By Swimming World Intern Carmen Triola
PISCATAWAY, New Jersey, January 21. IT’S been almost forty years since Jim Wood founded his award-winning Berkeley Aquatics Swim Club, during which time, he says, nothing has changed about the art of teaching athletes. What’s more, he still concludes his pep talks with the same bit of wisdom.
“A coach’s main job,” he always says, “is not to take young athletes and create great swimmers, but to take young athletes and create great adults.”
And if repeating that doesn’t make it clear just how much he takes this message to heart, he need not worry. Back home in Berkeley Heights, swimmers and teachers alike can gaze upon Wood’s established philosophy that he’s hung inside the pool: a sign listing eleven different characteristics he intends to breed in these young athletes. Wood and few former trainees made the sign a number of years ago, and the list — which he conveniently keeps for reference on his iPhone — is entirely about lessons that go beyond the pool: pushing limits, being supportive, accountability, dedication, and, at the very top, excellence.
“I think every lesson in sports you use in life,” he says.
It appears his passion has paid off, given Berkeley’s success. Not only does the institution regularly turn out top-notch swimmers, but the attitude towards Wood himself is one of reverence and utmost respect.
“Not only is he a great coach, but a great friend and supporter,” said Isabelle Rivera, 14.
“Jim makes us work hard, has high expectations of swimmers, and expects commitment,” said Kevin Flynn, 14, another swimmer at Berkeley.
Even the coaches are grateful to train under Wood. “It’s exciting, different, and I learn something new every day,” said assistant coach Kevin Petto.
Wood started coaching at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, and quickly fell in love with helping young people reach their goals. He’d always been an athlete, running track in high school under the guidance of his own father as a coach (“He taught me how to have fun in sports,” Wood says.). And after a foot injury, he even briefly swam in college, too — though now he tells his grandchildren that he can’t swim. But he could tell early on that when it came to teaching sports instead of playing them, he’d found his niche. He went on to work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and after establishing Berkeley in 1977, he’s been churning out star athletes ever since. Not just at his club, though — ever since taking over as the President of United States Aquatic Sports, USA Swimming and formerly chairing the USS Olympic International Operations Committee — his leadership has cast a much wider net.
With all his titles and experience, though, Wood still advises newer coaches to trust their own gut. “I think there’s a thousand different ways to coach kids,” he said. “I think each coach that’s coming into a program needs to discover and formulate their philosophy for teaching kids, and they have to stay with it. There’s no right or wrong way.”
As the athletes under him do eventually leave the nest, he remains dedicated to watching them grow and mature. Between heats at the recent CeraVe Invitational, he talked to his fellow coaches about one student, now at college, whom he talks to regularly. He says he texted her just this weekend, telling her how things were going at their latest meet at Rutgers. At the same time, though, he doesn’t seem that he’ll doubt her ability to crush the competition away at college.
“I hope that taking part in our program has given them [students] the confidence that there’s very little in life that they can’t accomplish.”