I tend to view the world through a watery lens. It’s a trait I must have inherited from Buck Dawson, the first director of the Swimming Hall of Fame. Like the seven degrees to Kevin Bacon, swimming can be connected to just about anything important that has ever happened or is happening in the world. From the swimmers who saved western civilization from Persian domination thousands of years ago to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival I attended in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park a few weeks ago.
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is the annual highlight of San Francisco’s cultural calendar and I was one of nearly a million music fans who attended the free three-day event. It was founded and endowed by and the late billionaire investor, philanthropist, banjo player, family man and swimmer, Warren Hellman. While standing at the back of Hellman Hollow, watching Steve Martin strumming his banjo on the Banjo Stage in his white suit, I wondered if anyone else attending this great event realized the role swimming had played in Mr. Hellman’s wonderful life.
Although he was no longer was managing the firm of Hellman & Friedman on a daily basis when I met him a dozen years ago, Warren Hellman was still getting up at 4:30 a.m. to start his day with a 5-7 mile run in the Presidio. Afterward, in a cluttered study where his belt buckle collection graced one wall, he would read the Torah before getting to his office by 7:45 a.m. where he would “cruise by” his colleagues until 6:00 p.m. or later. His stamina was legendary, and it was something he traced directly to his days as a water polo player at Cal.
“Being in shape makes you feel good and alert,” he told me. “It’s something that I believe helps you perform and compete better in the business world. I’ve always remained involved in athletics and believe that athletes, particularly water polo players, who leave college in such phenomenal condition, are nuts to give up sport. Why throw away the great shape you’ve spent your youthful years developing? Stick to it.”
After college, Hellman traded his swimsuit and polo cap for skis and running shoes. In the 1970’s he tore his knee ski racing. Frustrated by his inability to be physically active, he resolved to run the day he got the cast off and he ran to the end of the driveway.
“If I could run to the end of the driveway, why not run a marathon!” he thought.
After running a few marathons, he heard about the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile foot race from Squaw Valley to Auburn in the Sierra.
“If I could run a marathon, why not the Western States!”
In one of those races, he fell at the 25th mile and broke a rib. He kept going and finished the race. What was he thinking about the last 75 miles?
“Pain is my friend.”
Warren attributed his drive to a burn he suffered at age 9, which destroyed most of the muscle in one arm. Quite a young hellion, Hellman’s nightshirt caught fire as he was sneaking into his mother’s room with a kerosene lamp, attempting to steal a toy. He suffered third degree burns over thirty percent of his body and spent two months in the hospital. Doctors told him that he probably would never regain full use of the arm. They told him to forget about sports.
For physical therapy he began swimming and joined the swimming team as a freshman at Lowell High. By graduation, he had become a top-ranked swimmer and joined the swim team at Cal where his coach was the legendary George Schroth, an Olympic bronze medallist in water polo at the 1924 Paris Games.
In coach Schroth, Hellman found a positive mentor who took a bunch of average swimmers and made them into a really good water polo team.
“In spite of his accomplishments,’ Hellman told me, “Schroth didn’t take himself too seriously and he had a great sense of humor, which helped get us through long and draining practices. We weren’t as talented as some teams, particularly USC, which had four or five guys make the Olympic team, but we worked harder than any other team. We were always in great shape and didn’t fade in the fourth quarter like other teams. No matter what our situation was, we had the confidence that if we kept swimming and working harder than our opponents, good things would happen.”
To illustrate the point, Hellman recalled a game against USC in his senior year.
“In a game at Berkeley, we were down 4-1 at halftime. Even though we had lost to them earlier in the season, in Los Angles, by the lopsided score of 14 – 5, we never gave up. Slowly we crawled back one goal at a time and took a 6-5 lead late in the fourth quarter. In the final minutes I had to guard the great Bob Hughes, which was like guarding King Kong. Hughes was so big and so strong that my mother, who was sitting in the stands, was, with good cause, fearful for my life. I had gone the whole game without a foul, but picked up four fouls against Hughes in those final minutes to help preserve the win. Never give up! This lesson has been a huge part of my success in the securities business.”
“When I first got to New York and was a trainee at Lehman Brothers, I, like a lot of other guys, wondered if I’d ever figure things out and experienced a very high level of frustration. But in reality, it wasn’t anymore difficult than when I first learned to handle a water polo ball. Because of my arm, I had to work harder than most of the rest of the team to master ball handling and I would spend hours over the summer in chilly Lake Tahoe improving my skills. If you are determined to succeed and keep gnawing at it, you can master anything. It is just a matter of time. It was as true for me with learning to handle the ball as it was learning the financial business. It’s just a matter of persistence and perseverance.”
