By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Eddie Reese is American swimming in many ways to a lot of people -- he has been a U.S. Olympic head coach, an assistant coach, led all the other U.S. international teams, and even was an assistant coach for Singapore’s team last year as his standout University of Texas swimmer, Joseph Schooling, upset Michael Phelps for 100 fly gold. And he wins NCAA Championships at UT Austin at an astounding rate. His success is uniquely spectacular. His personality and heart are even better than that. He takes a stroll down memory lane as he walks us into 2018 with this week’s 20 Question Tuesday -- and his answer to Question 20 might be something we can all keep in mind as the New Year begins.
1. You said Worlds 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, was extremely memorable -- what made it so?
Eddie: That trip was special because of the kids and the coaches -- because it always boils down to people, everything you do in life. And because of the people with us, it was a great, great trip.
2. The overall medal count and number of gold medals was way up for the U.S. from 2015 Worlds, how was that done?
Eddie: If you notice, there were not many Olympic champions who repeated from Rio. It was mostly the people who had something left to prove. They weren’t satisfied with the Olympics, or didn’t have the Olympic year they were chasing. So, it was a great meet, for our men and women.
3. Caeleb Dressel looked like he really loved swimming, how do you rate his effort?
Eddie: Caeleb Dressel was unbelievable. I’m not talking about just because he won, but his determination -- actually, that isn’t enough of a word to describe it...it was his desire to get to the finish that was so impressive. In the last 15 meters of the butterfly, no breath. He did the same thing at NCAAs -- no breath butterfly for final 25! His passion, and yes, determination, and his conditioning are all exceptional. His coach (at Florida) Gregg Troy says “Caeleb works as hard as anybody I’ve ever had.” That definitely kind of showed.
4. I got to see him in New York and meet his parents, he’s a really wonderfully grounded young man, isn’t he?
Eddie: He said the best thing after his races of anyone I have ever heard. He said, “I’m just glad my Mom and Dad could be here.” That’s the name of the game. That was great.
5. The U.S. women’s team was extraordinary, wasn’t it?
Eddie: Katie (Ledecky) and Simone (Manuel) led the way on the women’s side. Yes, they really are already such great leaders. But what was neat is that everybody on the trip contributed. The way everybody swam was from top to bottom, just remarkable. And I don’t mean bottom in a bad way, but from expectations, like, “Wow, hey, where did they come from?” The coaching staff and kids made that commitment to themselves and each other to take the next step and go beyond what you think you can go.
6. What do you call that?
Eddie: We used to call it team chemistry. Now we call it culture. All it really boils down to is people sincerely caring about the other people around them. This group had it.
7. Yet that roster had new people, people from Rio, people who didn’t make the Olympic team, didn’t it?
Eddie: You have different people every year. And each person is different. That’s the challenge. The team unites like that, it’s so impressive.
8. Didn’t Budapest end up being a wonderful host and such a historical place to have this meet?
Eddie: I didn’t expect anything from Budapest but there aren’t many places I’ve been to for meets that I started thinking immediately “I’d love to take my wife back to here,” but I’d love to take her back to Budapest. Actually, she seems to have money (laughs) in our family, so I’ll ask...
9. You won another NCAA title last year, coached Singapore at the Olympics, coached the U.S. at Worlds -- how incredibly bizarre in a great way for these moments?
Eddie: Sadly, I feel like at this, over age 40 -- and you know (laughs) I’m over 40 -- being over 40, I’ve finally figured out a couple things about this sport. And the most important thing is that if something is working, you keep doing it, it’s got to be a part of the equation.
10. What are a few of those?
Eddie: It’s no secret. Stroke technique, you have to kick hard in practice, and you have to get stronger. You look at kids nowadays vs. 20 years ago at NCAAs. Everybody nowadays is 6-5 and has got muscle. Back then if you had a guy with muscle that tall -- you’d maybe have about two of them in the meet.
11. You say stick with things but some of your greatest successes have come from your ability and embracing of change, hasn’t it?
Eddie: It does seem to be difficult (laughs) in this country to not be part of that. You’ve got to be adaptable. I tell you what, there’s old school, there’s new school, and there’s dumb school. I don’t want to ever cross the line to dumb school. That’s where you try to make something work just because it was an idea you had, or one person did something that works.
12. So it’s got to be vetted?
Eddie: Success means getting faster, and if you have one or two guys getting faster, it’s them who are getting faster -- it’s not the workout. There’s a line between genius and crazy, just like there’s a thin line between old school and dumb school.
