Jill Sterkel, four-time Olympian, grew up in Hacienda Heights, graduated from Glen A. Wilson High School and remembers the “healthy family lifestyle” of swimming. Her mom was a swimmer, and the three Sterkel kids, Jill, her older brother and younger sister, jumped into the pool together.
Sterkel was part of the 4 x 100 relay that beat the East Germans in 1976 for Olympic gold (video here). Following a near sweep of gold–except for that one relay, a doping scandal followed the East German women, which is still in the headlines today. Sterkel was a world-record holder in the 50 meter free, an NCAA champion for Texas Longhorns, and qualified for three more Olympics: 1980, 1984 and 1988. She won four medals in three Olympic Games spanning twelve years. (USA boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which were held in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.) Sterkel was the women’s head coach of the Texas Longhorns swimming and diving team at the University of Texas at Austin from 1992 to 2007.
When did you start swimming?
“My grandparents had a pool and they wanted us to be water safe. It was a thing for the whole family to do. We started with swim lessons, and the same place had a summer league team. One thing led to another.
“My first team was Hacienda Heights Aquatic Club. At age 10, the coach who was good friends with our family, suggested we might go to a year-round program, a little bigger than the program we were with.”
The coach suggested the Sterkel kids join El Monte Aquatics. Sterkel remembers there were several coaches on the year-round team and at age 10 she was the youngest to be in Don Lamont’s group.
“Hacienda Heights was a good club team, but it wasn’t the same caliber as El Monte. El Monte had people who were going to nationals. Very much an established AAU or USA club. When I look back on it, our coach wasn’t very selfish to tell us to go to a bigger team. That is pretty amazing.
“We all swam. Not everything revolved around swimming, but a lot did. All three of us were part of the team and active swimmers. In age group swimming, we were going to swim meets every other weekend. It sort of becomes your social life as well. It’s awesome that it’s so much fun.”
Early on, what was one of your most exciting swim experiences? What stands out the most?
“In all honesty, from my very earliest memories which would have been on my Hacienda Heights Club team, The thing I remember the coach would do, it sounds silly. We would do ‘king of the mountain’ swimming. The coach made a lot of the harder things fun. I hated kicking, but when we did kicking sets, we’d do 25s and the little kids would go, which would be me. Then the bigger kids would wait 10 seconds and try to catch. Stuff like that stands out, it’s a lasting memory I have.
“What I remember most, what stands out, of course I obviously remember winning the gold medal in ’76 and that stands out, but I remember Nationals–going as a team.
As a 15-year-old at the 1976 Summer Olympics, she won a gold medal as a member of the winning U.S. team in the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay, together with her teammates Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli and Shirley Babashoff. After the U.S. women’s team had been outshone in nearly every event by their East German rivals, Peyton, Boglioli, Sterkel and Babashoff achieved a moral victory by not only winning the relay gold medal, but also by breaking the East Germans’ world record in the event final. — Wikipedia
“Flying was a big deal, we’d get the same outfits. Different songs would go with different Nationals. There’d be shaving cream fights and shaving parties. All of those things that make up the process, not just going to certain meets. We’d always go to Santa Clara and Mission Viejo. The people. We had such a great group of people. We had a lot of amazing people involved in swimming.”
Sterkel shares more memories of what it was like to be a So Cal Age Group Swimmer:
“I remember going up to Lemoore, I couldn’t tell you where it was. Everyone camped. We had a little RV. The meet lasted from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. I don’t remember swimming at all, but I do remember the things we did–like killing the time before your next event. It was pretty much a fabric of our life growing up.
“We would go to an age group meet, we’d all stay at the same hotel, so after the meet it would be like a whole reunion party. The kids would be in the pool, the parents would be sitting around, very much a healthy family friendly atmosphere.
“The weird thing was when I was really young I went to JOs, but I started going to Nationals at a pretty young age, so I didn’t do a lot of age group meets.”
How did you get into coaching?
“In college I began to pay attention. Probably in all honesty, not that I didn’t care about swimming and wanted to do well, because I did. But, it wasn’t until college that I sort of learned certain things. I was taught certain things by my coach that I didn’t know before. Part of it was the times. I had never been taught breathing patterns or race strategy. I think in those years, that a lot of it didn’t come along until later. And it got more scientific after that.
“It opened the door to me having conversations like ‘why would you do that?’ Or ‘why would that work?’ It was intriguing. It had a huge impact on my performance and the one thing that was really nice was the coaches. I had Paul Bergen and Richard Quick. It wasn’t taboo to ask. Obviously, it’s how you do the ask as well. They were very open to explaining things. That got me along thinking along that path.
“When I first came into college, I wanted to take the concept of biology and put it into physical education. So, it wasn’t just like recess, but actually maybe physical things and learning the science behind it. That was my vision for the future. I was way ahead of my time as far as personal trainer, and I was going to put it into the high school setting like the teaching element of it. I always had an affinity for learning that stuff. It was something that I liked to talk about, think about it.”
Today, Jill Sterkel has a son in age group swimming and works for the University of Texas. #SoCalSwimHistory