs, Urbanchek mentioned Mission Viejo Nadadores. “Mark Schubert was a young man who came out here 10 years after me. He took over Mission Viejo. He really built that program up quickly. It was a new development and before then, there was nothing between Santa Ana and San Juan Capistrano—the I-5 wasn’t even a four-lane highway. Mission Viejo was just orange groves. That was a good place to build a team. They first built the pool in 1968 and Mark came four or five years later.”
“In 1976 just a week after Olympic Trials in Long Beach, the new Fullerton pool opened. I brought Anaheim Aquatics and Craig Brown brought his Fullerton team. We called it Fullerton Anaheim Swim Team. Now it’s Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team. We combined the two communities. Craig and myself were the two coaches who gave input and were consultants for the pool and we were the first two people to utilize the pool in Fullerton.”
Long Beach State 1978 to 1982
After one year, Urbanchek left FAST and moved onto Long Beach State University to become the men’s head coach. “I replaced Dick Jochums who is going to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF). Dr. Dave Salo was one of my swimmers who came out of Long Beach State, and became a world famous coach.”
University of Michigan
In 1982, Urbanchek went on to become a college coach for his alma mater winning NCAAs in 1995 and 13 Big Ten titles during his 22-year tenure. “I retired in 2004, but I stayed on to coach Club Wolverine which was our postgraduate program. I stayed on for six years. Bob Bowman replaced me at Michigan and he brought Michael Phelps with him. From 2004 to 2008, Michael was there with Bob. I was a volunteer coach for the University and an assistant for the club team Club Wolverine where Michael, Kaitlin Sandeno, Erik Vendt and Peter Vanderkay were in the program.” Then Bob Bowman moved back to North Baltimore Aquatic Club and Urbanchek stayed on as a volunteer coach to help Mike Bottoms with the transition.
Return to SoCal: FAST Olympic Training Center
“In 2010, I came to run the Olympic training center sponsored by USOC at Fullerton. We were very successful. Seven out of our 12 swimmers made the Olympic team and came home with medals. Tyler Clary was one of my swimmers from FAST. After London, the program was done and Dave Salo asked if I’d come and help them out at USC. I became a volunteer a coach five years ago and I‘m still there.”
Swimmers Who Became Notable Coaches
“When the Nations Capital Coach Yuri Suguiyama left to coach at Cal, I recommended Bruce Gemmell for the job.” Gemmell had been Urbanchek’s swimmer and was his graduate assistant coach at Michigan while he pursued his master’s degree in mechanical engineering. After many years as a successful engineer, Urbanchek said that Gemmell decided to coach again in 1992 and he loved it. Gemmell was Katie Ledecky’s coach at Nations Capital prior to her current career at Stanford University.
“Dave Salo and Bruce Gemmell are two swimmers I coached who became coaches. Salo and Gemmell are superior coaches and I’m so proud of them. We share a lot of ideas about coaching among the three of us.”
Urbanchek talked about his family, “Swimming is like a family, even though I have my own family–my wife, daughter and granddaughter. My wife is now retired.” His wife received her Ph.D. from USC and was a research professor in the Surgery Department at the University Michigan School of Medicine.
“When I left Michigan and I told her Dave Salo asked me to coach, she said, ‘You gave your life to Michigan why not give the rest of your life to my school USC?’
“I’m going to be 81 this year, and I still love the sport. I still volunteer coach at USC Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday because I love being with young people. I love the energy they put out. I think at my age it’s important to be active. I leave the house at 5 a.m. to get there at 6 a.m. driving through LA traffic. I’m officially retired but I’m very happy to be a part of the program. Even this year I did the training camp for the national team. I’m still involved with the national team and USC. I want to continue on.”
Among the highlights of Urbanchek’s illustrious career, he coached four world record holders over four decades:
He was a US Olympic coach on staff for’92, ’96, ’00, ’04, ’08 and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Long Beach State Hall of Fame and University of Michigan Hall of Fame. In 1974, he received his masters from Chapman University in Education.
Jon Urbanchek at the 2017 Open Water Nationals at Lake Castaic cheering on Trojans Haley Anderson and Becca Mann, who qualified for the World Championships.
Jon Urbanchek, one of America’s legendary coaches whose nearly 50 years of experience includes more than two decades as Michigan’s head coach, frequent service on U.S. national teams and many years as an elite club coach, is in his fourth year as a USC volunteer assistant swimming coach in 2015-16.