“Another thing coach Schroth taught me was about leadership,” says Hellman. “Coach Schroth had been a successful athlete and he never asked us to do something we knew he hadn’t done or been willing to do himself. This approach was quite a contrast to what I found at my first job, where I worked for a guy who did not lead by example. He was a dictator who would roll into the office at ten, make a couple a calls, go to lunch and have some drinks with a few clients and then disappear again. He had a great mind for investing, but was not pleasant to work for. To be a successful leader, there must be a correlation between how hard you work and what you expect of others. A leader must lead by example.”
“Leadership also means creating an environment for success. In the financial business the outside world is your enemy, but at the first company I worked for, the internal competition was as bad as it was outside the company. In sports or in business, you cannot downgrade or denigrate the accomplishments of your own team and be successful. Early on, I resolved that my firm would work as a team and support each other.”
“While a sports background is not completely indicative of business success, at our firm it is amazing to see how well former athletes have done. I think this is because, as an athlete, not only do you know the value of persistence, but you also learn to accept failure not as a crushing and painful defeat, but recognize that if you analyze and learn from failure, is often a precursor to success. I know, because I’ve had my share of failures.”
“One of the important lessons I learned from coach Schroth was: Never take yourself too seriously. In our business, there are a lot of guys who make an awful lot of money and when some do, they lose their perspective. They forget the role that luck played in their success. What would my life be like today if I hadn’t caught my clothes on fire? Would I have started swimming? Would I have met George Schroth and played water polo? Or, what if my father hadn’t had a relative at Lehman Brothers? What would my life be like if we hadn’t had the longest sustained bull market of the twentieth century the past twelve years? Luck plays a tremendous role in all of our lives and it is important to remember this with both our successes and failures. When I look back on some of my failures, how can I take myself too seriously?”
One example Hellman cited was when he scored UCLA’s lone goal in a water polo game against CAL in his senior year. Unfortunately he was playing for CAL.
“I was guarding the hole and made a really nice move to steal the ball. Without looking, I flipped the ball back to the goalie – except the goalie had moved to the other side of the cage. My parents had flown down to Los Angles for the game and I still remember seeing my mother’s face buried in her hands and shaking her head when the referee signaled the goal. Fortunately we ended up winning the game.”
And on the rare occasion when he forgot, there’s always someone to remind him not to take himself too seriously.
“The day after I had run The Western States run of 100 miles for the second time, I was out running with my wife, Chris, to work out the lactate acid build up from the race. We passed by a pair of elderly women who noticed I was wearing a Western States T-shirt.
“I see you’re wearing a Western States shirt,’ one said. ‘Can you tell me how to enter? We’d like to do that.”
“Thinking that they must have thought the race was a 5K, I said, “Oh, this isn’t a recreational run. It’s a hundred mile run over the mountains. It’s really difficult and its not something just anyone can do. It takes a lot of training and you really have to be in great shape.”
“She then proceeded to explain that she had just run 3,000 miles across the nation. I guess they were thinking if they could run three thousand miles, why not one hundred!”
Warren Hellman was born on July 25, 1934 in New York City and passed away on December 18, 2011 in San Francisco. To learn more about The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and its founder, Warren Hellman see: http://www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com/2013/
The International Swimming Hall of Fame is a not-for-profit educational organization located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our mission is to promote the benefits and importance of swimming as a key to fitness, good health, quality of life, and the water safety of children. We will accomplish this through operation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a dynamic shrine dedicated to the history, memory, and recognition of the famous swimmers, divers, water polo players, synchronized swimmers, and persons involved in life saving activities and education, throughout the world, whose lives and accomplishments will serve to inspire, educate, and be role models for all those who participate in the Hall of Fame’s experience and programs.
About Bruce Wigo
Bruce Wigo was named President and CEO of ISHOF on Friday the 13th of May, 2005. He is lawyer who has had success in turning around financially troubled non-profit businesses. In 1991, he took over as the Executive Director of USA Water Polo and helped bail out the nearly bankrupt sport’s federation. In his thirteen years as ED, he increased membership from less than 8,000 to more than 30,000, more than tripled the annual budget to over $3.5 million and raised over $1.5 million for the establishment of a water polo national training center in Los Alamitos, CA. His oldest son, Wolf Wigo, is a three time Olympian, is currently the head water polo coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Daughter Lauren is the corporate yoga instructor for Allen & Company in New York City and his two younger sons, identical twins Drac and Janson, are NCAA All-American water polo players at Stanford University.