Passages: Jon Urbanchek, Iconic Olympic, Michigan Coach Dies at 87; Legacy Will Endure

Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

Jon Urbanchek, one of the most iconic coaches in swimming history has died. He was 87.

He coached the University of Michigan from 1982-2004, winning an NCAA title, and was the U.S. coach at the Olympics in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. He was also an assistant for the U.S. in 2008 and 2012.

“Keep it moving” was his often-used phrase, a mantra for training as well as life. He coached 34 Olympic swimmers, who totaled seven gold, six silver and four bronze medals.

He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2008 and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

He innovated he called the Color System of training, which revolutionized swim coaching by allowing athletes to easily gauge and adjust their training intensity to match specific physiological goals. The color-coded system categorized training intensities for swimmers, aligning them with specific heart rate zones and levels of exertion. This system helps swimmers understand and adjust their training intensity more effectively.

Urbanchek was born in Hungary on Aug. 23, 1936. He emigrated to the U.S. to attend the University of Michigan, where he swam from 1959-61, winning the NCAA championship in the 1650 freestyle in 1961, and helping the Wolverines win the NCAA titles in 1969 and 1961.

Before coaching at Michigan, he taught and coached at Anaheim High School, coached at Garden Grove High School in California, co-founded Fullerton Aquatics and coached at Long Beach State.

Anaheim High School’s pool was renamed Jon Urbanchek Aquatics Complex in 2019.

At Michigan, he led the Wolverines to 13 Big Ten titles, including nine in a row, and an NCAA championship.

When he retired from that post in 2004, he remained in Ann Arbor to help coach the team as well as Club Wolverine, where several Olympians trained. His Olympic medalists include: Mike Barrowman (1992), Gustavo Borges (1992 and 2000), Tom Dolan (1992 and 1996), Dan Ketchum (2004), Brett Lang (1988), Tom Malchow (1996 and 2000), Eric Namesnik (1992 and 1996), Chris Thompson (2000), Peter Vanderkaay (2004), Marcel Wouda (2000) and Kaitlin Sandeno (2000 and 2004).

In 2010, Urbanchek moved back to California to lead the U.S. Olympic Post-Graduate Training Center at Fullerton Aquatics (FAST Swimming). He coached two swimmers to gold medals at the 2012 Olympics (Tyler Clary and Matt McLean) and served as special assistant coach for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team.

Social media was flooded with reaction to his death.

Tributes for Urbanchek

“It is hard to express how much Jon Urbanchek has meant to me since I first met him in 2012. He was my coach on the 2012 Olympic team and he has been a coach, a mentor and a friend since then. I learned so much from his kindness and care, and I know all of my coaches have learned much from him too. Thanks Jon. Love to Melanie, the Urbanchek family, and the swimming family Jon loved so much. Keep it moving. ” – Katie Ledecky

“Urby is gone but his legacy lives on – a legend and my great friend. I already miss my cool calm and collected friend. Jon oozed with confidence wherever he went. When I was with him, I felt lifted by his contagious smile and attitude. I felt stronger thanks to the unshakable bond of candid friendship we had. As a coach, I saw in him the perfect combination of science and art. He was a genius of training and the world’s best at what he did. Truly, a few in the history of our sport stand at his rank. As a human being, he was as honest as they come, as kind as they can be, and as compassionate as I could witness in my lifetime. I am glad I got to travel around the world with him. I am glad I made him proud through our hard work and success. I am sorry he saw me frustrated and sad, struggling with injuries. But somehow, through it all he was still cool, calm and collected. And we kept it moving….He kept us moving. If you are looking for great leadership without ego, speak of my great friend Jon Urbanchek.
Rest in peace, Urby. I am sad you’re time is up down here but enjoy your time up there, buddy. Heaven is a better place with you in it my friend.” – OussamaMellouli

” No one has given more. The depth of this man’s commitment and love for the sport of swimming and his remarkable ability to express that love through caring for all of us is unmatched. Jon Urbanchek you have always been that one of a kind guy that listened, thought, and guided us well. I consider myself so blessed to have learned from you. Our time together getting coffee and setting up the pace clocks in the morning before practice at the Stanford Olympic Camp was priceless. Your focus on the “right things” never waivered. “Don’t complicate it John, just make him work hard and he’ll be just fine”. Urbs left us today without the spotlight on him, just as he wanted it.” – John Dussliere