13. Nothing wrong with being committed to an “cautiously evolving process” of success, is there?
Eddie: I’m a bit of a purist. NCAAs have been a meet where everyone’s going fast. But every year if you look beyond top 8 or 16, there are a number of people who should of, could of, would of, but don’t. They get caught up in, “It worked for so and so” -- but it doesn’t end up working for them.
14. Your first year without associate head coach Kris Kubik after 34 years, what was that like?
Eddie: We never dreamed that we could replace Kris Kubik. He was a genius at more things than anyone I know has ever been a genius at. The most important one was with people. You just can’t replace that. I talked to the team about that after he left. “We’re going to have to have help. You’re going to have to help me take care of people. If someone needs a lot of help, get me. If they have help they need from someone on the team, give them that help.” Kris was a genius we were lucky to have in the sport and for me as a friend for lots of years.
15. Defending NCAA champs, did you think that’s where the bar was set when this season started?
Eddie: You have got to realize, we went 0-for-4 our first four dual meets! They didn’t just beat us, they beat us like they were swimming you and me (laughs), which is to say it wasn’t much of a battle. So many people are starting to swim fast the first semester.
16. So you weren’t concerned after those dual meets?
Eddie: What I try to do first is...I believe anyone can get in shape in three months, but you have to go hard to get better. The difference in training -- in “getting in shape” and “getting better” - is two levels. The first semester, we went three levels with the work we did -- I just didn’t know it at the time. As I told the guys, “Look, this is 80 percent my fault. I started us harder sooner. I made the weight program harder. The other 20 percent is your fault (laughs) because everything I said to do, you did too hard!”
17. Harder dryland, too?
Eddie: Yes, they love the weight room. And they love to work hard in practice. This was a few weeks before our invite. I said, “We can fix it before the invite, but we will have no one rested properly before the invite.” I just believe if you are a college swimmer and you want to be better in March and in the summer, you have to work hard the first semester.
18. I remember former Longhorns basketball coach Rick Barnes talking with gratitude about how much wisdom you provided, and you did that with football too -- John Mackovic loved to discuss things with you as well when he was football coach, can you share a story please?
Eddie: With Rick Barnes, I was right (laughs) every time. He was an excellent coach. Years ago, when John Mackovic was football coach, they were I think 3-2 after the first five games. He came out and said, “We’re not finishing games well. We’ve got a week off, we’re going to have to go back to work.” (Legendary Texas AD) DeLoss Dodds, who had been a great track coach before he became our athletic director, we both knew what was wrong with that. He told me, “You’re the only one who can get away with talking to John." So, I went to him and his offensive coordinator. I said, “I’ve got two questions: Are you starting your games slow and getting tired, or starting as fast as you should and getting tired.” He said, “We’re starting slow and finishing slow.” I said, “That means you’re working too hard in between.” He called off the hard work, won the Big 12.
19. One of your many UT Austin standouts, Joseph Schooling, beat Michael Phelps in the 100 in Rio -- with you coaching his Singapore team -- yet it was so well received by swimmers there, including Americans and Michael Phelps. What was that like for you?
Eddie: Swimmers are so gracious. You get to the Olympics, and someone gets to a medal or makes the final, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Most people from all countries are very, very complimentary about that. The key to Joseph’s swim was coming off the 50 turn he did everything right. He went the first five strokes not all out, because if you do that, Phelps will run you down. But a lot of class, yes, shown by a lot of people. We saw that after every race because that’s part of who swimmers are, especially since they understand what went into it.
20. You’re rather beloved by everyone who knows you -- you introduced me to a group of 30+ officials when I was eating alone, and then told my boss how much you like my work -- I hear from your swimmers and other coaches about your great heart, how do you give so much of yourself to other people’s wellness?
Eddie: Would you (laughs) write a note to that effect, that I can give to my wife? I adopted a philosophy years ago, that when I was recruiting someone who chose another school, it was important to keep them as a friend and root for them anyway. Some of our best friends swam for Stanford or other schools, and we cared about them then and still do. But aren’t we all supposed to do that? It’s not “cut throat,” it’s cut and dry that you care about other people. I think at different times in your life, and as you get older you figure out what we’re here on earth for. It’s a moderately painful experience for people at various times, and we are here to help -- no matter who it is -- when you can. I’ve got a quote for you I read maybe 40 years ago. And it says, “When you die, the only thing you take with you is that which you’ve given others.” That’s the ballgame right there. What if we’re all able to do that? Now when we compete, we’re still as competitive as can be when that gun goes off, but afterward you shake hands and are happy for the winner. I heard something years ago, “At the end of the contest you should not be able to tell the winners from the losers.” I realize that might be impossible. But it sure sounds good.