Exclusive Interview with Klete Keller

By Phillip Whitten

LOS ANGELES, April 25. Yesterday, SwimInfo.com broke the news that Olympian Klete Keller, the American record-holder in the 400 meter freestyle, has decided to leave school at the University of Southern California next month, after completing his sophomore year. Keller will move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to train full-time under Coach Jon Urbanchek in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

At age 18, Keller set an American record (3:47.00) in winning bronze in the 400m freestyle at the Sydney Games. He also swam a brilliant anchor leg to spark the USA's 4x200m freestyle relay to the silver. Last year he was the top-ranked American in the 200.

As a freshman at USC last year, he won both the 200 and 500 yard freestyle events at the NCAA Championships. This year he won the 500, dropping two seconds from his winning time last year, then swam the fastest relay split in history (1:32.15) as USC broke the NCAA/US Open records in the 800 yard free relay (6:17.35).

In an interview last night, Klete explained why he made his decision and what he forsees for his future.

SwimInfo: Klete, after your superb performances at this year's NCAAs, your decision to leave USC caught just about everyone by surprise. When did you make your decision?
Keller: Well, actually I was considering it for quite a while, but I made my final decision a week before Pc-10s.

SwimInfo: Wow!…before Pac-10s? Why did you wait so long then to tell Coach Schubert, your parents, your teammates…?
Keller: I didn't want my decision to affect our team. We were doing so well, our training was going well and I knew we'd have a really good NCs. Plus I wanted to have a good time with the team at Pac-10s and NCs.

SwimInfo: Okay, so we know when you made your decision. the big question, though, is why. What led you to take this momentous step?
Keller: Well, as I said, I'd been thinking about it for some time. Then, about a month before Pac-10s, I had this talk with Erik Vendt — a deep swimming talk about what we both wanted to accomplish. He really motivated me.

SwimInfo: In what ways?
Keller: He made me think about fulfilling my potential. I have a certain amount of talent for swimming and I've accomplished a few things in the sport, but I certainly haven't reached my potential. I realized that I need to pursue my talent, take it all the way. I need to focus all my energy into realizing my potential and use every advantage that's available to me to achieve that end.
Coaching is an example. Mark (Schubert) obviously is a great coach — he's coached so many great swimmers — and I've achieved a lot under his guidance. But I feel I get along better with Pierre's style of coaching.

[Note: Coach Pierre LaFontaine of the Phoenix Swim Club developed Klete as an age-grouper and coached him to his Olympic success. Coach LaFontaine left Phoenix earlier this month to accept a four-year appointment at the Australian Institute of Sport.]

SwimInfo: …But Pierre's no longer in the States…
Keller: Yeah, but Coach Urbanchek has a similar coaching style, and I think I can have the same type of relationship with him as I did with Pierre.

SwimInfo: What role did Ian Thorpe play in this decision? You probably face the toughest competition of any American swimmer in that Thorpe is the world record-holder in your two best events. And it's not only Thorpe. In the 200 you have Thorpe and Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Olympic champion. In the 400 its Thorpe and Grant Hackett — the two fastest men in history…
Keller: Well, you're right. Thorpe is the best there's ever been, and if I'm going to go up against the best, I'd better do everything I can to be successful.
If I continued going to school and kept training, I feel I'd still do well in 2004, but I wouldn't reach my potential. The last thing I'd want is to look back at my career when I'm 30 and have regrets that I didn't give it everything I had to reach my potential.
I'm in the prime of my life right now. I figure that while I've still got it, I'm going to go for it!

SwimInfo: Do you have any specific goals in mind?
Keller: Not really. I want to se where this new path takes me. It's about discovery, not setting goals. My philosophy is that if I put all my efforts into swimming, the accomplishments will follow. But I have to admit, in Athens I do want to get a medal of a better color (than silver and bronze). I want to see what I'm capable of doing.

SwimInfo: How did Coach Schubert react when you told him of your decision?
Keller: He was terrific. At first, I think he was shocked, but we had a long talk. He said he was sad that I didn't feel I could accomplish what I want to achieve at SC, but he was very understanding and, at the end, he wished me luck.
I feel bad about leaving Mark (Schubert) and my teammates, but I felt I had to make this decision for very personal, selfish reasons. The bottom line is: I'm going to do everything I can to maximize my chances of swimming up to my potential.

SwimInfo: Now, you're going to swim with Coach
Urbanchek at Michigan but you don't intend to swim for the University of Michigan. Is there any possibility you might swim in college again after 2004?
Keller: Well, yeah, it's possible. I've thought about it, but I think it's unlikely.
I'm also considering the option of turning pro. In fact, that's much more likely. But I'm in no rush to make a decision; I want to consider all my options. For now, I'm going to finish school this semester, then come home to Phoenix for a week or two, then go up to Colorado Springs to train.

SwimInfo: One last question, Klete. When you swam that 1:32 on the relay at NCAAs, did that change your perception of what you are capable of doing?
Keller: Not really. I know I can swim fast. What it did do was open my eyes to the advantages of using different race strategies.

SwimInfo: Yeah. In the past you've used the same strategy: hang back as long as possible, then sprint like hell over the final 50 or 25, just fast enough to win. In the 500 and, again, in the 800 relay, you surprised everyone by going out so fast.
Keller: That's right. By using different strategies, no one is going to know beforehand how I plan to swim my races. It's a good way to keep the competition guessing.

SwimInfo: Thanks, Klete, and the best of luck to you on this new path you've chosen.
Keller: Thank you.