Meehan and Slusser Forging A Culture of Excellence at Stanford

stanford-champions-
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Guerby Ruuska, Swimming World College Intern. 

If one was to tune in to all the hype about Stanford women’s swimming in recent years, one would think that their success has been ongoing for generations now, but that wasn’t the reality before Meehan took the helm in 2012.  The Cardinal women clinched their first NCAA team title since 1998 at the 2017 NCAA Championships.

Under the guidance of head coach, Greg Meehan, and associate head coach, Tracy Slusser, the Stanford women have been forging a culture of excellence; a culture that needed to be built the right way, even if that meant it took a little longer to rise to the top. 

“It was important not to rush the process,” Meehan pointed out. “And by that, I mean we had to make sure, as a program, that we prioritized what was most important: how to train, how to race, how to carry themselves, how to handle adversity, etcetera. It’s a simple but important step in building a program/culture for sustainable success.”

Before he joined “The Farm”, Meehan spent a long and successful career as an assistant coach at Cal, where he helped lead the men to back-to-back national titles (2011, 2012). But for years, Meehan believed that head coach of the Stanford women’s program, was the premier coaching position in the country and once he got the call, he couldn’t refuse.

Ever since, the Cardinal women have been building steam and show no signs of slowing down. Back in the summer of 2016, Stanford had an impressive showing at Olympic Trials where three of their swimmers advanced on to compete at the Olympic Games. And at the Olympics sparks flew.

Lia Neal managed to claim herself a silver medal by participating in the prelims of the 4×100 freestyle relay. Simone Manuel came away with two golds and two silvers in her debut Olympic Games. Manuel, Stanford’s sprinting queen, shined bright when she tied with Canadian phenom sprinter, Penny Oleksiak, in the 100m freestyle while upsetting the Australian powerhouses, Cate and Bronte Campbell.

simone-manuel-100-freestyle-reaction-gold

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Maya DiRado came away with four medals as well, two gold, one silver, and one bronze. DiRado came in 2nd twice behind Hungary’s Iron lady, Katinka Hosszu, but the third match-up was the charm. DiRado went head-to-head once more with Hosszu in the 200 backstroke. Hosszu dominated most of the race until the last 25 meters when DiRado surged ahead and out-touched the Hungarian superstar.

One may look at Stanford swimming and wonder the secrets behind the success, but coach Meehan assures people that he doesn’t do anything super fancy or different with his team.

“Honestly, there’s no real secret and that’s the beauty of it,” Meehan commented. “Our staff and teamwork really hard in recruiting to present an honest picture of life at Stanford. And in my obvious biased opinion, life at Stanford is really special and that’s what has attracted some of the best and brightest prospects in the country. They are looking for a world-class education and an opportunity to compete for National Championships on a team with great people.”

And a National Championship they got. The Cardinal dominated last year’s NCAA meet, smashing the competition. They topped the Cal Golden Bears on their way to the largest margin of an NCAA championship victory in 14 years.

“Well, simply, we always want to get better. “ Meehan said. ”Using last year as an example, even though we had such a magical season, there were still things we wanted to do better. That said, it is important to remind myself how far we’ve come since 2012; but then it’s back to finding ways to be better. “

It takes top-level coaching talent to lead a group as strong as this one, but Meehan explains that all it truly takes is a love for what you do and consistency to get the job done.

“I absolutely love my job and the people I’m surrounded by and they make it easy to be excited every day. On deck, my goal is to be consistent in my messaging and my personality.”

Greeg Meehan cheering his swimmers.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But he couldn’t do it alone. Meehan needed a competent colleague if he wanted to continue to grow the culture of Stanford swimming the right way, and that’s where Tracy Slusser comes in.

“Tracy is the very best at what she does. For five-plus years she has been steadfast in her support of the program. She works hard, is an excellent stroke technician and brings joy to the pool deck every day. And as important as anything, Tracy is an incredible role model for these young women. Every day she proves to them it’s possible to raise a family and be elite in your profession,” Meehan said.

Meehan and Slusser met back in 2006 when he interviewed her for his assistant position when he was head coach at the University of the Pacific. The two connected on several different levels and respected each other’s outlooks on life and coaching. Although Slusser turned the job down, the two were able to continue their friendship, and when an assistant coaching position opened up at Stanford, Meehan tried once more. This time, Slusser could not say no. 

“I really respect how genuine and authentic he is as a leader. What you see is what you get,” Slusser said. “He is very clear and transparent with what the expectations are and has the ability to push people beyond what they thought they were capable of.”

Everyone looks up to someone – whether it’s looking up to your older sibling or a friend – everyone has that idol that they hold dear and keep close to remind themselves who they are trying so hard to be every day. For Meehan, that person is his father, the man who helped mold the NCAA Swimming Coach of the Year into the guy he is today.

“My dad is someone that I have idolized my whole life,” Meehan said. “He’s one of those people that has such a positive impact on the people that he comes into contact with.”

That personality and energy is something that shines through in Meehan as well– a key ingredient in his success as a coach.

“His confidence in them feeds their confidence in themselves. His style of coaching is simply, put in the work and you will get better. It may not be exactly when you want it, but you will get better,” Slusser noted.

It’s a new year, and Stanford swimming is looking strong but the Cardinal know that this year brings new challenges. 

“We did the work. It may not have been pretty but we did the work,” Slusser commented on the first half of the season. “We ran into some injuries and sickness this fall. More so than any other season but when we look back at the work we put together though, it’s very impressive. This fall has been a bit bumpy but we are all better for it.”

Like many powerhouse teams, they become a target that other high-caliber teams are looking to dismantle– teams like the Texas A&M Aggies, which topped Stanford at the mid-season Art Adamson Invitational back in November.

“It’s no secret that A&M has been on a steady rise for the last decade,” Meehan said of the Aggies. “This year is certainly no different and Steve has his team prepared to be great. We look forward to racing them again in March.”

Stanford swimming is all too familiar with Texas A&M swimming– a healthy rivalry which hits close to home for Slusser, who served as the women’s assistant coach for five seasons before departing to coach at the University of Arizona. 

The question is does Stanford have enough firepower to answer the call? And the answer: a great big YES. The Cardinal are led by the greatest female freestyler of all time, Katie Ledecky. Backing her up is not only one of the world’s greatest sprinters, Simone Manuel, but a team with seemingly endless depth. Although Manuel has been out thus far due to an injury, Meehan assures us that she is back and raring to go.

“Simone has progressed really well and is a full go at this point. It will be nice to have her back in the mix for our remaining dual meets, Pac-12s and NCAAs,” Meehan said.

With Manuel back, the Cardinal look hard to beat on paper. On top of Olympians leading a loaded filed with names like Ella EastinJanet Hu, Ally Howe, Stanford, also on the Farm has the best freshman class in the nation with No. 1 recruit Brooke Forde, No. 6 recruit, Hannah Kukurugya, No.9 recruit, Lauren Pitzer, and No. 15 recruit, Grace Zhao…just to name a handful of them.

brooke-forde-stanford

Photo Courtesy: Brooke Forde (Twitter)

“We love our freshman. They are seven incredible young people who have made a difference from day 1,” Meehan noted. “They are fun and hard-working and each brings something a little bit different to the team environment. We are certainly glad they chose to continue their journey at Stanford.” 

Stanford seems like an easy pick when it comes to picking this year’s NCAA champion…..at least on paper. But in the world of swimming, anything is possible, especially with hungry teams out there like Texas A&M, Cal, and Texas. Meehan said it himself that not everything goes according to plan. There will always be obstacles. The battle for the national championship will be an interesting one.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.