Lessons From Legends: The Myth of George Haines

by SwimSwam 16

December 27th, 2014 National, News

Chuck Warner, 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.

CHUCK WARNER: Lessons From Legends

LESSONS FROM LEGENDS: The “Myth” of George Haines

At a recent certification coaching course conducted by the American Swimming Coaches Association, the 48 coaches in the room were asked if they recognized the names of some prominent figures in the current and past history of swimming. The results were (in parenthesis he number of coaches who recognized the name):

Coach Dick Shoulberg (18) – President of ASCA and longtime coach at Germantown Academy

Coach Jim Wood (12) – Past President USA Swimming and current President of USAS

Coach Peter Daland (8) – 92 year old, longtime coach at USC – 25 National Team Titles

USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus (7)

Coach Mark Schubert (6) – Record of 44 National Club Team Titles at Mission Viejo
USA National Team Director Frank Busch (5)

Coach Jim “Doc” Counsilman (3) – Author of the Science of Swimming, former coach Indiana University

Coach George Haines (0) – 6-time Olympic Coach, 43 National Club Team Titles, 44 Olympic Gold Medals

Many of us coach and swim in the sport of swimming overlooking history and looking for help to achieve our goals by being attracted to whatever current trend seems to be effective. Frequently this approach is met with limited success. A friend suggested the other day that many coaches, and perhaps swimmers, toil each season and each year like the Greek Myth of Sisyphus.


Sisyphus was a figure in Greek Mythology that was condemned to death by the Greek Gods. He was able to strike a bargain with the Gods, however, to continue to live. His alternative to death was becoming bound to an eternal existence of pushing a bolder up a mountain, watching it roll back down and then pushing it back up again…over and over and over, forever. My friend compared the experience to the swimming coach who continually tries to reach for glorious success with his or her swimmers in a season only to watch it finish with limited results and then start all over again at the bottom of the mountain in the new season and push the boulder up just like Sisyphus.

History can teach us many lessons that make it more likely to reach the mountain top and stay there. But in swimming we often miss out on learning from the past and instead become Sisyphus mindlessly repeating our journey of failure or mediocrity.

When it comes to coaching swimming the story─or myth if you like─of George Haines is one that should be a part of anyone’s oral and written history to understand what it looks like to be standing on the top of the mountain in the sport of swimming. Perhaps from that view something can be learned about how to get there.

Since no one in that ASCA course knew George’s name a myth might be concocted that he made his money in the Haynes underwear industry, and used the funds to bank roll opportunities to support fast swimmers thereby building a powerful team. This myth could even be created to say that Haynes took the Y out of his name and turned it into an “I” to hide his source of riches.

Ok, not true. No underwear. This is just a story of a person helping swimmers get faster.

In 1951, at 26 years old, Coach Haines founded the Santa Clara Swim Club with 13 swimmers. Twenty-three years later Santa Clara had won 43 national club team titles, a record that stood until Mark Schubert’s Mission Viejo teams had beaten it in 1985. Haines also coached the Santa Clara High School boys swimming and water polo teams. His teams were so strong that it was once documented that some of his swim teams would have placed in the top five at the Men’s NCAA Championships.

Even more impressive was the achievements of George’s swimmers at the Olympics.  If his life as a swimming coach was a myth one could conclude that he had made some sort of deal with Zeus who in Greek mythology was the god of the sky and ruler of the Olympian gods.  By the time George had retired in 1988 he had coached 53 swimmers to Olympic Teams that won 44 gold, 14 silver and 10 bronze medals. The majority of those swimmers were from his Santa Clara Swim Club teams.

On the 1964 USA Olympic Team alone, there were 13 Santa Clara swimmers and they won 13 Olympic gold medals. Fifteen of his Santa Clara swimmers have been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, more than any other team in history.

Why was George Haines so successful? What can we learn from his accomplishments a half century ago that would help coaches and swimmers today?

Many stories could be told but here are a few quick facts:

  • George liked people and people liked him.
  • He kept firm discipline with his teams, adhering to high moral standards but kept his sense of humor in achieving it.
  • He attracted a large training group of 40-60 senior swimmers, many of whom were very talented.
  • To properly conduct his workouts with a group this size, his long course training transitioned from open water space (quarries and lakes) to the building of a 50-meter complex in Santa Clara in 1966.
  • He learned how to make individual adjustments while coaching a large training group.
  • He didn’t simply pound his swimmers with work. Coach Haines had an intuitive sense of what was too much work and what was enough. George would say, “I had to decide how much training I dared to put them through.”
  • He entertained while he trained his swimmers.
    • Practice was fun.
    • One of his favorite tricks in between sets or on an easy day was to flip a chair in the air with his foot and catch it on his foot while still in the air (from personal experience clear the area while learning how to do this!)
  • He gave many individual swimmers he coached the sense that he truly believed they could win, even in competing with their teammates.

George Haines was a master trainer, father figure and confidant to his swimmers. He never sought the limelight for himself but always for his swimmers and for The American Swimming Team. At the same time he was a family man that was married to June Carter Haines for 61 years and was the father of five children.

