Courtesy of Josh Davis, Mutual of Omaha BREAKOUT Swim Clinic Managing Director
Can you guess which US backstroke Olympic champion has made a swim technique video, is an accomplished speaker, inspired thousands of swimmers from his generation and known for being a great ambassador for the sport? Is it Matt Grevers, Aaron Peirsol, Lenny Krayzelburg or Jeff Rouse? Good guesses but not quite. Before all the amazing and articulate USA backstroke royalty I just mentioned, the first US Backstroke King was John Naber. John Naber had an epic swimming career by any standard and has continued to be one of the most successful swimming ambassadors in history. Today, on his 60th birthday, we will take a quick look and celebrate the life and legacy of John Naber.
Born Jan. 20th, 1956 in Evanston, Ill, John’s family spent time in Italy and England when he was ages 4-11 years old. This unique experience provided John a multi-faceted education that would serve him well as a story teller and leader later on in life. Upon returning to the States for high school he was encouraged to do basketball because of his 6’6″ height but had mainly played cricket and soccer while in Europe. American ball sports didn’t work out so well, so at age 13 as a Freshman in high school John instead tried swimming and found his niche. He was named most improved each year and by his senior year in high school, John was an American record holder and was one of the top in the nation. Accepting a scholarship to USC under the great Olympic coach Peter Daland, John went on to lead USC to 4 straight national titles in 1974-77, in addition to dozens of individual and relay titles. You can imagine the stories of racing around the country and the world with teammates like the Bottom and Furniss brothers and the great rivalries with other programs full of Olympians like Indiana and Alabama.
His pinnacle swimming moment occurred at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, as John helped lead Team USA to the most dominant performance in sporting history. The men’s team won 23 of a possible 30 individual medals, even sweeping 1st, 2nd, 3rd in multiple events, including John’s gold in 200 back and silver in the 200 free. John’s personal tally at those games was 1 silver and 4 golds, setting world records in all 4 his gold medal races. His world record times in the backstroke of :55.49 and 1:59.19 at Montreal, mind you in a bikini brief, hand touch turns, hardly any dolphin kicks, no cap, no goggles and an awesome mustache, would stand for 7 years and are still competitive on the national and international level today. John’s story of how he set his goals and prepared for those Games is one that every young person should hear.
After finishing at USC, John transitioned very successfully to life as sports commentator, motivational speaker and leader in the Olympic movement. John has been a commentator and host for all the major tv and sports networks, covering over 30 different sports, 10 Olympic Games and has traveled the world speaking and promoting Olympism ever since.
On a side note, a lucky few of us have worked very hard to become successful speakers and enjoyed careers as ambassadors long after we hung up our suit. But no swimmer has spoken to more Fortune 500 companies and taught the Olympic principles and mindset more than John Naber. John has helped “Awaken the Olympian Within” to corporate and civic groups for an astonishing 40 years now. He has also given of his time and leadership to the Olympic Alumni movement and numerous charities, including Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund, Disabled Athletes Scholarship Fund and Character Counts. Still a sought after speaker and spokesperson, John and the whole 1976 team will be honored in a special way at the US Swimming Olympic Trials in Omaha, NE on Sat. July 2nd.
John would quickly tell you his greatest accomplishment is being husband to his wife Carolyn and proud father of their daughter Christina. He does a great job of taking care of those close to him. We are especially grateful for how John is a great friend to many older Olympians like Louis Zamperini, of “Unbroken” fame who passed away last year.
All my memories and encounters with John are of him giving, helping and encouraging. I am thankful for his advice on his 80’s technique video “Getting Better” to stretch and point your toes under your blanket in bed to make your feet more flexible for dolphin kicking, his hospitality for hosting the USA team BBQ at his house at our Pasadena Olympic training camp before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and his consistent example to make a difference. Every time I see him he looks me in the eye and says emphatically, “If there is anything I can do for you or the US team please let me know.”
That alone is worth celebrating. But today, John, we as a swimming community celebrate you for breaking records gracefully, inspiring globally, and serving humbly. Happy Birthday from all of us and we can’t wait to hear another of your uplifting stories and encouragement.
To order John’s best seller “Awaken the Olympian Within” or to order Josh’s book containing some of John’s other stories, “The Goal and The Glory” you can go to Amazon.com.