Chuck Warner, the 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.
LESSONS FROM LEGENDS
“He treated us all the same—like dogs,” Green Bay Packer tackle Forest Gregg grumbled in describing his Coach Vince Lombardi. Lombardi was the standard bearer for a coach in virtually any sport in the 1960s. In football he was king and the Super-Bowl Trophy carries his name.
Coach Lombardi became famous for his toughness and his gospel spread throughout the sports world at the same time a young man named Tim Welsh was a college student. In the 1970s, basketball Coach Bob Knight gained great fame with brilliance and brashness that included profanity laced tirades and throwing chairs. He echoed Lombardi’s strict standards and no-nonsense approach to molding athletes, building teams and winning national championships.
At that time Tim Welsh was working through his magna cum laude undergraduate education at Providence College, earning a Masters Degree at the University of Virginia and spending seven years as an English teacher. But when he pursued his doctorate at Syracuse University he was drawn back to the pool. Life around water had become familiar to Tim during his undergraduate years when he worked as a summer club’s swim team coach and lifeguard. At Syracuse he discovered his own passion for coaching with two catalysts named John Leonard and Guy Edson.
Welsh is retiring from coaching next month after spending 29 years as head coach at the University of Notre Dame—a span that Leonard has mirrored as Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaching Association. Leonard recently recalled their experience forty years ago in Syracuse, “Unlike many young coaches in those days, Tim was serious about learning how to be a good swimming coach.”
Tim’s attention wasn’t just to coaching swimmers to be fast, but was also to develop the whole person. Welsh believes there is an advantage in athletic performance when the individual has taken care of all their responsibilities. “When a swimmer steps up on the blocks or diving board, a whole person steps up there,” he has said. “If their schoolwork is a mess, and their head is back in their room, thinking about that work, a whole person is not up there ready to swim.”
So Tim found a new laboratory to instruct in: college athletics and the development of a swimming team. Surrounded by young adults he has been teaching lessons about personal performance as athletes, as students and as people. Although he was once a basketball player, and then an English teacher he transformed himself into a learned swimming coach.
Never has his capacity for teaching life been put more on the line than in the days and years that followed January 24, 1992. That was a cold winter night when a bus carrying his Notre Dame women’s team skidded off the road on a return trip to South Bend. Thirty-four people were injured and two lost their lives. In the year that followed Coach Welsh told the New York Times, “”The accident changed all of us forever.”
While he described the preciousness in each day of life that he and his team sensed a year following the accident, it seems that this man had long possessed the values necessary to be a strong leader for his troubled team. Richard Shoulberg, an Olympic coach, commented at the time, “If I had a child who loved to swim and wanted to improve, I’d love to see them swim for Tim Welsh. I know wherever he is coaching, the kids will be well taken care of.”
And while he was taking care of kids, Tim’s teams won. There were two NCAA III Team titles at Johns Hopkins and 33 conference titles over his career. And while he won, he gave. He served as Chairman of the NCAA Swimming Committee, President of the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) and as a founder and leader of the ASCA’s Fellows Program for fourteen years.
His capacity for understanding the collision between people and events and the ability to apply his experience, his judgment, and how to proceed with an optimal course of action has been recognized by many. There have been numerous awards for Welsh including six-times being voted the Big East Coach of the Year, receiving ASCA’s Ousley Award for exemplary service, the College Swimming Coaches Association (CSCAA) Steadman Award for spreading joy and happiness in the sport and in 2009 CSCAA’s distinguished service award.
To put it simply, Tim Welsh is a wise man who has shared his wisdom with athletes, treated them with kindness and been rewarded by witnessing their successes in and out of the pool. But even if you never swam, or coached with, or met Tim Welsh he has served you and helped all of us, at least if you believe one Chinese master who said:
“If there be righteousness in the heart there will be beauty in the character.
If there be beauty in the character there will be harmony in the home.
If there be harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.
And if there be order in the nation there will be peace in the world.”
In the spring of 2013, Tim gleefully shared that in preparing for Mothers Day he would be flower shopping with his wife of nearly 40 years. It seems that Jacqueline, the former curator of education at Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art, loves planting flowers and nurturing their growth. And Tim’s character is such that he made sure he supported her joy on ‘her day.’ In the Welsh home harmony seems to be present, just as has been the case so often with his teams. From the very center of Coach Welsh’s being emulates outward the master’s philosophy and in the end, the nation and the world are just a little better off because of what is in the heart of Tim Welsh.
In 2009, Notre Dame bestowed its Presidential Achievement Award upon Coach Welsh. The award recognizes ‘a University employee who lives the University’s mission and is a role model exemplifying all of the school’s core values.’ You see it is difficult to discern Notre Dame from Tim Welsh, and Tim Welsh from Notre Dame.
Writing and writers seem to abide by few traditional rules these days–rules that were once a part of the English classes he taught. So I may be breaking an old or new one now to state this personal note: from a sporting standpoint I’ve always hated Notre Dame. They were bitter rivals to our high school sports teams, and equally so in intercollegiate athletics in the Big East Conference. A personal love for defeating the Fighting Irish has caused me to rue the day that movies like Rudy were made and Knute Rockne All-American was shown.
But in these final days of Coach Welsh’s tenure at Notre Dame, I paraphrase the words of the mythical Rockne, and make a public plea to Coach Welsh’s men’s swimming team: In the voice of a young actor named Ronald Regan who played the movie role of ‘the Gipper’ I beg, “Boys, you may have a time when you feel a little down and the breaks are beating you. But in your moment of challenge, I’m asking you to rise up, rise up and win just one more time. Win one for Tim Welsh.”
It may be a race.
It may a team victory.
But ring the bell and remind us all that winning can take place through the leadership that comes from injecting your life as an athlete, and as a young man, with wisdom, delivered with kindness.
Win the Welsh way.
And roar with victory and hug your coach, for you have been blessed daily in your athletic experience. You boys, know what it means to have been groomed and grown by a coach named Welsh…so you can be a better man and even prouder of your own name.
For the rest of us onlookers we will simply be reminded that wisdom, kindness and Coach Tim Welsh still have a special place in this world–an enormous planet that his coaching career has enriched. It is warming to be reminded that a man, who took care of his home, and whose character and heart is bathed in righteousness, has been a mighty winner too.
Notre Dame Video on retiring Tim Welsh: http://watchnd.tv/#!/videos/5yeDVsazp5CjFWfF6gNLJgMbP2Jz20xn
For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on [email protected]
This is an excellent piece of writing about a coach that inspires us all. It’s hearing about this sort of relationship the coach/educator has with his charges that makes us reflect upon our work, which in turn, allows us to a become better at what we do and advance our student-athletes. Thank you for sharing this.
Kudos to Coach Welch for a coaching life well-lived. I’ve heard many of today’s top coaches say the same thing- ‘We coach the whole person here at (fill in the blank)’. Very very few programs do anything to advance the club or university athlete outside the water. The slow swimmers are disregarded and fast swimmers win over all (behavior, grades, sportsmanship,etc). This segues with the article expecting better from coaches. Coaches who misbehave, are unhealthy, abuse substances will likely be tolerant of athletes who do the same.
Coach Welch does it the right way. Congrats!
Well said Chuck! I always wanted to be a better person when I was around Coach Welsh. Getting to swim some workouts with his Fighting Irish and be on the sidelines during a home Notre Dame game with him are some of the highlights of my life. Thank you Coach Welsh for the making the swimming world a better place.