Lessons From Legends: Jim Montrella’s Modern Swimming Concepts

Chuck Warner, the author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.


So you read past the headline of this article. Perhaps that is because you’re old enough to remember Jim Montrella’s company called “Modern Swimming Concepts” that he started in the 1960s?

Jim’s unique design of hand paddles with removable wrist straps, and varying color coded sizes, became standard equipment in many successful programs around the world. His creation of indestructible, recyclable, polyurethane paddles made them an extraordinary economical investment, since their durability and design make the same paddles purchased 50 years ago, still effective today.

The same is true of many of the other Montrella swimming concepts.

My chance to learn about this patient and precise Olympic swimming coach came last Saturday. At 1:41 pm Captain Jim and I left the Dana Point Harbor for Catalina Island in his 31-foot cruiser. We returned at 10:55 am on Sunday. During our trip I mainly listened and learned how he climbed to the top of the world of swimming and was struck by how current his theories are for all of us today.

Coach Jim Montrella

Coach Jim Montrella

“Most coaches today, start out coaching age-groupers without a lot of training in applied physiology, psychology, biomechanics or kinesiology, “ Coach Montrella told me with a smile. “Therefore, very often a coach’s measure of whether they’re highly effective is not in applying a science based developmental program and seeing how fast they can help a swimmer become, but it’s whether the swimmers they’re coaching are improving. What most young, inexperienced swim coaches don’t realize is nearly everyone get’s faster as an age-grouper.”

Jim went on to explain that when a coach has the experience of trying to help an older athlete improve after they reach puberty they often become humbled. At an older age improvement doesn’t come nearly as easily. In his opinion, most coaches experience with a physically mature swimmer is what ignites them to look in earnest for information to become the most effective coach they can be.

If Coach Montrella is right, one reason you could be reading this story is because you want to find a more effective way to coach, swim or parent.

The three basic tenants of excellence are the degree of our qualities of:

  • Anticipation
  • Preparation
  • Dedication

Jim Montrella’s ride to the Olympics encompassed all three qualities and a fourth we will get to in a moment.

In the late 1950s, Jim was a high school student in the city of Lakewood, California. The Lakewood recreation department needed someone to supervise an aquatics program at their summer camp. The seventeen year old took the job. Within two years he was the aquatics director and he became interested in training swimmers.

Jim couldn’t afford to go away to college so he went to a community college and then enrolled in another local school, Cal State University Long Beach (CSULB). While he was a student at CSULB he became the swim coach for the City of Lakewood. Their pool didn’t have any markings to safely conduct a swim practice, so he built them himself. He put bolts in wooden 2 x 4s, lodged them into the gutters, strung buoys on ropes and fastened them to the bolts to create lane lines. Three years after he started with Lakewood, the pool was drained for maintenance. The young coach crawled along the bottom of the pool, measured and taped off an area for a painter to paint lines and also crosses on the pool walls.

As crude as it might be, Coach Montrella had a pool to train swimmers. But he wanted more from his fledgling team. He thought that if he forced the swimmers into a commitment to attend swim practice he would be trying to externally motivate his group, rather than help them build an internal drive to improve. But Jim reasoned that if his swimmers came to a 6 am practice, in addition to their evening session, they would make dramatic improvements and be more competitive in Southern California swimming.

He explained to his squad the value of swimming twice a day and then told them, “I’ll be here at 6 am. If anyone of you come in you’ll train and I’ll coach you.”

The kids asked, “Well what if nobody comes to practice in the morning?”

“I’ll be here,” the dedicated young coach responded. “If I’m by myself I’ll do my homework.”

For about a year, from Monday through Friday at 6 am, Coach Montrella sat alone at the city pool doing his homework.

Finally, a girl named Sheryl Bargas began to attend morning practice. Sheryl helped change the future of her coach and of the Lakewood Aquatic Club.

Weeks later, in front of the entire team at afternoon practice, Coach Montrella reinforced to Sheryl how much the extra morning training was helping her.  The kids sought more attention from their coach and from improving, so more and more swimmers asked their parents to help them get to practice before school. The Lakewood Aquatic Club began to make huge improvements.

By 1968, two of the swimmers from the group, Susie Atwood and Kim Brecht, were on the US Olympic team. In 1972, Susie broke the world record in the 200-meter backstroke and won two medals at the Munich Olympic Games. Jim Montrella was named a US Olympic Coach for the 1976 team.