Urbanchek directed the Michigan men’s swimming and diving team from 1982-2004, won an NCAA title in 1995 and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame on July 6, 2008. In 22 seasons as head coach of the Wolverines, Urbanchek led them to an overall record of 163-34 and a 100-4 mark in the Big Ten Conference. Under his guidance, Michigan won 13 Big Ten titles, including 10 straight from 1986-95. Michigan never finished lower than third at the conference championships during Urbanchek’s tenure.
Following Urbanchek’s 1995 team won the NCAA title, he was named the NCAA and American Swimming Coaches Association Coach of the Year. The 1995 title was part of a four-run run (1993-96) in which Michigan posted four straight top 3 NCAA finishes. He earned Big Ten Swimming Coach of the Year honors nine times, more than any other men’s swimming coach in the history of the conference.
After retiring as Michigan’s head coach, Urbanchek coached for Club Wolverine from 2004-2009 before working with swimmers at the Fullerton Aquatics Swim Team (FAST) Olympic Committee Elite training program the past three years (2010-2012).
Urbanchek originally joined FAST in the 1970s before becoming the head coach at Long Beach State from 1978-1982. While with the 49ers, he coached current USC coach Dave Salo.
At the Olympic level, 44 of Urbanchek’s swimmers have represented their native countries and have won more than 20 medals, including 11 golds.
Urbanchek served as an assistant coach on the 2004, ’00, ’96, ’92 and ’88 U.S. Olympic teams and served as a special assistant in 2008 and 2012. He was also the coach of the 1994 and ’98 U.S. World Championships teams.
He and wife, Melanie, have one daughter, Kristen and a granddaughter, Claire.
Jeff Julian with wife Kristine Quance-Julian and son Trenton at her 2015 USC Athletic Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Throughout his years as a swimmer and a coach in Southern California, Jeff Julian believes it’s all about the team. On the Rose Bowl Aquatics website, you can read his philosophy about the importance of the TEAM:
“TEAM – First and foremost, ever since I began my coaching career, I have believed that swimming is not an individual sport at all. In order to succeed to one’s potential; they must believe in the TEAM approach and learn to be supportive of their teammates.”
Julian was born in Weiss Baden, Germany, to a military family when his dad was near the end of his career. The Julian family returned to Southern California when Jeff was six months old. His brother and sister, ages nine and 11, swam with El Monte Aquatics which became Industry Hills and then La Mirada. He said he “literally grew up on the pool deck.”
Jeff’s love of swimming came from his mom who was an early open water swimmer and swam Lake Michigan twice. His aunt was fourth in the 100 fly with a photo finish at Olympic trials when they took three swimmers.
“I consider my mom an ideal swim mom although she liked to talk to me about swimming more than was ideal. She knew times, she was fully involved, but wouldn’t get involved with my swimming. She loved the sport overall, loved to support everyone, but she stayed away from the gossip.”
As a young swimmer growing up in Southern California, he swam with the Arcadia Riptides until age 12. “I feel very lucky with my coaches growing up and how they managed training philosophy. The teams that I was on, whether it was Arcadia Riptides under Ray Peterson and Ron Milich, or later Industry Hills, had unbelievable coaches. They taught me that you can really enjoy the sport and still work hard and reach for more.”
Jeff Julian with sister Jaimi Julian.
After age 12, Julian swam with Industry Hills with coaches Don Garman, Ed Spencer and Mike Gautreau. He said Gautreau, who now coaches at Covina Aquatics Association, “especially brought us together as a team. The group we had makes me want that for everyone—the experiences and the memories of all of us together. There was hard work and fast swimming, but there was so much more.”
As a high school swimmer, Julian was an eight-time CIF champion, All-American in multiple events and he achieved countless other accolades.
Julian was recruited by the University of Southern California, where he continued to excel. His many accomplishments included: U.S. national team, silver medalist at the World University Games, Pac-10 champion, NCAA silver medalist, eight-time All-American and Olympic trials finalist and Trojan Team Captain.
USC victory photo from Feb. 1997 dual meet win over Stanford.
According to Julian, “At USC with Mark Schubert as a leader and the experience with the swimmers, it put the emphasis on the team above all else for me. When I started coaching, my number one goal and drive was team development. That was clearly from my experience at USC with my classmates and fellow swimmers. I believe the team aspect is not just an ideal, but crucial to get the most out of swimmers.”
