An Open Letter, An Open Life: Dick Shoulberg

by SwimSwam 31

December 06th, 2013 Lifestyle, Opinion

Courtesy of Chuck Warner, author, coach, and former president of the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA).

Dear Mr. O’Connor,

I’ve been one of thousands of people closely following the recent events at Germantown Academy and what I understand to be the dismissal of your legendary swimming coach and teacher, Richard Shoulberg. This morning my other tasks in life are set aside out of urgency to write this letter both to you and to our community.

I met Coach Shoulberg about thirty years ago when we were assigned to room together while speaking at a clinic in Rhode Island. I have visited GA, worked with him on behalf of our national leadership in swimming, interviewed him for books I’ve written and consider myself his student, as well as his friend. As a matter of fact I keep in my closet a worn out t-shirt he sent me about 15 years ago that says, “Top of the Day at GA!” That shirt, just like Dick Shoulberg, was never requested– just arrived one day in my life…I think of both as divinely delivered.

In your bio on the GA website, Mr. O’Connor, it says that you, and your institution are all about the journey of “aspiration-connection-performance.” Can you find anyone in the Germantown Academy family that has produced a mass of body of work in those areas as Coach Shoulberg has? He has transformed a small, and by most standards inadequate swimming facility, into a launching pad for world-class athletic achievement, and more importantly, world-class character development. That transformation is all predicated on establishing goals (aspiration), connecting with young people, and achieving performance. He has been an educational leader for thousands and thousands of kids and families during his time at Germantown Academy.

People from all over the world have come and stopped at GA to see how this man manages his laboratory for human development.

The facility alone is lined with exercise equipment to help build bodies. I have to wonder where those funds came from and whether or not another person would consider lining their bank account, retirement account or family vacations with those dollars rather than your swimming coach who has found a way to channel money into more avenues for your students to achieve success?

Some of your own graduates have had trouble leaving the influence of Coach Shoulberg and have found an excellent university to attend nearby so they can more easily keep his influence in their lives. Can anyone achieve a greater compliment than that?

What I find so unique about how Dick Shoulberg does his work, and lives his life, is that he is an open book. He can be abrupt and perhaps you are feeling challenged by this. His emotions are worn on his sleeve. I’ve seen him tremble and cry in embarrassment over receiving yet another national award, and generate a similar emotion calling his wife to tell her of the achievements of your students. I’ve watched him greet your students for swim classes with a booming voice that shakes them. And they love it. Coach Shoulberg has a way of providing a firm emotional grip on young people, but a warm embrace all at the same time. It’s magical to watch, and I hope you have—and have often.

Yesterday, a wise colleague revealed his source of much wisdom when he explained that his father once told him–I often thought George Block had a special muse–that “Institutions aren’t loyal, people are.” Is Germantown Academy the physical building that house the classes or is it the people in those classrooms?

I hope it is the latter and one of your most famous teachers of life is Richard Shoulberg. He has brought so much positive attention to your institution I am simply aghast that the Head of School is not adept enough to work through whatever difficult situation you are encountering. Mr. Shoulberg lives an open life and gives so much away, because he has so much knowledge and affection inside himself to share.

The amazing part of the character of this man is that even during your dismissal of him, he speaks glowingly of GA. Surely you can match his capacity for understanding and traverse this path in a way that those of us from a distance can continue to admire Germantown Academy the institution, as much as we do your human performance leader of nearly fifty years?

Should you, or any committee, who hears this case need testimony on behalf of Coach Shoulberg please empty the parking lots because there will be a line of people coming to see you. In the last 24 hours I’ve been copied on emails that have included comments about your human development leader that read like this:

“God bless his noble, loyal soul.” Tim Murphy, 2012 USA Head Olympic, Open Water Coach.

“There was no one more loyal to GA than Coach Shoulberg,” George Block, President World Swim Coaches Assn.

“…one of the greatest human beings on earth,” Peter Malone, ASCA Hall of Fame

“…in the end personal peace of mind and those that know the true you are all that truly count. Dick, I salute you and your values.” Mary-Anne Gerzanick-Liebowitz, ASCA Board Member

Former GA student-athlete and Princeton grad Alicia Aemsigger represented a wide view of his athletes when she described Coach Shoulberg, “He cares about us as swimmers, but he cares more about us as people.”

Harvard Grad & Olympic gold medalist Dave Berkoff once told me, “Dick was my second father.”

Mr. O’Connor, times change but Dick Shoulberg has changed with them being current in his effectiveness as a leader in our sport and, I believe, a leader at GA. Most recently he has become the greatest advocate on earth for open water swimming safety. A part of the motivation has been the passing of the late, great Fran Crippen who was one of the athlete leaders for the same cause. The last words I heard Fran say were in a speech about his coach when he was inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame a few years ago. Fran chided, “Shoulberg you just aren’t as tough as you used to be!”

Probably not Fran, but times have changed and to be a great director of human performance you change with them. Today, Dick Shoulberg is better than ever, still living and giving his open life to your students and Germantown Academy. If this decision stands to stop allowing him to give his gifts, GA has taken a huge step backward and every student that enters the swim facility at your school will be shortchanged.

Chuck Warner

ARETE Aquatic Services

Former President, American Swimming Coaches Assn.

Continue the coversation with Chuck Warner on Twitter here. 

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Jack Jackson
6 years ago

I’ve knowen Dick Shoulberg for over 50 years &
there is know one more respected & loved than he is.He is
GA.One of the greatest swimming coaches ever in this sport
& one of the greatest leader among youth.

6 years ago

the guy’s name is Connor, not O’Connor.

Jack Simon
6 years ago

Chuck, A great letter on behalf of a great man!! Thanks!