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.”
“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:
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.
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.