Great story from Associated Press writer Janie McCauley from the San Francisco bureau on California’s Olympic swimmers, namely Nathan Adrian of Bremerton, and Natalie Coughlin.
BERKELEY, Calif. — Nathan Adrian razzes a few college swimmers who come a little too close to hitting him while flipping the lane rope out of the pool at the end of practice. Natalie Coughlin reminds the freshmen athletes that the picture-perfect Bay Area weather of recent months is hardly the norm.
That’s an awful lot of Olympic medals speaking from experience on the pool deck at the University of California.
Add in Anthony Ervin and a handful of other Olympians and former Cal swimmers from outside the U.S. training under Golden Bears coach David Durden, and you might have some 20 Olympic medals in one lane on a given day at Spieker Aquatics Complex.
While other universities have their share of Olympians regularly roaming around campus to train, Durden considers his situation unique because the school only trains its own former swimmers.
“It’s a special place,” 12-time Olympic medalist Coughlin said. “We have some great international students who represent their countries as well as the American Olympians. That’s something that’s happened over the past decade or so. I hate to admit it but I’ve been at Cal almost 15 years. That wasn’t really the case beforehand, to have so many Olympians in one area both on the men’s and women’s team. The success of the last few years has really just snowballed.”
This group has quite the pedigree. Yet Adrian and Coughlin insist they gain as much from swimming alongside the college students, especially when it might be 2012 four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin in a neighboring lane.
Adrian, Coughlin and Ervin soon will be headed to the European Mare Nostrum Series held each June.
At this stage, it’s all about keeping things fresh for the Olympic stars.
“What these guys really benefit from in this environment is having the personality of our team change every year,” Durden said. “Needless to say, the personality of the team changes just a little bit and it keeps them fresh. It’s a tough sport, one, and it’s a tough sport to train for a long period of time and then it’s really tough to train with the same people over and over and over again. You’ve got a group of freshmen come in and it stirs the pot a little bit, which is good. That’s what they need.”
Durden regularly recalls last summer’s world championship trials in Indianapolis when Irvin — the 2000 Sydney Olympics 50-meter freestyle gold medalist — was about to head out for the day to rest up for his later events but instead opted to stay at the meet to watch then-freshman Jacob Pebley swim the 200 backstroke.
“It is neat,” Durden said. “Anthony doesn’t train with Jacob. Certainly Anthony’s 32 at the time, Jacob’s 18. They’re far apart in age. … To me that dynamic doesn’t happen without someone who went through this process.”
Other postgraduate swimmers training at Cal include Damir Dugonjic, an Olympian for Slovenia trying to return for the 2016 Rio Games, Estonian two-time Olympian Martin Liivamagi and 2016 American Olympic hopeful Tom Shields, an 11-time NCAA champion at Cal.
During a training session this past week, Coughlin shared a lane with junior Fabio Gimondi and sophomores Nick Dillinger and Tyler Messerschmidt. Adrian swam alongside freshmen Jonathan Fiepke and Dillon Williams.
“We all benefit from each other. It’s definitely not a one-way street,” Adrian said. “The fact that I get a group of 20-30 guys who are working toward a common goal and I get to kind of experience that and feed off that atmosphere, them going for national championships, a national title, is awesome. In a small way I lift them up and when I’m feeling down they help lift me up. It’s a good thing to have going here.”
Typically, during the college season, the pros would work in their own lane because they’re on a different training track.
“It’s a unique setup we have,” Durden said. “At a particular time we could have over 20 Olympic medals in one lane.”
Nort Thornton, the 81-year-old head coach emeritus who coached the Bears for 33 years and guided three-time Olympian and former world-record holder Matt Biondi, believes Cal swimmers thrive with the support from one another in dealing with the demands of balancing school and athletics.
“It’s wonderful. Dave’s done a great job putting a team together,” said Thornton, who now works two days a week with the breaststrokers. “It’s kind of like a family away from home. Kids come in here and it’s a support group to get them going and through the academic environment and all the social things going on. It’s easy to be kind of overwhelmed if you come out of a little high school and you’re the top dog and all of a sudden you’re in a pool full of talent like this.”
Coughlin plans to support Franklin in any way needed, even if they aren’t training together.
“The other day she was asking if I could show her how to cook,” Coughlin said. “I’m going to force her to learn some things from me, and we’re both I think really looking forward to that. She’s awesome, and she’s just a great example of the kind of caliber of athlete we’re attracting now.”