By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Monday, December 19, 2016
Jon Urbanchek. Say that name to anyone. It’s a compass, an encyclopedia, a history of USA Swimming, National Teams, and the University of Michigan until he turned over the program to Bob Bowman, who in turn left it in the very able hands of Mike Bottom. Each coach kept Urbie around as much as his schedule would allow because of his knowledge of the sport, program and his understanding of swimmers.
Now fully retired, he watched the Rio Olympics on TV after being a regular on coaching staffs since, well, forever. He talks about that, and more, in a very special 20 Question Tuesday with a very special human being.
1. I sat with you at Golden Goggles and you were honored with Janet Evans and so many other greats -- how was that?Jon: Well, I enjoyed it. I was honored to be in there with Janet Evans and all those great people. Sixteen people in there who helped make USA Swimming what it is today. I can’t think of myself any differently because of it though -- I’m not better than any other coaches. I’m nothing compared to Dick Shoulberg. There are so many others. But certainly, yes, what an honor to be included.
2. All these people with these incredibly vivid memories of you -- how do you like to be described?
Jon: I think at the end it is how you want to be remembered. In the Splashmakers book, they asked how I wanted to be remembered. I was passionate -- I have had such a passion for the sport and the people.
3. Are you still coaching in California now?
Jon: I’m going to work for Dave Salo’s team (USC and Club Trojan). When his team is on the road, I’ll run the workouts. I love to be on deck. I’m still connected with the athletes. My energy comes from the kids. I take that energy and use it. I think for me it’s good to be involved.
4. Why didn’t you go to the Olympics?
Jon: I can count 10 40-something (year-old) coaches who deserve to go to the show. I’ve been in the Olympic movement for 40 years. So it’s time to say goodbye and open the door for the young coaches.
5. There are some great ones, aren’t there?
Jon: Look at Greg Meehan at Stanford and Cal’s Dave Durden across the Bay (at Cal). And Catherine Vogt at USC, she’s wonderful. I remember Catherine saying, “Jon I want to work for you.” I said, “I’ll be your mentor.” I remember at North Carolina when she just started out. She has become one of my very best of friends ever since. So it’s a nice coincidence at USC to share the deck with her now. I enjoy that part of it -- whatever I can contribute to the sport. To other coaches, not the swimmers for the most part at this point. I have coaches constantly calling me, “Can we talk? Can I come over to your house for shop talk for a day?” I want to share all I can. I learned a lot from Doc Counsilman. I looked up to him. He’s my idol. I still use a lot of what he said, not about the X’s and O’s -- the difference in coaching is how we sell the X’s and O’s to kids -- we call that the X Factor of coaching. That’s what I practice. I have a passion for the sport. I get out of bed at 5 a.m. I have patience for all my athletes. I like to see them grow. I like the connection to the athletes. I’m always grounded. I am so happy back on our farm and I can see the results of my work. But I don’t think I am different from or better than any other coach.
6. Tom Dolan was hilarious presenting with Mel Stewart at Golden Goggles -- seeing Tom again, what does that mean to you?
Jon: He was probably the best of the presenters that night -- he and Melvin. Tom likes to joke around. Tom did a real good job. Melvin and Tom were awesome. I enjoyed that part of it. Tom’s inspiration keeps it moving. That’s my slogan these days, “Keep it moving.:
7. Wait a sec, you had a farm back home?
Jon: We never had an actual farm. We just rented a couple of extra stalls, and we still have one horse left. That young horse -- well, not that young anymore, he’s 23, will stay in Michigan on the farm where we keep him.
8. Nice to be home in SoCal again, where it all began?
Jon: Two weeks on the road. I went to Golden Goggles from Baltimore, then took the train from the city (New York). My wife and I, we live in house we bought 50 years ago in Fullerton, California. So we still live in the same house as of today. It’s a very old neighborhood; the house is one hundred years old. I go to the east coast a lot, where our daughter and granddaughter live, but this is our home, and we always come back here.
9. I bet you miss that beautiful horse?
Jon: He is being used for therapeutic riding. That was a donation, which helps some wonderful kids. And he enjoys it, too. That makes us feel good. I am 80 now, and it’s too much to take care of a horse. The horse is so happy where he is. And he gives me another reason to go to Ann Arbor -- other than to go to a football game or swim meet.
10. How fun was it to get back to Baltimore and NBAC?
Jon: Oh, on the Thursday before Golden Goggles, I went to practice at North Baltimore. Michael (Phelps) was back home there and out in the community. He asked me if I would go to practice. Michael came in and worked out with the team -- well, he did the first 4,000, and he did awesome in the pool. Better than that, Michael stayed around the pool deck to support all the kids and talked to every kid on the deck. He’s such a beautiful person. He’s not the same person I met 20 years ago. I remember talking to Murray Stephens, the coach there back then at the time, and I told him someday he might want to recruit Michael to swim there. Turned out, he didn’t have to, and Michael ended up at NBAC.
11. How much does your relationship with Michael mean to you?
Jon: Our relationship is unbelievable. I have an invitation to his reception in Phoenix from his wedding at the end of the month, and I am looking forward to it. Michael and I go way back. He’s always been a great person down deep. But now that has come out after being repressed for so long. The pressure finally blew the top off and it came out. It’s so nice to see him move on with his beautiful family. It’s about moving on, into his life after swimming. He was coming to LA after Golden Goggles and asked me if I wanted to fly with him on his private plane, and that was so nice of him to offer. It’s beautiful to see him like this. It makes me so happy. How many coaches can say, “I was on this planet when Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, two of the greatest swimmers in the world, were here?” I had that time with Michael at Michigan, and I was with Katie four years ago and coached her prior to the Olympics. I am the luckiest guy on the planet – living on luck -- luck and love.
