Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part IV; Developing His Coaching Methodology

As seen through the eyes of Chuck Warner, Swimming World Contributor

Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part I
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part II
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part III

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, July 6. WHILE Bob Kiphuth weaved his car through the streets of New Haven toward Interstate 95, he might have considered the changes during the last 40 years since he had come to Yale. From an instructor in the Physical Education program to one of the most well-known names from the prestigious university, he had travelled a remarkable journey. He was a regular at restaurants in town that he drove past, dining with professors and staff. Perhaps his income was buoyed by the sale of several best-selling books. He was known for nearly always picking up the bill at the end of a meal.

Coach Kiphuth had never been on a swim team and never graduated from college. Therefore his background to become one of, if not the greatest swimming coach in his era, was unusual. His expertise was in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomechanics. He worked with other Yale professors on exercises to help those with remedial physical problems. He became a renowned expert in the field.

When he became the Yale coach he utilized his academic expertise to formulate his own preparation plan for swimming. He has said, “You are given certain physical assets. Everyone has a certain neuromuscular pattern–a certain rhythm–they apply to swimming or any other sport. You probably can't change it, but you can help them get the most out of it.”

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Reese brothers, (Eddie at Auburn/Texas and Randy at Bolles/University of Florida), Ray Bussard at Tennessee and others defied the opinion that strength training would make a swimmer too bulky and contribute negatively to their performance. In 1918 the new Yale coach created a program that also went against this mode of thinking — just 40 years before the “strength innovators.”

The college season at Yale began with Kiphuth's dryland program that included six weeks of training for one hour each day before ever getting into the pool. The hour was broken up in 20-minute blocks of time. The first 20 minutes was spent doing a variety of land exercises that enhanced flexibility and basic strength. The second 20 minutes was medicine ball work. The third 20 minutes was a program that utilized pulley weights in an attempt to strengthen specific swimming muscles.

The program was thoroughly supported by Kiphuth's research and education on how to build the body. There were twists and turns to develop the core muscle groups. This was a vital part of the coach's program. When Kiphuth personally worked with a swimmer he would fire the 16-pound medicine ball in a variety of ways at the athlete. He used spins and angles to develop agility and a full range of mobility with applicable strength. Today this method might be referred to as “functional strength,” a term often used by Vern Gambetta an expert trainer of athletes. In 1918 at Yale, it was simply Kiphuth's way of training.

The training in the pool in 1918 in Kiphuth or anyone else's program rarely exceeded one mile per day (1650 yards or 1500 meters.) Even though it was a time before goggles were created to protect the eyes, coaches hadn't recognized the human potential for sustaining and benefiting from longer sessions of water work.

Coaching is never simply having the best plan or even a great plan. The success of athletes has just as much to do with how that plan is implemented and delivered by the coach to the athletes. When Mr. Kiphuth was out and about campus he was dressed as nicely as any professor in his coat and tie. But when it was time to train he wore a long gown and carried a stick.

The long gown gave him the freedom to move and be active. The stick was made of bamboo and he used it to tap a tempo for his exercise program. If an athlete got out of rhythm they would hear that thunderous voice from Coach Kiphuth calling their name to get in rhythm. At the pool the stick was used to tap swimmers if they were to coast into a turn or he needed another method of getting their attention.

Kiphuth was known as a taskmaster. He expected excellence from everyone around him; even the NCAA and the international swimming Federation (FINA). If you weren't matching his expectations he let you know loud a clear. While he was creating his method of training, he was also working on developing his voice as a leader of advancing the sport of competitive swimming around the world. All swimming institutions would hear from him soon.

Chuck Warner is contributor for Swimming World Magazine and author of Four Champions: One Gold Medal. Chuck's latest book titled And Then They Won Gold, is now available for purchase.