Q&A with Rising Calvin College Coach Chris Sullivan

Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Crawford

By Nick Pecoraro, Swimming World College Intern.

As a young kid, Chris Sullivan already had a passion for swimming. Raised in Rockford, Michigan, Sullivan aided the Rockford High School team to their first State Championship titles in 2000 and 2001. Sullivan then attended Oakland University, where he once again proved to be a stand-out swimmer.

At Oakland, Sullivan became the first men’s swimmer to qualify for the NCAA Division I Championships in 2002. In 2004, Sullivan qualified for the US Olympic Trials in Long Beach, California at the age of 21. By the end of his time at OU, Sullivan became a five-time NCAA All-American. To this day, Sullivan’s school records in the 50 free (19.63), 100 free (42.91) and 100 fly (46.76) remain unbroken.


Photo Courtesy: Cynthia Sapp

After graduation, Sullivan was named assistant coach at Colorado College from 2008 to 2013. There, Sullivan coached multiple SCAC champions and NCAA Division III All-Americans. In 2016, Sullivan joined Calvin College as a new assistant coach, where he currently coaches. In 2017, he guided the lady Knights to an MIAA Championship title as well as three NCAA Division III All-American honors. In 2018 – his second year at Calvin – both the men and women won MIAA Championship titles, and seven new All-Americans were named.

After a career in the spotlight, Sullivan went to the sidelines and found a new passion for the sport: coaching. His knowledge and love for the sport drives him to go above and beyond with his swimmers. Swimming World sat down to pick Sullivan’s brain about his views on swimming culture and his goals as a rising coach.

Swimming World: What are your thoughts on USRPT (Ultra-Short Race Pace Training)?

Sullivan: I think USRPT has some intriguing ideas about race pace training. I’m in favor of many USRPT concepts, especially the focus on rest and recovery and giving swimmers more opportunities to swim fast in practice. I think many swimmers would benefit from swimming more race pace-conscious sets.

SW: Now, what are your thoughts on yardage training?

Sullivan: Swimmers want to feel prepared to race; that’s why we train and go to practice every day. It’s all about preparation and doing whatever it takes to make us feel prepared for the race. There are swimmers who feel good when they push more and more yardage, and that’s okay. Confidence is one of the most important characteristics of a good racer. Coaches can build confidence in their swimmers in many ways, and one way is by providing a tough set to challenge the mind and push the body.

colin post-race

Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Crawford

SW: In your opinion, what should the ideal training regimen be, keeping a swimmer’s respective events in mind?

Sullivan: There are lots of different training programs that a swimmer can follow. Regardless of what the training situation looks like for the swimmer, it’s important that the swimmer finds a way to make each workout their own. Being intentional in practice is probably more important than the routine itself. If I had to set guidelines for an ideal training regimen, it would include plenty of time working on stroke mechanics and plenty of opportunities to rehearse the races they compete in.

SW: What are your thoughts on specialty training?

Sullivan: My advice is not to specialize too early, but rather keep an open mind to different training options – especially if a swimmer is still developing physically. I’ve seen it work best with swimmers later in their careers. Specialty training is a more focused approach to prepare for specific events and distances. The idea is to specialize in or target a certain event which then dictates the type of workouts a particular swimmer may encounter.

SW: What makes Division III swimming a unique environment?

Sullivan: The biggest difference that I actually notice is that it feels very accessible. It amazes me how many swimmers don’t know that they could compete in college for a Division III institution. Many times, it’s simply due to a limited understanding of college swimming altogether. Swimmers with a range of skills can take part in most Division III programs.


Photo Courtesy: Dan Vos

SW: What advice would you give to the underdog swimmer?

Sullivan: I love underdogs, and I love the stories behind underdogs, so I always cheer for them. My advice for the underdog is to see your position as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. It’s a great opportunity to swim your own race and take on a big challenge. Remember that every swim provides an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, your opponent, your training and the sport itself.

SW: How much does mentality affect swimming?

Sullivan: It all starts with mentality. It affects everything – not just your swimming. If you have a bad mentality about something, it’ll be very difficult to find the energy to do that thing well. Positive mentality creates momentum in practice, which creates opportunities. This happens in all sports. Sometimes it’s hard for coaches to spot when a team’s mentality shifts in a practice or a season. But if and when you do, do whatever you can to encourage the team’s mentally and regain some momentum. This is where great teams really shine and where good team leadership can begin empowering everyone’s individual performances.

SW: What makes you passionate about being a swim coach?

Sullivan: My passion mainly stems from the respect I have for the sport and for the athletes and coaches who work so hard to make the sport what it is today. I’m incredibly honored to be able to be a part of it all. The sport has an exciting momentum behind it right now. Young superstars are popping up everywhere, old champions are defending titles, world records continue to drop, and the competition field is deepening. All these things make it really easy to be passionate about the sport and having the opportunity to coach in the same arena where all these things are happening.


Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Crawford

SW: How would you want to shape the swimming world?

Sullivan: If I could shape swimming or contribute something to the sport that would be long-lasting, it would be to see the respect for the sport grow more and more worldwide. I think it’s great to see swimmers taking their skills to the professional levels; it’s doing wonders for our athletes and the respect they have for themselves and what they work hard at every day.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    Never swam for him, but wish I would have. Chris is a great coach.