Cap & Goggles

Only a Swimmer Knows the Feeling

Category: Coaching

Playing Favorites

The high-wire genius in coaching talent-loaded teams…

If only I had athletes like that, man, what I could do with them. With talent like that, how can they not win? He’s a great recruiter, a brilliant salesman, but as a coach? Anyone could do that, with his stable of horses… You just need to get out of the way.

The bitter musings of a jealous coach… It’s March, and from poolside to courtside, madness like that is in full bloom.

Over the last two weekends, the clear favorites have run away with the women’s and men’s NCAA Swimming Championships – Teri McKeever’s Cal Bears and Eddie Reese’s Texas Longhorns. Neither team title came as a surprise. In fact, if either of these teams had failed to win it all, it would have been seen as a choke, as teams failing to live up to their potential.

The same will be said of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats if they fail to complete perfection next week in the Final Four. Most of America outside the blue grass state will be pulling for some sort of impossible upset, if only to stoke our collective underdog lust. Sports fan love excellence, but too much domination can spoil the fun. And so we root against those teams who’ve managed to recruit and coach and will the odds in their favor.

This curious condition can put a brilliant coach in an all-or-nothing corner. You can find yourself so good, surrounded by so much breathtaking talent, that it feels like everyone, even your closest coaching allies, are secretly hoping for you to slip up.

So it’s been for Teri McKeever and Eddie Reese this year. Anyone paying attention to the times and projected numbers knew that the team titles were theirs to lose. Their pools in Berkeley and Austin are bursting with talent. Sure, Georgia was the two-time defending women’s champion, and sure it had been five years since the Longhorns hoisted the team trophy at men’s NCs, but if their ladies and gentlemen swam as expected in March, the meets were theirs.

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The Process of Courage

Jeff Julian – Friend, Coach, Cancer Survivor To-Be… 

You’re sitting in a doctor’s office. Something’s been bothering you, a pain in your back and neck that just isn’t getting better. You’re fit, not yet 40, a former champion butterflyer who knows his body the way only swimmers do. Your days are spent active, on your feet on a pool deck, under a warm Southern California sun. The pain has been progressing for a few months now, but Advil usually takes care of it. Whatever it is, there must be an easy explanation. It’s probably just one of those nagging signs of aging, the aches and pains of creeping middle age.

But then one night you’re out to dinner with your wife and the pain becomes too much to ignore. You contact a doctor. The next day you head to the hospital.

And then, after a whirlwind of tests, you hear the unthinkable. The C-word, says the doctor. It’s lung cancer, he tells you. It doesn’t get more serious.

How would you react?

If you’re Jeff Julian, head coach of Rose Bowl Aquatics and former All-American at USC, your response is the very definition of courage. You announce your diagnosis on Facebook with unblinking candor and a fearlessness that’s hard to fathom. Then, you end your note to your stunned readers with this line: “I wanted to share this with you one time, before I put my head down and get ready to kick some ass.”

Hear that, cancer? Prepare yourself for a beat down.

Picture the polar opposite of a lung cancer sufferer. That is Jeff Julian. Never a smoker, a world class athlete, a wise coach with perspective and patience, possessed of a singular So Cal laugh that never fails to send out positive vibrations. The last man you’d expect.

Soon after his diagnosis, his team at Rose Bowl created #TEAMJeff – a site where you can support his fight and join his legion of friends and family across the swimming universe. Through the CaringBridge website, you can follow his journal, and at his site at YouCaring you can offer financial support to help fund the battle.

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Chasing the Ambulance

Outside magazine publishes a deep dive into swimming’s sexual abuse scandal… Lawyers rejoice.

Somewhere, the devil is smiling. Or to quote Al Pacino playing the personified Dark One in the Devil’s Advocate: “Lawyers are the devil’s ministry.”

Oh yes, the lawyers are tossing back shots of whiskey and beaming with the news. Outside magazine just gave them the bully’s pulpit. Then, Slate Magazine picked up the story, and quoted yours truly. Imagine my surprise. I haven’t been posting much lately, but suddenly traffic to this site was spiking. Curious, says I, let’s take a look at the old Word Press Dashboard, figure out where all these hits are coming from. Ah, but of course, the story that wouldn’t die: “The Worst Kept Secret in Washington”, published the day the Rick Curl scandal broke, back in the summer of 2012.

