An Exclusive Interview: Pursley Reflects On His Tenure as US National Team Director

By Phillip Whitten

In November, Dennis Pursley – who in 1989 became the first, and only, National Team Director of USA Swimming – announced he was stepping down to become the Head Coach of the Phoenix Swim Club, a club he helped found some 15 years ago. We asked Denny to sit down and share with us some of his thoughts and reflections after 13 years on the job as U.S. National Team Director. Here is how that discussion went.

SwimInfo: Why did you decide to leave as the US National Team Director?
Pursley
: It was extremely difficult because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and opportunity I’ve been afforded over the last 13 years. I wasn’t looking to leave, and I was not dissatisfied with anything in the position or in USA Swimming. This new opportunity came out of the clear blue. At first, I was not receptive. I’ve really enjoyed Colorado Springs. I did agree to look into the opportunity, and the more I looked the more appealing it became professionally. It turned out to be a wonderful situation for my family as well.

SwimInfo: What do you feel have been your major accomplishments as National Team Director?
Pursley
: Well, I hope I had inputs into a lot of the successes of USA Swimming. One of the things I struggled with in this position, unlike coaching, is that it’s difficult to evaluate the impact I’ve had on the national team program. I would hope I was able to encourage our top coaches and athletes to maintain a focus on major international competition – something that’s not easy in the current climate. Most coaches and athletes don’t have that focus in their daily routines. Also, within the politics of USAS, I’ve always tried to keep international objectives in the forefront of our agenda.

SwimInfo: What do you see as your legacy?
Pursley
: That’s tough to answer. Here again, I would hope that I will be remembered for having contributed to a renewed emphasis and interest in the importance of looking at international performance from long-term perspective, particularly long course swimming. I hope that emphasis and interest will filter down from the National Team to developmental levels. I would also hope I have been somewhat effective in establishing and reinforcing the team concept within the National team format.

What have been your major disappointments?
Pursley
: That’s hard to answer too because the National Team Director is not the head coach. The head coach is the final authority on every issue, and he lives or dies by the consequences. The National Team Director is more like a sales position. If you bat .500, you’re doing exceptionally well.

There were a lot of things I was unable to sell and make happen. But looking at the performance of the National Team, I would have liked to have seen a higher level of consistency in areas like team spirit and aggressive racing. Overall, I am very pleased. And you have to bear in mind that it’s very difficult to maintain those high levels of team spirit and aggressive racing. Over the years, we did have peaks and valleys, where we didn’t rally to the extent I would have liked. But I think the positives — as far as performance, and achieving goals and objectives go — far outweigh the disappointments.

SwimInfo: Over the years you’ve had conflicts with swimmers on the National Team, particularly the older ones. In retrospect, and considering the increasing numbers of post-graduates on the National Team, do you think you should have been more flexible in the way you dealt with these swimmers?
Pursley
: I’ve always maintained that we need to make sure that we take care of the three levels of maturity on our National Team, all of whom have been major contributors to our success: the high school swimmers, the college swimmers and the post grads.

I have not observed a consistent trend in one direction or another in terms of the make-up of our team.. It appears to be a cyclic thing. For us to say our future lies with any one of those three groups would be a mistake. The trick is to make sure needs of all three are catered to. I’m not one who feels that different commitment levels or conduct are appropriate for different levels. Everyone contributes for the relatively short period of time that the team is together. Very often it’s the older team members who have contributed the most.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. In 2000, when we brought the team together, we had adult athletes like Dara Torres and even some who were parents, themselves – for example, Josh Davis. One of the first things I wanted to do was establish a curfew. I wanted it to be 10:30. I figured the older ones would push for midnight or 1:00 am. So I figured I’d outsmart them, propose a 10 o’clock curfew then negotiate it back to 10:30. I stood up and announced a 10 pm curfew, expecting a challenge. But it never came. The whole team accepted the 10 pm curfew for the entire six weeks. The older swimmers were willing to sacrifice their personal preferences for a positive team attitude. They did that through the whole trip. The response to the threat to our status as the #1 team in the world was team spirit. That proved to me that “one for all, and all for one” can work. I think that spirit was the single greatest factor responsible for our success in 2000.

One standard for all: without that principle, we would not have been so successful.

Here’s another example. Before the ’91 World Championships, Mike Barrowman asked if he could join the team late – he had something else going on — and threatened to pull off the team if he was not allowed to. I called his bluff, telling him you’ll have to assemble with the rest of the team. Afterwards, he and his coach (Jozsef Nagy) thanked me, acknowledging they were wrong. In almost every situation where I have been somewhat flexible, I’ve regretted it afterwards. It’s created ill-will and morale problems.