After his many accomplishments in high school and at USC, Jeff had no intention of becoming a swim coach. He wanted to work in physical therapy but he “had one professor in anatomy or physiology that turned me off completely.” By the time he graduated, he was ready to try something away from the pool.
For about two years each, he worked as a financial advisor for Dean Witter, and although he loved the educational aspect of the job and learning, it wasn’t a good fit for him. He enjoyed working for a start-up tech company, but the company relocated to New York. With one-year-old Trenton and wife Kristine Quance, fellow Trojan and gold-medalist from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, who was still training, he didn’t want to move the family. His next job was as a medical device salesperson. He said it was a good job, but he wasn’t passionate about it. He was responsible for a territory of 12 states and away from home most of the time. During these years away from the pool deck, he spent two years as Mr. Mom and he believes those years are partly responsible for the deep bond he shares with Trenton.
It was after a successful first interview with the FBI when he was offered a job with Rose Bowl Aquatics. He knew he needed to do something he was passionate about.
”Rose Bowl Swim Team is led by a philosophy that hard work is needed, good sportsmanship is essential & in order for great things to happen, swimmers, coaches & families must work & bond together as a TEAM.”
At Rose Bowl, he started at a combination job of age group and masters coach. He was marketing director and worked in the administrative side of the center as well as coaching. Within a year, he was launched into the position of head coach and continued with the marketing technology role for several more years. Fourteen years later, he is the head coach at Rose Bowl and an assistant coach at USC.
According to Julian, “the Rose Bowl team came after the center was redeveloped due to funds from LA84 Foundation, which is still a strong organization and was started from seed money from the 1984 Olympics.” The Rose Bowl Aquatic Center was built from 1984 to 1990. In 27 years, the team has grown and there have been only four head coaches: Brian Murphy, Terry Stoddard, Gary Anderson and Jeff Julian.
About his coaching philosophy, Julian said, “If I’m not trying to be a better coach than last year, then I’m not doing my job.” He said he’s always “trying to learn and improve and continually tweak what I do. What I do revolves around process–what my swimmers do on a daily basis. The experience and life lessons are more valuable than times. None of that takes away from my competitiveness. I’m competitive by nature, but I believe that being fully committed and competitive in swimming will teach you life lessons on a whole different scale.”
“I didn’t have a direct line of mentor coaches because I was at Rose Bowl for only one year and then head coach. But I have learned from a lot of individuals. I’ve learned more from my peer group. We have our group with Jeff Conwell from Canyons and now Piranhas, Ron Aitken, Sandpipers, and Joe Benjamin from Rancho San Dieguito in San Diego. We were young and upcoming coaches and we shared information and learned a lot from each other. That’s the biggest way I’ve learned through the years.”
Jeff Julian in the water. (all photos courtersy of Jeff Julian)
According to Julian, he’s had a lot of amazing swimmers and a few who stand out to him are Emily Adamczyk, Jason Lezak, Mickey Mowry and his son Trenton.
“Early on, my first Olympic Trial qualifier was Emily Adamczyk, who later went on to win a DII NCAA Championship title.
“Coaching Jason Lezak was a privilege. He trained on his own and he represented our team for five years when he was a professional. He’d come out each month while he represented Rose Bowl, from 2007 to 2012 for those two Olympics, including his relay. It was fun to see and work with someone at that level who was open to feedback on his races.
“One of my great stories is Mickey Mowry. He started on our team in our pre-competitive group. His mom signed him up because he was a little overweight. She wanted him to work out and be fit. He is ‘start to finish’ Rose Bowl, ended up fourth at Junior Nationals in 100 fly and went on to swim for UC Santa Barbara. Those are stories I love—coming in and starting at the bottom and working all the way up.
“My son Trenton has been a lot of fun. People always ask me how can I coach my son. When your son is the hardest working, most focused and driven person you have in the water, it’s kind of fun to coach your son. He’s having a lot of success and will be swimming at Cal next year.”
INNOVATIONS IN SWIMMING
Julian said there have been huge innovations in swimming since he was a swimmer. He said it’s more than the things that exist now that didn’t before–like the suits. “After going to NCAAs this year, my first time in 20 years (as a coach with USC) it was unbelievable on the men’s side with records being broken right and left. It dawned on me that I have to forget about what times used to mean. The times are so fast now, they are at a whole different level. It’s just where we are now. If a bunch of swimmers are going these times, then we need to coach kids to get there. It’s a mindset.”