Since then, that story, about Curl’s criminal relationship with a teenage swimmer named Kelley Currin back in the 80s, has been read twice as many times as any other piece ever published on Cap & Goggles. For good reason, I suppose. It addressed not only the horror of sex abuse between too many coaches and young swimmers, but the sport’s dirtiest little secret: it’s never been much of a secret. Since the time I was twelve years old, I’ve heard the rumors. Many of which weren’t rumors at all. Somewhere along the line, beneath the unseemly surface, it became part of the culture.

It wasn’t just swimming, of course. Inappropriate relations between coaches and young athletes are legion. They happen in every sport. Yet, swimming seemed to take it to another level of misconduct. Why? Well, you don’t have to look too far. This is a sport where the athletes are mostly naked, wet, breathing heavy, and quite literally, staring up in positions of subservience at their coaches above them on deck. The sexualized nature of the sport is impossible to miss. Plenty of unscrupulous coaches have taken advantage of it in unconscionable, downright evil ways.

But let’s hit pause on the pile-on for a second. Outside magazine has already piled on plenty, as well meaning and outraged as the story was. When I say ‘plenty’, I mean too many. Hell, one is too many. But let’s make no mistake: ‘plenty’ remains the minuscule minority of a proud and noble profession. And while we’re at it, let’s make something else clear: no other national governing body has reacted with more vigilance and commitment to change than USA Swimming, ever since this story took on a life of its own four years ago. Read the rest of this entry »

Trials of a Supergroup

Bob Bowman’s NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled… But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions… 

It’s all about the long term, the next Games. Let’s not forget that. Bob Bowman’s thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He’s been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he’ll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we’re talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.

This can’t be an easy time to be running NBAC’s supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger

Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to “get me a lead” before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael’s comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman’s program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.

Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4×100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the reigning Olympic champion in that event.

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The Bottom Line

Mike Bottom and the psychology of special…

He gets you to believe. In yourself, in your talent, in your training, and importantly, in him. That’s no small task, and it doesn’t have much to do with what goes on in the water everyday.

18 to 22 year old boys can be a delicate lot. They won’t admit to this, but it’s true. Their egos are fragile and their freakishly fit bodies are hyper sensitive to the slightest turbulence in their training. Often times what they need is not a coach but a psychologist. Enter Mike Bottom, the ultimate mind coach.

Two days ago, Bottom guided Michigan back to the top, as the men raced to their first title in 18 years. Bottom’s incredible accomplishments with a who’s who of champion sprinters long ago established him as one of the world’s great coaches, but this title does something else. It validates his Hall of Fame bona fides and transcends that old Sprint Coach label that he wore for so long. This Michigan team won it the Michigan way and the Bottom way. Which is to say they won it by dominating the distance events and swimming blazingly fast on the sprint relays. That’s a dangerous combo.

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The Church and the State

How do you judge a nation’s swimming success? By Olympic medals or by broader measures like membership and revenue? With Swimming Canada at a crossroads, a case study for every nation… 

When the CEO came to power spirits were low. So were revenues. At meets across the country, there was a heavy mood of doom and gloom. Leadership was being questioned and medal counts were anemic. There was the palpable sense of losing ground, of being passed by competing countries that seemed to be getting more out of their talent and resources.

In 2005, Pierre Lafontaine arrived to a hell of a task. Swimming Canada needed not only a turnaround artist, it needed an attitude adjustment. They got it in Lafontaine. With an infectious energy of relentless positivity, he began to lift Canada’s sagging swim spirits. He also started generating a lot more dollars, and brought a lot more Canadians into the sport. He did what a CEO is supposed to do: He improved the business.

After eight years at the helm of Canadian swimming, Pierre Lafontaine resigned this week. He’s moving on to become the CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), starting next month. He leaves Swimming Canada in far better shape than he found it. Yet, he also leaves it at a crossroads – one shared by other swimming nations across the world, as they look to regroup and chart new courses in the next Olympiad ahead.

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