Where Did All The Great Women Coaches Go?

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

CHUCK WARNER: Lessons From Legends

A highlight of the ASCA World Swim Coaches Clinic in Las Vegas on Friday night was the induction of Karen Moe Thornton into the ASCA Coaching Hall of Fame. Coach Thornton retired from coaching at age 39.

Former swimmer and newly named Texas coach Carol Capitani tiptoed through an emotional introduction successfully conveying the enormous impact that Coach Thornton had had on her career and that of her teammates. Capitani rattled off several bits of wisdom that she had learned twenty years ago from her coveted mentor including, “Being prompt is not an accident, it’s a choice.”

Karen started coaching the Cal Women’s Team in 1978 after completing a swimming career that included breaking the 200-meter butterfly world record three times in the early 1970, winning an Olympic gold medal in the Olympics in 1972 and earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCLA. Her teams she coached at Cal had been very successful finishing in the top five at the NCAA Championships seven times in her 14-year career.

Like many women, Karen retired early from coaching in 1992. Carol Capitani recalled a part of her coach’s explanation at the time as “Men define themselves by their career but I don’t.”

USA Swimming says that 43% of all their member swim coaches in America are women. The percentage might have decreased a tick when Lea Loveless Maurer stepped down after the 2012 Olympic Trials and a short but highly successful run as Head Women’s Coach at Stanford. “More family time” was given as a reason.

In ASCA Board of Directors meetings last week one topic that repeatedly surfaced was the need to have more women on the ASCA Board. Currently only two females of fifteen members, a higher number than the norm. Coach Ira Klein states that, “While most male coaches don’t get elected to the ASCA Board the first time the run, every women who has ever run has gotten elected the first time.” Why? Rarely do women coaches put themselves up for election but they offer a much needed perspective on the profession of coaching swimming. We need them in leadership roles.

After Coach Thornton’s eloquent acceptance speech ASCA Executive Director John Leonard leaned over to someone near him and commented, “That was simply brilliant.” What did Thornton say? To paraphrase a portion, “Coaching is a partnership between the athlete and the coach. Until you establish that partnership with mutually agreeable goals, you are going nowhere.”

Karen pointed out that she had great mentors in her days as a young coach. She mentioned former teammates at Santa Clara, and highly successful college coaches Claudia Kolb Thomas and Pokey Watson Richardson. All three swam for the great George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club.  All retired early from coaching.

Where did all the great woman coaches go? To serve their family and raise their children?

When 2012 Head Men’s Olympic Coach Gregg Troy addressed a packed room of 1600 coaches from 397 countries at the Clinic in Las Vegas he said, “If I had to do it all over again I would take a three day weekend every month.” As usual Coach Troy had excellent logic for his retrospective point. “The athletes would become more self-reliant and the assistant coaches would become better coaches.” But Troy’s inference for a desire for more family time leaked out to a greater degree in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech when he was also inducted on Friday night. The humble coach spent much of the time thanking his three children for what they had taught him about life, even when he wasn’t at their activities, and how they had helped him become a better coach.

Coaching swimming at a high level is an enormous undertaking.

The American Swimming Team will thrive even more if a greater number of the 43% female coaches stay in the profession and more of those that are coaching assume leadership roles. We’ve missed having the Moe Thorntons, Kolb Thomas and Watson Richardsons help guide the profession and the sport.

Michael Phelp’s coach Bob Bowman is a great example of someone who has invested enormous amounts of time in helping athletes like Michael meet his potential. This includes being away from home for many weeks each year at altitude training camps, travel for competition and long hours for training and planning.

We are told that Coach Bowman is taking the entire next year off from coaching so he can see how it feels to not have to be some where at any time. That won’t work for a mom very well, but it might help a coach occasionally.

Legendary Mullings:

…a perfectly viable contract clause for a club coach is to have the summer off from coaching every fourth year following an Olympic summer. It’s been done.

…Matt Biondi’s summer league and high school coach Stu Kahn gave a great talk on freestyle technique at the Clinic. Coach Kahn and his wife coach the largest known Masters team in the world of 600 in Davis, California. Stu has been a great success coaching every level of swimming. Why? He loves what he does and it shows.

…the Russian National Coach was caught on camera at the Olympics cheering for Michael Phelps in the 400 IM. Whoops! Didn’t work for Russia or Michael.

Chuck 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 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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I know one in NYC. 😉

Scott Shea

They are out there! NYC, houston, and we have more than our fair share in palo alto. Keep your eyes out ask questions and give them the respect they deserve and you’ll see they are out making a difference.


397 countries?

Garrett – did you mean counties?


Sorry Garrett- it’s you Mel.

You have a wicked sense of humour.

An International correction: There were 397 international coaches from 36 countries.

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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