Having said all of that, I do believe in the old saying: “never say never.” Exceptions may be warranted. However, the fewer and farther between they are, the more successful the team will be. My greatest legacy, I believe, is the team concept. Inherent therein is “one for all, and all for one.” You can’t have your cake and eat it. You have to choose one direction or another,. We’ve dug our heels in on this issue, and I really think it has contributed significantly to our success.

SwimInfo: Looking ahead, what characteristics do you feel your successor should have?
Pursley
: There are three primary characteristics: First, a good intuitive feel for the long-term picture of the technical issues needed to ensure the success of the National team. All of our great coaches have that, but their focus is necessarily on their daily work. That’s why this position was established originally – so that someone would be looking at the long-term challenges from a technical perspective. Second, we need someone who is going to present and defend those technical interests in the political arena, both internationally and domestically. Third, he has to have the ability to handle the day-to-day business side of the administrative responsibilities that go with the job, overseeing all projects that are meant to be implemented out of the Colorado Springs office.

SwimInfo: Any names you have in mind?
Pursley
: I’ve given Chuck my recommendations. I gave him a short list of names. I don’t think it’s appropriate to mention those names here. I’ve shared with Chuck in detail the attributes I think would make for success in this job, and I’ve provided a job description. Others have too. I will not be involved in the2 selection process beyond that.

SwimInfo: Any advice for your successor?
Pursley
: My main advice would be: hold your course. There have been many times when the direction I tried to move in faced really strong opposition, including from the coaches. I felt waffling, wavering would be the worst thing I could do. I decided early on that I would not operate in a vacuum, but I would solicit opinions from National Team coaches and act in a way that was compatible with the input I received. Problem was, a lot of times, there was no consensus. I had to decide which way to go. Sometimes there was strong opposition and resistance and, I must admit, it was tempting to give in. But I held my course and I think that was very important. That point of view was reinforced by the overwhelming response I’ve received from the coaching community. Many coaches came and thanked me for not giving in to what they wanted to do. That’s what coaches are looking for: someone who will stand up for his principles

SwimInfo: Denny, you haven’t been coaching on deck for 15 years. What changes do you expect in your new position?
Pursley
: A number of changes: the way you interact with swimmers and parents. But really, it’s just a continuation of trends that were visible 15 years ago and 15 years before that. There was a time when the coach’s authority was not questioned. Now you have to be more of a salesman; you have to do a better job of selling and you have to sell why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what you hope to accomplish. At the same time, you can’t compromise on standards and directions for success and you have to get the most out of your athletes and your team. I’d say that is more difficult today than it was 15 years ago.

In the last 15 years, the sport has evolved through improved technology, as far as the science of swimming is concerned. The rules have changed—for example, regarding underwater swimming. There has been a significant improvement in the biomechanics of the different strokes, particularly the breaststroke. All of this is a given.

I don’t believe that there has been any progress in the area of the physiological conditioning of athletes. Maybe we’ve even regressed. At Nationals in Fort Lauderdale last August, my wife remarked: “I swam at the same meet in the same pool 23 years ago. The times I did in 1979 made consols. In 2002 they would have made the championship finals.”

In terms of depth, we’re not as strong as we were 15 years ago. I believe that what we were doing 15 years ago will work at least as well today. To maximize success, I plan to combine the best of what we did then with what we know now. That’s my goal.

SwimInfo: How does it feel to be returning to the Phoenix Swim Club, a facility and club you helped found 13 years ago?
Pursley
: Very special. I went there 15 years ago. It was a great opportunity, a dream come true. But the dream was not reality. As you know, the support for the team was short-lived, and our ship sprang leaks. I couldn’t take a risk with my family. But the program has nine lives. It’s survived more bizarre circumstances, more bizarre ownerships than anyone could imagine. If you wrote the story, Phil, you’d have a best-seller. The club’s survival is a tribute to the fortitude of the parents and the kids. Now, the new owner (Brophy Prep School) has brought back a level of stability and support that we had when the program first began. I wasn’t looking to coach at Phoenix, but after I went down, spoke with the new owners and observed the high level of enthusiasm on the part of the coaches and swimmers, I decided I wanted to return.

I have the same dream today as I did 15 years ago. How many coaches are fortunate enough to have two opportunities to fulfill the same dream? Fourteen years have passed since my first opportunity, and it’s been a great experience working as USA Swimming’s National Team Director. I consider myself very lucky.

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