Ned Skinner Reflects on the Late Sam Freas: So Much More Than a Winning and Innovative Coach

1988 SEC Championship Winning Team; Photo Courtesy: Ned Skinner

Sam Freas Commentary by Ned Skinner

For the past 30 years I have proudly considered myself a disciple of Sam Freas. It seems like in modern times coaches are only making the news when they are doing something wrong or being accused of something. Rarely, it seems that a coach is being praised for supporting a young woman or man through the trials and tribulations associated with college life and beyond. I am writing this for me as much as anyone. I hope the parallels that many of us feel about Sammy can help us heal during this time of loss and reflection.

The 1988 SEC Championship swim/dive team at LSU is a classic example of Sam’s greatness. What started out as a hodgepodge of misdirected, but solid swimmers and divers in 1985 (when Sam took over) became a confident, and determined team that believed in our abilities. Indeed, Sam was a master motivator and incredible recruiter. More importantly, Dr. Freas could find each person’s “gift” in life and mesh it into the puzzle that made the most effective and dynamic team.

He built his teams into contenders while constantly being available to each student-athlete and their issues and needs. I know of countless stories of how Sam redirected a swimmer or diver into the right direction in college which turned into the pathway for their future. I certainly had no clue as to my future and it was cemented after my second failed attempt at the LSAT. Sammy worked me into the LSU athletic department as a 5th year student assistant and a spot on the LSU Aquatics coaching staff. This parlayed into graduate school at Ohio University and a paid graduate assistant position for Scott Hammond and the swim/dive program.

Next thing I know it is 30 years later and I think back at how Sam was there for me every step of the way. Not constantly of course, but I could always count on Sam for a unique story that was nearly hard to believe, but somehow made sense and certainly got me right moving forward.

A college coach impacts a swimmer’s life every day (often twice a day, plus weights and dryland!). Even though Sammy had certain unorthodox training methods, those methods were always unique and entertaining. I was never much into physical contact sports like wrestling or boxing so being instructed by Sam to wrestle Andy Deichert was miserable for me to say the least. However, Sammy knew putting a swimmer into uncomfortable situations made going behind the blocks at a big swim meet much easier. He was right!

Fast forward to 2002 at a College Swim Coaches Convention when Sam made Neil Harper and I wrestle during his presentation on sprinting was certainly something I will never forget. Neil and I dutifully went after each other because that is what Sammy told us to do. Period. Sometimes blind faith is a good thing. Sam would at times give us the most random things to do…like run around the pool 5 times, do 100 jumping jacks, 50 squats, 50 push-ups, and 100 sit-ups. X 10. He might follow-up our fatigue by having us play football (where he was always the quarterback) or water baseball or similar. It is unbelievable to so many of us as to how unique a coach Sam was. It all just seemed right because we believed in him 100%. I worry that in modern times too many swimmers want to question “why” on every thought and decision. Trust is such a key ingredient in any relationship- to include coach/swimmer. Sammy earned implicit trust in nearly everyone he ever coached.

Certainly, my take-aways from Sam Freas are many and diverse. First, for my coaching it was the notion that swimming is fun and a swimmer needs to have fun with the sport. He always talked about reflecting back on your 8 year-old swimming self on the blocks absolutely clueless of your surroundings. He would help us recall that we would have a smile on our face and race full out without ever considering pain or consequences- and it all just seemed right!

Sammy found a way to bring out that person in all of us. Sam had an unwavering ability to believe in a team’s ability. He never talked of failure but only how we will continue to build and prosper. He would share his vision frequently and always back it up with a sincere belief that we are destined for greatness. I have learned over my years in coaching that there is a fine line between belief and reality. Teaching a swimmer to dream big and believe that they can and will be successful is an art and Sam taught me that it can be done if it is backed up by a coach that believes in you and everything that comes with you.

Another key take-away for me has always been that swimmers swim for different reasons. I believe too many coaches think that a swimmer must become the best they can become because of a raw passion for the sport. Sam taught us that this is not always the case. Some do it for the money, some for the accolades, some because their parents make them or whatever the case may be. He always said that once you identify what drives you in our sport that you will find the pathway to become your very best. I have always drawn on this as I work with a struggling swimmer trying to find their way.

Sam had an uncanny way of figuring out each person’s strength and meshing it to the benefit of the team. I was a solid “B final” level swimmer, barely making my way onto the conference team each year. Yet, Sam always told me how important I was to the team because I was a natural leader and could help sell his vision of our success every day. I took that charge from him and cheered for my teammates and their success from my heart.

Finally, I have always been amazed by the balance Sam Freas had in his life. In my mind, that was Rosemary. Whether at LSU, or the offices of the Swimming Hall of Fame, or each step of the way- Sam’s incredible wife was there for him. And together, their fine children and now grandchildren are an outstanding legacy and testimony of his life well lived. Sam always treated each person like his own family. Sometimes a hard hand, sometimes in a unique way, but always with love in his heart for you. I am proud to have learned from Sam and continue to utilize his teachings in my everyday life.

We love you Sam Freas. As you would always said to us “God bless”.

Ned Skinner- LSU ‘89

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