Lessons from Legends: Under The Shade of a Freeway

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

Lessons from Legends

People say they love the music they grow up with, especially through their transitional years of high school and college. For many of us music is motivational whether as a coach, a swimmer, or for that matter, as parents trying to understand our kids. On a long car ride, run, biking or workout, music can be the backdrop for a mind adrift to achievement, goal realization and the feelings of fulfillment we believe are in our future, if not our destiny.

Lyricist legend Jackson Browne opens his song the “Pretender” by creaking through a description of a glum, blue collar existence when he sings:

“I’m going to rent myself a house in the shade of a freeway.”

For someone who started full-time coaching while living in a house in the hot California sun, absent trees for shelter, and thus living in fact in the shade of a freeway, the song resonates an emotion of a time when one seemed to have little in the way of a bank account or opportunity. All over the world there are coaches, swimmers and parents that have had or are having a similar experience. They coach, train or work at swim meets in the allegory of the shade of the freeway where the environment is one of dark, narrow pools, with air that generates tearing eyes and is so warm and humid that a short respite outside into a freezing winter, is a welcome relief.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a better environment will change the performance outcome for an athlete in a season, a year or a career. Thoughts like that can be accurately characterized as ‘stinkin thinkin’ and can be the downfall of all those that allow such an emotional disease to penetrate their mind.

Over the period of swimming history there have been countless examples of coaches, athletes and parents that have carved out success despite the conditions. Coach Soichi Sakamoto trained swimmers in the irrigation ditches in Hawaii in the 1930s and built a team that won the national championship for three consecutive years. In 1976, Bill Sweetenham used the water in a zoo for the long course training of 12-time world record holder Stephen Holland. Coach Sweetenham brushed off the bird droppings from his head and clothes, and focused on the task at hand – helping his swimmer break more world records and prepare him for the Montreal Olympics.

At the same time in America, Bobby Hackett trained for his immortal 15:03 1500 at the Montreal Olympics in a four lane, 25-yard pool in the basement of Fordham University. Having 12 swimmers or more per lane was not unusual and didn’t deter the 16-year old. The closest 50-meter pool at the time was at the US Military Academy about a 1½ hour drive to the north and rarely visited.

As the Montreal mile turned out Brian Goodell thundered home from behind to the beat of “Radar Love” blaring in his mind.

When the Nashville Aquatic Club (NAC) was building their new pool in the 1970s, it wasn’t ready when planned — what building construction ever is? The team had to rent time in a four lane, 20-yard pool to have a place to train prior to the national championships. Coach Paul Bergen admittedly sat and pouted as he watched his team do heats of sprints in the lousy facility, one of the few ways he could think of to use the pool for his group.

Just days later NAC lit up the American record book and the world of swimming with stunning performances from the likes of Tracy Caulkins. Coach Bergen looked back and realized that because of the pool problems he learned an important lesson in preparation for peak performance and the role that quality swimming would play to help his swimmers in the future.

Many of your are aware of better stories about miserable training conditions that didn’t stop people with the “right stuff” to accomplish greatness in the sport.

People in swimming get up and work each day or in the words of Jackson Browne:

“I’m going to pack my lunch in the morning and go to work each day.

And when the evening rolls around,

I go on home and lay my body down.

When the morning light comes streaming in,

I get up and do it again! Amen.”

As you well know, for many coaches, swimmers and parents that morning light never comes streaming in until after an early training session is done. One of the best aspects of the sport, is how many people are willing to work hard, at all hours of the day, learning lessons about victory and defeat, success and failure, feeling good and feeling bad—and that is a feeling that should not last.  By challenging one another, swimming standards keep getting faster and faster and the sport’s participants keep pushing their limits to find more inside them than they ever realized existed.

It’s never too late to become recognized as a great coach, become fast enough to meet your potential as a swimmer or to grow into being a wonderful parent.

USA Coach Jon Urbanchek was a relatively old coach before he went to Michigan and slowly built a record of international success with the likes of Mike Barrowman, Tom Dolan, Tom Malchow, Tyler Clary, etc. He has become a legend in his later years.

Jason Lezak and Rachel Komisarz-Baugh never achieved much on an international level until after college and then became Olympic medalists. And today, the vast majority of Olympians are past their collegiate years.

Perhaps in a way to distinguish between those that are in the sport as ‘pretenders’ to meet their potential and perhaps become a champion, versus a ‘contender’, one can look inward and interpret Jackson Browne’s pleas to challenge them:

“Are you there?

Say a prayer for the pretender.

Who started out so young and strong,

Only to surrender.”

Don’t you dare surrender to your conditions.

It’s never too late to achieve excellence in any field or sport. Even if you have times when you are working and training in a “rental in the shade of a freeway.”

Legendary Mullings:

…In the 1980s the Wilton Y Wahoos became the first Connecticut team to ever win the National Y Team Championship. They trained in a 6-lane 25-yard pool. Practice time was limited to about 2.5 hours in the evening for more than 100 of the best swimmers on the team.  Over two years the Wahoos swept all six championships (Men, Women and Combined) and had about a dozen swimmers at the 1988 USA Olympic Trials.

…in the 1970s Coach Bergen would have the swimmers that lived too far from the Keating Natatorium train in the afternoon, bring their homework and food, take a break for a few hours and then train again that night.

Follow Chuck Warner on Twitter here.

andthentheywon9 - CopyChuck 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 swim 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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11 years ago

Hi I just wanted to say that you should make a post on Rhyan White. She’s a swimmer in Utah so she is underrepresented. But last weekend at a local meet in Utah she went a 56.51 in her 100 back, qualifying her for junior nationals as a 12 year old, putting her 1st in the Nation and putting her 7th on the top-100 all time list. She also is 2nd in the country in her 50back and at another local Utah meet she went a 2:04.92 putting her 3rd in the country.

Reply to  Morrie
11 years ago

I’m Rhyan’s grandma, and agree she is amazing. Best of all, she is sweet and humble.

11 years ago

It all depends on the situation and how you experience it. Certainly, I agree it’s important to make the best of any situation. At the same time, life’s too short to compromise important ideals, such as ethics. That’s why my experience would’ve led me to write a very different column.

11 years ago

In the words of Dick Shoulberg, “water’s water”.


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, …

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