He believes the process of swimming and knowledge has improved through the years. “I think the process idea isn’t individual to me, but it’s a big piece that is more involved than when I was a swimmer. Back then, we’d touch on sports psychology, we’d touch on nutrition. But the main thing we did was swim, swim, swim. Now, in the college environment, and I try to take it to the public environment as well, there are services like sports psychology available to everyone. You have strength training that’s truly supplemental to swimming. Today strength training isn’t about beating up kids in the gym and pool. It’s driven to help them swim fast not just get stronger. There is a focus on nutrition, healthier foods, rest, sleep and taking care of yourself.
“Volume is down in yardage, it’s more about quality. It goes beyond how far you swim, it goes to how well you swim and how well your stroke technique is. If each one of these things is one percent better, combine it all and you see people swimming faster and faster.
“Part of the hardest job of coaching is the group mentality, someone swims fast and everyone thinks they can swim that time right away. There are no major barriers in swimming anymore. It’s an amazing time in swimming. Records used to stand for a while, now we see them broken in a day and it’s pretty good if a record lasts a year. It’s a whole different era. I credit this to coaches and swimmers who are more focused and know so much more than in my day as a swimmer. And it wasn’t that long ago.”
From USC NEWS: “Swimmers pool their resources to help a friend in need. Olympians rally around one time Trojan swim standout Jeff Julian as he fights stage 4 cancer. To have the biggest fundraising impact, Lezak decided to throw an “Olympians for #TEAMJeff” event. The 10 on deck: Lezak (four gold medals, two silver medals, two bronze medals), Lenny Krayzelburg ’99 (four gold), Rebecca Soni ’09 (three gold, three silver), Haley Anderson ’13 (one silver), John Naber ’77 (four gold, one silver), Kristine Quance-Julian ’97 (one gold), Ariana Kukors, Jessica Hardy (one gold, one bronze), Kim Vandenberg (one bronze) and Betsy Mitchell (two silver).”
In 2015, Julian faced his biggest challenge. A healthy young man who had never smoked, Julian was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The swim community rallied around him and throughout the country, swimmers have been wearing #TEAMjeff shirts.
“There wasn’t a big ‘Aha moment’ of needing to change,” Julian said. “It was much more of the opposite. I love my life and I need to remember to enjoy it more, even the coaching, professional side. I had a lot of people close to me, their first reaction was to tell me to relax and take time off and do something I’ve always wanted to do. That’s not me. I don’t want to sit around. I like what I’m doing. I love coaching. I enjoy it.”
“There will always be ups and downs, there will always be struggles. But if you can remember what life really means to you, then it’s much easier to get through the day-to-day stuff.”
“It was an interesting time for me when I evaluated how I was feeling prior to my diagnosis. Before I was diagnosed in January 2015, six months before, I started to get pain in my back and neck. I was much more on edge. I think it’s a symptom of cancer and I’ve talked to a number of people who agree. I was testy. I don’t like to yell at my swimmers, so when I’m frustrated, I walk around the pool deck. I found myself walking around more and more during a practice. So again, not knowing anything was wrong, I was putting too much stress on myself and on my swimmers. I was no longer coaching the way I wanted to.”
Julian said that as a coach he’s pretty laid back, similar to how he fathers. “I’m there to help the swimmers, it’s not life and death. It needs to be fun along the way if I’m asking them to work as hard as I ask them to.”
He said there was a realization that he wasn’t having fun and he needed “to get back to how I used to coach, which is how we got to this level. I purposefully tried to keep the demeanor I normally had.”
Then came the diagnosis in January 2015. “I needed to take a step back. Yes, I am going to have to push my swimmers and I need to get on them from time to time. But I need to enjoy this. This is not something I’m just going to do. Like I tell our coaches, this is a job of passion. If this becomes just a job then it’s going to be too difficult to do it well.”
The biggest lesson for me,” Julian said, “was keeping that reminder to enjoy life and the little things along the way. There will always be ups and downs, there will always be struggles. But if you can remember what life really means to you, then it’s much easier to get through the day-to-day stuff.”
“On March 7, 2015, three generations of Jeff’s club swim team Industry Hills Aquatics (IHAC) traveled from around the US to join Jeff in a #TEAMjeff IHAC workout and 22-year reunion! They also raised funds for Jeff with the IHAC #TEAMjeff shirt with his mantra on the back. Way to go IHAC! #IHACforever #TEAMjeff #”