Jim exhibits the quality of anticipation in successfully coaching swimming, as well in boating and in his day-to-day life. He is not a “multi-tasker.” He likes each step to be well thought out and performed with exactness. In his guidance of those on his boat, he didn’t just explain what he wanted done; he also described precisely how he wanted it done so there would be no accidents.

“Step under the blue rope holding the dingy on the swim platform, walk toward the starboard side, pull on the dock line so the boat moves within an easy step for you to get off on the dock,” he patiently instructed. Just like a great coach, he had anticipated each step, had prepared a sequence of words and was dedicated to the care and safety of each person on his boat.

Once we arrived in Catalina he explained to me his STP or Specialty Training Preparation. The concept has similarities to the 3S System successfully used by several coaches today. Coach Montrella started using STPs more than 30 years ago.

Montrella’s STP test set is 16 x 25s. It is a race rehearsal in which he demands exact stroke count, precise timing at the walls, with intervals that start at 1 minute and decrease by 5 seconds each week. The goal is to swim exact times based upon the individual’s mathematical equation of their lifetime best times. The formula is best 200 time divided by 2, plus best 100 time, minus 7 seconds for the absence of turns.

His STPs are conducted with precise detail. Before each STP, he assigns the same warm-up and only coaches’ one swimmer at a time.  He starts his watch when the athlete’s feet leave the wall. He walks each 25 at the athlete’s shoulder so his angle of stroke evaluation and timing will always be the same. He has successfully used these tests to measure progress with swimmers at all ages and levels and help them achieve great improvement.

The career of Coach Montrella has taken him from California across the country and back home again. Shortly after the 1976 Montreal Olympics he became the Athletic Director and Head Swimming Coach at Indian River Junior College in Florida, followed by a seventeen-year stint as Head Coach for Women at The Ohio State University, and then was an assistant coach at USC under Coach Mark Schubert.

In every position he has brought excellence to his work, even recently as an age-group coach. After he left USC he worked for his childhood friend Bill Rose on the Mission Viejo Nadadores (MVN) staff. When asked what group of swimmers he wanted to work with he said, “The weakest one.”

Jim took over coaching the 11-12 year olds. He was especially interested in helping the weak group of boys improve their performance in championship competition. Coach Montrella studied the meet results of the local Junior Olympics and saw how many points the MVN boys were missing out on scoring by not having strong A and B relays—only two could score. He copied the Texas A&M football tradition of using their term “the 12th man” to recognize the role of the crowd. He increased the boy’s sense of team by selling them on the value of the “12th man” on their squad. He pointed out that at their championships undoubtedly one of the top eight boys would become sick, injured or have a family conflict. He motivated 12 boys to prepare for fast relays instead of 4 or 8. He increased camaraderie amongst the girls and boys, by twice per week coaching them separately.

Jim created a method of objectively evaluating the 11-12 year olds annually on the basis of what he described as three “behavioral traits:”

  • Attendance percentage. Jim never required a practice, but he posted percentages each week. Therefore, he made the swimmers aware that there was a difference in one’s behavior that got them to practice and behavior that didn’t.
  • The second behavioral criteria were their performance test sets. Jim tested pulling and kicking of all four strokes. He also used his STP tests. The total of the tests were compiled to produce a single training performance number. He reasoned that if your behavior got you to practice, you were a listener and gave a good effort; your test sets would improve.
  • Meet performance, best times or competition behavior was the measure for his third criteria.

In his second year with MVN, to swim in Coach Montrella’s group you had to be one of the top 24 swimmers on his accumulative scale of behavioral traits. This “Montrella Modern Swimming Concept,” created in the aggregate, a target for the swimmers to strive for and an objective formula for him to utilize, which advanced the group. The 11-12 year old boys quickly moved from being one of the weakest groups in the program to one of the top few squads in Southern California.

Jim Montrella’s coaching method is a series of decisions based upon his ability to anticipate what is to come, thorough preparation and being dedicated to success. If what you’ve read so far doesn’t underscore his dedication consider one more example:

When he was at Lakewood Aquatic Club the city decided that he would have to cancel some of his morning practices so the pool staff could spend two hours or so, vacuuming the pool. Coach Montrella volunteered to get to the pool at 3:45 am to do the vacuuming before practice began.

