You probably know him as “Katie Ledecky‘s coach.” Or perhaps, “The Cal Men’s Assistant.”
But Friday, Yuri Suguiyama will coach his first collegiate meet at the helm of a program decidedly his. So, who is “The Wisconsin Head Coach,” and how did he get there?
“I just finally got to a point where I was comfortable taking on the challenge of a head coaching role,” said Suguiyama of the end of his six year stint in Berkeley. “So when Wisconsin reached out, following the NCAAs, the more I looked into it, and more discussions I had with the administration, it just became a great fit in my eyes, and a great next step I think in my career.”
Those six years with Cal also gave him an idea of what to look for in a future program, which he saw as threefold in Wisconsin. One of those aspects was high academic standards: “It was just important to me that I be able to speak to a student-athlete or a parent with confidence about the academic experience that they could get at Wisconsin,” Suguiyama said.
The second was a high level of support from the athletic department, which is embodied in part by Wisconsin’s commitment to opening a $25 million aquatic center next year; the third, a devotion to the city of Madison from those who know it – not unlike that of Berkeley-ites.
“I can’t tell you how many people I met who either grew up here, left, and then came back because they didn’t want to leave or, you know, left and came here and then never left,” he said. “I think Madison is a great combination of college town and a capital city, and the way that the two of them mesh is really neat.”
“There’s a vibrance amongst the place here that not only do the undergraduates bring, but a lot of the young professionals bring to the city as well.”
In addition to getting to know his new city, Suguiyama spent his busy summer reaching out to rising sophomore, juniors, and seniors, who were informed in March that former head coach of seven years Whitney Hite would not return.
“I think the number one priority was reaching out to the current student-athletes and saying, ‘hey, you have a head coach, and I’m here, and I’m here to work for you.'” He also spoke with incoming recruits to make clear they were still a part of the program’s future.
“Even though I did not necessarily recruit them or sign them, I wanted them to know is that it wasn’t going to be like, ‘oh your someone else’s recruits,’ It’s like, ‘no, you guys are my guys.’ I chose to be here, so that means that I chose to coach you,” Suguiyama said. “So regardless of who you committed to or who signed with, or you trained with, now it’s my job to do everything I can to help you be successful.”
And not only is it Suguiyama’s job, but it’s also the job of his curated staff of assistants – Kristy Brager, Neal Caskey, Jannah Haney, Erik Posegay, and diving coach Anton Slobounov – three of whom were already Wisconsin coaches or alums when he decided to bring them back on. But he says that was more of a coincidence than an expressed intent.
“I didn’t want to keep anyone on staff just because they had been in here,” Suguiyama said, noting that all hires had to apply for the new jobs. “I asked them to stay because I felt like they could help us, and I felt like they were good coaches.”
“As a coach, you spend a lot of time with your staff, and with these people,” he said. “And so not only did I want to get people who I felt like were really good coaches and knew their X’s and O’s and understood what it took to get athletes to go fast, but I wanted people who were also just good people who shared my same goals for what the student-athlete experience should look like.”
So that staff will be along for the ride as Suguiyama adapts to his new surroundings and explores how best approach the job at hand.
“I think that I’ve always tried to adapt my coaching and training style based on the athletes that I have in the group. And so it’s not a one-size-fits-all program,” he explained. “Obviously the things that I had Katie [Ledecky] do between the ages of 11 and 15 were a lot different than what, you know, I had Josh Prenot or Jacob Pebley or Ryan Murphy do between the ages of 18 and 22.”
“I wake up every day excited to do what I do. I consider myself very fortunate to be a coach here, and thankful for the opportunities I had.”
“And so I think it’s just recognizing who you have in water, their background, you know, their strengths, their genders. And then not only trying to formulate your own opinions, your own philosophy on how they should do it, never being afraid to ask for help or to pick someone else’s brain or to borrow from something that has been working.”
In addition to adapting his training style, Suguiyama will refine his in-meet role. Just hours out from his first meet as a head coach as we spoke, he detailed what he’ll watch for. In short? Everything.
“As a staff we have sat down and identify: ‘okay, here are the protocols that we would have on a meet day.’ So then it’s communicating that with the athletes and they handle that,” he said, pointing to pre- and post-race routines. “So I’m looking forward to starting to put some of the habits in place that I feel like are going to help us be successful down the road, not only in dual meets but in championship meets. And it’s those small things that I’ve learned over the past couple of years that will have as much of an impact on performance at a competition as a whole season of training.”
“So that’s what I’m looking forward to,” he said.
Suguiyama’s Wisconsin Badgers kick off their season against Green Bay at 5 p.m. Friday.