In 1974 George finally left Santa Clara to coach the UCLA men’s team. There is a ‘myth’ worth sharing on how George treated people from his first few months on the job in Westwood. He was trying to improve the Athletic Department’s allotment for the wardrobe and equipment supply to his swimmers. He went to the long time UCLA equipment manager that had so generously cared for the high profile UCLA basketball, football and track teams. He humbly told the equipment manager, “I need your help.” Hearing from the greatest swimming coach in the world at the time, I need your help was enough for the equipment manager  to open the doors to the equipment room and outfit the swimming team in first class style.

Doc Counsilman referred to the unique personal qualities that the most successful swimming coaches have had as the “X Factor.” Doc argued that if a coach who was a great psychologist had a team that competed against a coach who was a great scientist; the psychologist would win every time.

There is always more to learn to stay at the cutting edge of world class swimming in the areas of skills, technique and training science. But those that understand how we arrived at this threshold of knowledge have a heightened awareness of those choices that will help swimmers meet their potential. And when it comes to the “X Factor” of coaching world class swimmers there is no better way to understand it than to share and listen to the Myth of George Haines.

The alternative may be simply living the existence of Sisyphus.

Legendary Mullings:

…the similarities in describing the characteristics of George Haines and considering those of Coach Eddie Reese are eerily alike.

…George played third base for a senior softball team when he retired and was pretty good we hear.

Lessons from legendsChuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go towww.areteswim.com and access “Books/Media.”

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Clint Baer
4 years ago

I have to say, it is incredible to read this article and hear that the most successful coach of all time in the sport of swimming has been forgotten by the next generation of coaches. Thank you for this article paying tribute to his legacy. I am the grandson of George Haines and I was born the same year he retired. I only knew him as Grandpa, but I can tell you one thing for sure, he was an incredible man. He can coach anything. He came to all my sporting events growing up and on occasion filled in as coach. We of course never lost the days he coached :). It so cool to hear the other stories from… Read more »

Linda Nadolski
Reply to  Clint Baer
5 months ago

I swam for George at SCSC in the 70’s. We all loved him and worked our hearts out for him. Another fun anecdote is he would dance to the the Aquamaids ( synchronized swim team) music during practice (they were in the diving pool doing their thing and the music was loud). Also he would through a kickboard the entire 50 meter length of the pool!

Joe Schuler
5 years ago

I went to Santa Clara High School from 1955 to 1959. I was not a fast swimmer but I was a strong swimmer so I was on one of George’s successful water polo teams. Oh by the way, George was also a successful football coach at our school. He could coach anything in my opinion. Coach Haines had time for everyone and made you feel important regardless of your skill level. I’ve never known anyone else quite like him.

7 years ago

I too swam under Frank Keefe and then George Haines at Foxcatcher. I vastly preferred the former to the latter. I also swam for Jack Simon (briefly at Foxcather when John Dupont opened it back up for a very select few) and then went to swim under Mr. Shoulberg at GA and then at Foxcatcher again (with Mr. Shoulberg still). I am not surprised the years George was at Foxcatcher aren’t mentioned on his Wikipedia page. When he left Foxcatcher, it was not a good scene…

7 years ago

Since I opened my eyes on swimming, I though that George Haines was the best coach in the world. It was in 1963 and his pupils were Donna de Varona, Don Schollander, Steve Clark, Gary Ilman. In 1964, I tried to figure a meeting: Santa-Clara vs the rest of the world. And it worked. Santa Clara won the freestyle relays, with Schollander, Ilman, Clark (and Mike Wall for the 800 relay), the 100 and 400 and I guess some backstroke event? And in 1965, I read an article about “the next Schollander”. Haines had a 15 years old swimming genius named Mark Spitz. At 14, he had swum 57”, 2’4” and 4’25”. This Young guy was a little crazy, because… Read more »

Bill Thompson
7 years ago

Great article, Chuck. …”Few Quick Facts” perfectly describe George’s methods. He could be imitated, but never, ever duplicated.

7 years ago

Argh its just painful that no one remembered George Haines. Glad to see this article, thank you for posting.

Lane Four
7 years ago

I am shocked regarding the lack of “name recognition”. This is GEORGE HAINES!!!!! It is insulting to the man’s legacy that his name scored a big fat goose egg amongst those coaches in the room. I don’t know what else to say. Wow. Speechless.

9 years ago

I had the privilege of swimming for George Haines at Foxcatcher. Although I was an average swimmer at best, he still knew my name and would joke around with the swimmers in the lower levels. While a stern coach, he created a warm environment in which you wanted to work hard and achieve. He was a kind, generous man whose name should be known by all as he is one of the best coaches in the history of the sport.

Reply to  swimmermama
7 years ago

Haines coached at Foxcatcher?

Reply to  whoknows
7 years ago

Haines took over after Frank Keefe left in 1978 to coach at Yale. He stayed until the club closed in 1980.

Reply to  swimmermama
7 years ago

I too swam at Foxcatcher, first under Keefe and then under Haines. Dupont closed the pool when Haines left his 3-year contract early. Dupont reopened his pool briefly for a few select swimmers under Jack Simon (I was one) and then again with Mr. Shoulberg (by that time, I had been swimming at GA for years also).