Team Foxcatcher: When Swimming and Wrestling Lived Under One Roof

Foxcatcher book cover

Foxcatcher book cover

SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t know the story and plan to see the movie, don’t read the penultimate paragraph.

Today is Opening Day for the new movie “Foxcatcher” (Rated R), which tells the story of the complicated, and ultimately tragic, relationship between the 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning Schultz brothers, wrestlers David and Mark, and millionaire John du Pont who created and funded a training facility for swimming, wrestling, and modern pentathlon on his estate outside of Philadelphia. The movie is based on Mark Schultz’s memoir of the same name.

For many swimmers, mention of the book and movie will bring back memories of Foxcatcher Swim Club, started by legendary coach Frank Keefe in 1976 on the du Pont estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Some of the most storied coaches in US swimming coached at Foxcatcher: Keefe, George Haines, Jack Simon, and Dick Shoulberg.

By all accounts, John du Pont had athletic ambition but not a lot of talent. He was eccentric, and he had a lot of money, so he began investing in sports he aspired to compete in. Having swum both at The Haverford School and University of Miami, he had an indoor Olympic pool built on his property; at the time, it was one of only a handful of winterized 50-meter facilities in that part of Pennsylvania. He later added world-class wrestling facilities and his estate eventually became one of US Wrestling’s official training sites. Du Pont took up modern pentathlon (swimming, riding, running, shooting and fencing) with the aim of trying to make the 1968 US Olympic Team. He failed in his bid at Trials that year but was named manager of the US pentathlon team at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Over the years, du Pont became a huge benefactor to these sports. A sign at Foxcatcher announced to visitors it was the “home for U.S. Swimming, USA Wrestling, U.S. Modern Pentathlon and National Triathlon competitors.”

Germantown Academy coach Dick Shoulberg said when he first arrived at Foxcatcher it was incredible. “There were swimmers, triathletes, modern pentathletes, equestrians, and wrestlers all training there. We would bring our (GAAC) kids on the weekends. They had a 6-lane 50-meter pool that they shared with Olympic triathletes, modern pentathletes, and post-grads. Then we started to see a lot of foreign athletes.”

In 1985, Germantown Academy Aquatic Club merged with Team Foxcatcher and the swimmers competed under the Foxcatcher name until 2000. “We had 200-300 kids there on any given Saturday,” remembers Shoulberg. “The wrestlers lived on the estate but we came in, we swam, we left.” Mark Schultz had lived on the estate leading up to his participation in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Later du Pont hired David Schultz to coach wrestling at Foxcatcher. David and his family were there for seven years beginning in 1989.

Eventually du Pont’s behavior became worrisome. He was more than just a wealthy eccentric. He was a substance abuser and suffered from mental illness. The story ended tragically in January of 1996, when du Pont shot David Schultz at his cottage on the estate. Du Pont was found guilty of murder and was declared mentally ill. He served 13 years before dying in prison in 2010.

The movie “Foxcatcher” is based on these events, as told in Mark Schultz’s memoir. The film stars Steve Carell (John du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), and Mark Ruffalo (David Schultz).

Palo Alto High School yearbook photo of David Schultz, Coach Hart, and Mark Schultz

Palo Alto High School yearbook photo of David Schultz, Coach Hart, and Mark Schultz

Imagine you are in high school with Katie Ledecky. Before SwimSwam existed. Even before the internet. Your parents get the newspaper delivered but, honestly, you are 16 and you don’t read it every day. Even if you did, you wouldn’t get much context about her achievements because it’s not a sport that gets all that much press.

That’s what it was like when I went to high school with David and Mark Schultz. My brother and several of my friends wrestled so I understood the Schultz brothers were good. Dave was already well known but Mark had just come into wrestling from gymnastics. It was clear just what an exceptionally talented athlete he was. But it wasn’t until both brothers won gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles that the world knew them too.

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6 years ago

I was a swim coach at Foxcatcher in 1991-92 with John , coaching the young Olympian Brandon Hanson. Does anyone remember Johns last name?

Reply to  Tim
5 years ago

Hi Tim. I swam at Foxcatcher from 1988 to 1996. John’s last name was McFadden.

7 years ago

I’ve heard that PEDS were highly encouraged at GA and Foxcatcher. Any comment me blastoff?

7 years ago

I’ve heard from other athletes that performance enhancing drugs were highly encouraged at team Foxcatcher and through the 90’s. Any comment mr blast off?

Bradford Rex
7 years ago

I was lucky enough to swim at Foxcatcher from the mid ’70s to early ’80s. As a blue collar kid from Norristown, it was an odd trip. I was a small fish in a big pond and was afforded the opportunity to travel, expand my horizons and celebrate the accomplishments of my betters.
The movie was a bit uncomfortable to watch, but . . . I left thinking of some of the great athletes and many characters I was privileged to swim with. I wonder about them from time to time. Frank Keefe was a wonderful coach, even if he didn’t know my name for the first year I was there. (Doug Andraka and I were from the wrong… Read more »

Jack Simon
7 years ago

The trailers I have seen, as well as a long article in the Washington Post are full of distortions. To the best of my knowledge the never taled with Frank or Dick and the most certainly did not talk to me. I will say that the three of us knew him better than anyone. And Dave, it was not Bulgarians, it was Russians! I still laugh about the times when John would want to talk to the team. All the kids would back up beyond the backstroke flags so he would not spit on them. Still, good memories but sad it had to end the way it did.

Reply to  Jack Simon
4 years ago

Just saw this recently, sorry for the delay. I swam at Foxcatcher under Frank Keefe, George Hanes, Jack Simon (when DuPont finally allowed a select few back and you, Jack, put me in that group), and under Dick Shoulberg (although those were summers between college years). I was there when Hanes mysteriously left and Peter Brown (assistant under Hanes) was doing everything in his power to keep the facility up and running (roaches crawling everywhere). I was there when the gun range was where we did our situps (with Frank Keefe) before it was converted to a wrestling facility. I saw John DuPont multiple times with Frank and even more with Hanes. A few times with you and a few… Read more »

David Berkoff
7 years ago

Really looking forward to seeing this movie. I saw a trailer and Carrel has DuPont down to a T. I will never forget the day that I got the call that dave had been shot by DuPont. I’d heard humors that DuPont was going a bit nuts and thought the Bulgarians were tunneling beneath his house. Dave was a great guy. I remember hanging out at the house on Foxcatcher Farms where Dave lived with Dave, his wife and some of the other athletes in between practices. It was such a wonderful time just training and living. Such a sad end to such a nice and passionate man.

About Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant is the mother of four daughters, all of whom swam in college. With an undergraduate degree from Princeton (where she was an all-Ivy tennis player) and an MBA from INSEAD, she worked for many years in the financial industry, both in France and the U.S. Anne is currently …

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