All these concepts aren’t particularly modern, but the way he synthesized them creates his own art of coaching.

There is a fourth tenant in Coach Montrella’s formula for excellence:

  • Love

I watched with admiration as he exuded this quality to a stranger on the street, a fisherman in the harbor, a waiter in a restaurant, a city street worker in a man-hole, a business leader and even to the grey whales we watched off of Dana Point.

You hear the word each time he talks about, or to, his wife of 38 years, Bev. You feel it when he talks about his life, his experiences, his children and especially his daughter Kristi who passed away two years ago.

Every mentor has a mentor. Kristi became one for her father. Kristi had an accident that left her a quadriplegic. Because of her condition every thing she did took longer. Getting out of bed, dressing, moving from place to place could have all been time strained activities but instead they became lessons to Jim. More patience was needed to live this way. Enjoying each experience became her way of life and influenced her father to do the same.

Many of us move through our daily life with little amplitude in the use of our senses. Kristi lost the ability to walk, but embraced and heightened her awareness in nearly every other area of her life. Through observation and love, these qualities have grown in her dad.

The word love isn’t used often in sports or in coaching. Jim Montrella doesn’t throw it around much either. He embodies it. His swimmers and friends feel it oozing from his soul. His coaching excellence and love for the sport is expressed in age-groupers, Olympians, Masters and everyone in between.

I write this story because people in the sport of swimming should know how much he adores it and them. Jim Montrella is an irreplaceable rock in the river bed of American Swimming.

These are some of Jim Montrella’s “Modern Swimming Concepts.” Just like his hand paddles, they are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. If you’d like to learn more about either feel free to call 949-212-8811.

Chuck WarnerFor more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

Follow Chuck Warner on Twitter here. 

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Denise H
8 years ago

Wow.. take me back to those days swimming for Lakewood. Jim was/is an amazing coach/mentor and representative for USA Swimming. So much of what Jim did in the workouts (dry land and water) still resonate with me today (so many years later). The early morning workouts, the late afternoon ones, the “swim camps”, the swimming in a non heated pool. I went into education and use many of the concepts I learned as a swimmer under Jim. Thank you for an article of clarity about Jim and taking me back down memory lane.

Jerry Grinstead Sr
10 years ago

Jim coached our son way back in 1960. Starting at the Lakewood YMCA. What an awesome coach and mentor. He just gets better with age. Tonight we visited with Jim’s brother John… Ref for our Great Grandaughters High school varsity water polo game… What a small world… John is an awesome guy too. Lots of great memories of the Montrella family.
Hugs.. Jerry and Jacquie Grinstead and all the California Crew!!!

10 years ago

Great article!

10 years ago

nicely done chuck..i cannot even begin to express how instrumental jim was to me after i was chemically poisoned……i just wanted to die….. he called me every day and said..this is going to be the hardest workout you have ever faced in your life…hang in there….. you can do it……. to this day i consider jim, the greatest coach i ever swam for,…….a mentor, a loving and caring person in and out of the pool…… one of the most caring and giving person that has ever blessed my life……. thanks chuck for trying to put into words this most amazing person.

Reply to  teresa pascuzzo
10 years ago

My goodness Theresa, thank you so much for your comment.

10 years ago

Very nice article, have known Jim since the 60’s as a coach at Lakewood as an age group swimmer at Blue Fin Swim Club with John Wyness who is best friends with Jim. Funny story I live in Mission Viejo now and saw Jim walking down the street and town and I said aren’t you Jim Montella and he said yes and replied and you are Donny Tayenaka, man has a memory after all these years. I’ve seen his brother John, ref. for water polo for SCIAC where I coached Whittier College for a few years in the 80’s and later when he was ref for water polo games for my son’s in HS at Capistrano Valley in Mission Viejo.… Read more »

10 years ago

What a beautiful article on a great man. I swam for Jim & Bev in the 80’s and was just explaining his STP set to another coach on our staff just a few weeks ago. One of the things I looked forward to the most each week! Thank you!

10 years ago

LOVE Jim and Bev Montrella – wonderful, loving couple! Many fond memories! Thanks, Chuck, for sharing!
If you wish to see video interview with Jim:

cynthia curran
10 years ago

Leilei Funoimoana is the 1976 Olympian in Butteflyer.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

Read More »