“I Was In The Presence Of Greatness” Don Wagner Recounts Coaching Janet Evans

This story first appeared May 29, 2020 at SwimSwam.com. Story is written by James Sutherland and is used with permission from SwimSwam. Photos from Don Wagner.

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Early on in Wagner’s illustrious coaching career, he spent one year with Evans during the height of her career in 1989.   

While listening to SwimSwam’s podcast with Olympic legend Janet Evans last week, esteemed coach Don Wagner found himself thinking back to 1989.

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 under Dick 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.”

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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.

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 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.”

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 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.

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“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.Screen Shot 2020-06-04 at 9.12.41 AM

“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.”Screen Shot 2020-06-04 at 9.13.02 AM

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.”

Sippy Woodhead: From Swimming Legend to Swim Mom

 

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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.”

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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:

11-12 girls:

200 yard free   1:52.01   1977
500 yard free   4:49.51   1977
400 meter free 4:22.86   1976

13-14 girls:

200 yard free  1:46.40   1978
500 yard free  4:39.94   1978
200 meter free 1:58.53  1978 NAG Record
400 meter free 4:07.15  1978 NAG Record
800 meter free 8:29.35  1978

15-16 girls:

200 yard free  1:44.10 1979
200 meter free 1:58.23 1979