“You will be missed. You’re far more than a coach and father figure to thousands of swimmers. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to swim with you.” – Steve West

“You will be missed terribly. The impact you had on me, my career, my family is like none other. You deserve nothing but peace and rest. Love you Jon Urbanchek 💔 #moveit.” – Emily Klueh

“I’m at a slight loss for words right now … I want to extend my condolences to all of the swimmers who shared Jon as their coach. We’re all hurting today, but we all get to celebrate that we had this great man touch and influence our lives too. And that’s what really matters. Godspeed, Jon.” – Erik Bacon

“I promise we will keep it moving, buddy.” – Bob Bowman

“Thank you, Jon, for everything! You changed the trajectory of my career and thus my life. My heart is full of sadness and gratitude. You were so kind, welcoming, funny and an incredible teacher! “Greg, it’s ‘Mind over matter’ cause if you don’t have the mind, it just doesn’t matter!” 😂. There will never be another like you. Rest in peace knowing we’ll “Move it”. – Greg Meehan

“1999 Pan Pacs in Sydney, Australia. The first time I shared a birthday with Jon. Since then we would call/text/send messages to each other throughout the year but especially on our birthday. Team USA was so lucky to have Urbie in our corner for the last several decades. A wonderful coach but even better person. So much love for him. #KeepItMoving ❤️” – Natalie Coughlin

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Andrei Vorontsov
Andrei Vorontsov
24 days ago

Jon (Janos) Urbanchek as a coach was a frontrunner, as a man – impacable gentleman. I was lucky to meet him in many occation on the pool deck and in lecture rooms and I do dare to call hin a Friend! Good buy Jon!

Bruce Furniss
Bruce Furniss
24 days ago

I am a better person for having known and swam for Jon. He always made me feel like I was his most important relationship. He had my back when I was DQ’d in my very last career race at the ‘80 Olympic trials. He provided important personal perspective during the ill fated US boycott of the ‘80 Moscow Games. Last summer I was blessed to sit together with Jon and Melanie for three glorious days at the Urbanchek invitational. I treasure that special time and memory. He remained a cherished friend for over 60 years. Every day he inspires me to keep it moving! I loved Jon immensely and will miss him dearly. RIP and Fight On Jon!✌️

Tom De long
Tom De long
24 days ago

I met Jon in 1965 when he got the job at Anaheim high school we both coached the Sammy Lee swim teams, Jon at Anaheim and me at the Orange pool. I was a new coach at Foothill and learned so much from Jon. What a wonderful human RIP.

Steve Furniss
Steve Furniss
24 days ago

My brothers and I had Jon as age groupers at the start of our careers and Bruce went full circle finishing his career with Jon as his coach. We count ourselves among the truly fortunate to have learned under him and to have him as a dear family friend for over 50 years. As great as a coach as he was, Jon was an even better person.

Steve Friederang
Steve Friederang
24 days ago

Schubert was giving a speech a few decades ago on coaching the 400 I.M. I raised my hand from the front row and asked what percentage of each 100 he expected his swimmers to go in the 400. Mark said he didn’t know but he said from the microphone that Jon Urbanchek would. So I took Jon to lunch and he showed me his charts and shared anecdotes and science that was new to me and treated me like I was an important coach — not in a hurry, etc. He was always that way with all of us. He was really really smart; always learning; incredibly organized. You could walk into his practice and know right where they were in the practice — and why they were doing what he and his swimmers were trying to achieve in each set. Even stroke drills were on interval and compared to previous times they’d done them. He led this way because he cared so deeply about his swimmers, and swimming in general. I had a chance to interview him when I first started the Magazine and missed the window. It’s one of the regrets I will take with me. Jon lived his life as if his and our lives are of great consequence. If we hadn’t remembered how short and important each minute is before, we should now. I miss you coach!

Steve West
24 days ago

He was an amazing coach, and an even better person… he touched thousands of swimmers, and motivated people to push themselves to the limit. Even after all of that, he remembered not just what each swimmer did in the pool, but outside of the pool. A man with tens of thousands of lives he touched, we are all his kids.

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