12. I remember you sharing stories about working with him and Bob when Michael was at Club Wolverine. That was an exciting time, wasn’t it?
Jon: You know, it was not easy for Bob to coach Michael. I was the first one to witness it year after year -- but you could see their connection was there. No one could break that, though there were (laughs) a few close calls. I remember having to sit Michael down, sit Bob down -- sit them down together -- like a father and son, and I was a grandfather, searching for peace to keep it moving.
13. So you step back, but not away?
Jon: This has been an awesome career and I am moving on, not getting away from the sport, but finding a better role so the door is open for young coaches, This is the time for them step in because USA Swimming is at an awesome point with the talent we have with the coaches and swimmers. USA Swimming is going to dominate the earth for the rest of my lifetime. Look at all the people who showed up for that event the night before Golden Goggles, including yourself -- that was very special.
14. Allison Schmitt, who started at Club Wolverine when you were there, what did you see from her in Rio that impressed you?
Jon: Allison contributed a lot more than a gold medal. She opened the door about depression and how you can manage your life even with depression. I believed her time from 2012 (at the London Olympics) still makes her the second fastest in the world. And she won the Olympic gold medal with an Olympic record.
15. And like you said, Allison is golden as a person, which matters more, right?
Jon: It’s who she is as a person that is really amazing. Allison is down to earth, a joyful loving person to have around. If she doesn’t have a joke for you, something (laughs) must be wrong. I think it’s good for her to be in the sport like she was this time. I think it’s good for her mind. And having her with Elizabeth Beisel -- that combination is hilarious. Those two should have a comedy hour show. And Elizabeth is already into the TV business working at one of the stations near where she’s from.
16. That connection with the swimmers, that’s what it is about, isn’t it?
Jon: I love it. Back to the connection for a story, with Michael. I know someone will break his records someday, but how incredible are his accomplishments. All those gold medals. I remember when he put all eight of them on me in Beijing, what a generous gesture to give me that memory. He showed me the pictures from Sports Illustrated with all the gold medals on his neck and arms -- what a beautiful thing. He showed me the picture before it came out.
17. So Michael’s reception will be fun, but you’ve been to a million of those over the years haven’t you -- I think every single time we talked you were either heading to a wedding or coming back from one, right?
Jon: The weddings I enjoy because you get to see all the people, five 10, 15, 20 years after you coached them. Michael will have 360 people at this reception. So I get to go and see all these kids who have their own families now. It’ so interesting and I have so much pride and interest in their lives after swimming. The times, all the yardage swum, they will forget that, even the medals will get less attention as time passes. But the friendships you maintain with these people will last forever. That’s what drives us as coaches, not the times and the medals. That’s only important in that moment, it’s seeing them move on from the pool and finding their way in life.
18. Was it hard watching the Olympics on TV?
Jon: I was not planning to go, I made the decision a year ago so I was ready for it. I had Mark Schubert and Dave Salo come over to the house and we had pizza and were having a party. Jessica Hardy and her husband came too, so we had an Olympic party while Rio was going on, and luckily our USA coaches didn’t have to sweat (laughs) because everyone swam so well. It made me feel good that they got the job done without me, without Dave Salo, without Mark Schubert. There are so many great coaches in the U.S., and all of us coaches were so proud to see what the current coaching staff did.
19. You were still connected though, weren’t you?
Jon: I did work with all of them at training camps throughout the cycle. So my heart was with them in Rio. But you know, they were awesome. And so were the coaches who were there. I still talk to a lot of people. Jack Roach, look what he’s doing running a club team now -- we just talked the other night and we’re going to Michael’s reception so we picked the same hotel so we can spend some time together.
20. What is it about swimming in particular that breeds this kind of care for the sport and the people in it?
Jon: Just look at all these people who come back to swimming. I’m not speaking against football or basketball, but you look at these swimmers and coaches and their families, and it all starts with a discipline and commitment. That starts with academics being the most important thing. Michael is the only one who really makes a big living out of the sport. The others also stay committed to the sport, and their commitment to education and getting a degree pushes them to great things. I think about the Vanderkaays and how great they were in the pool but how they are doing even more after the sport. There are so many great families who mean so much to me. The coaches who I worked with are doing so well. It’s not like I want it to end, I just knew it was time for the younger coaches to do what they were prepared to do. Look at how amazing that staff was in Rio -- Greg Meehan at Stanford has the best swimmers on the planet, and he had been a volunteer assistant coach at Club Wolverine and learned some of the trade from us. Then he was with Dave Durden, and Dave was with Dave Salo. And (Michigan alum and NCAP Coach) Bruce Gemmel and Greg Meehan used to run our camps. So some of what I know is living on with other people. And hopefully that will continue, but they are smart enough to know they need to alter it and make it their own, and what comes next will be their work as they make it their own, and eventually pass it along like we did. Hopefully, at least some of my ideas will continue to be part of the great program USA Swimming has. But I’m just me. No different than anyone else, and certainly not better. I’m just thankful, and really, really lucky.