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

 

Legendary Coach Jon Urbanchek “Loves Coaching and People”

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Jon Urbanchek

The College Years

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.”

FAST

“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.”

downloadFamily

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:

1970s Rod Strachan 400 IM
1980s  Mike Barrowman 200 Breast
1990s Tom Dolan 400 IM
2000s Tom Malchow 200 Fly

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.

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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.

 

Here is Jon Urbanchek’s bio from the USC website

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.