Remembering Coach Flip Darr

Guest Editorial by Gary Hall, Sr.

ISLAMORADA, Florida, July 21. RECENTLY, America lost one of its greatest swim coaches, Flip Darr. Though you may not have heard of him, any coach who has been around for a while knew about Flip. In the 70s and 80s, Flip was responsible for putting many athletes on our Olympic Teams, including Shirley Babashoff, Steve and Bruce Furniss, Steve Gregg and John Mykannen. He is the coach who got me to Mexico City as a young 16 year old and again to Munich four years later. He was an extraordinary coach with a style that was uniquely Flip's.

The first day I met Flip I was a despondent 15 year old who had just been told he could not transfer High Schools to swim for the great coach, Jon Urbanchek at Anaheim High. Flip had just been hired at my school and, frankly, I had never heard of him and had little confidence that he would ever turn me into an Olympian. He quickly changed that.

That day I walked into his office at school, he promptly handed me a kickboard that had 4 times written on it in black magic marker; one for the 400 IM, one for the 200 IM, one for the 200 fly and one for the 200 back. From my viewpoint, the times seemed ridiculously fast.

"What are these?" I asked.

"Those are times you will be doing at the end of this season," he responded.

"But I don't even swim the IM," I answered. "I can't do breaststroke".

"Do you want to make the Olympic Team next year or not?" he responded with the question.

"Yes, of course I do," I answered.

"Then you will learn to swim the IM and the breaststroke. It is your best shot."

For the next year, I never could get away from that kickboard. Flip made me stare at those times every single day in practice. And, when he knew that two practices at our little high school pool were not good enough, he wrote down a third practice on a 3 x 5 card for me to do each night on my own at the Disneyland Hotel pool, which happened to be 25 yards long. It closed after dark, but I just ignored the sign and hopped over the fence.

A year later, I was on the Olympic Team and came pretty darn close to winning the gold medal in the 400 IM. It was all because of Flip, who opened my eyes to a new level of training and a new level of thinking. In one year, he took a depressed 15 year-old kid who wasn't sure he wanted to swim any more and turned him into an Olympian.

Though in his retirement years Flip became best known for his golf jokes, which he circulated often to his closest friends, he should be remembered for his many innovations in swimming. He was the first coach to train with hand paddles (the first ones he made in the machine shop out of aluminum) and to use surgical tubing for resistance training. He was the first coach I know of to use broken swims for training, creating the breaks of five or ten seconds at 50s or 100s to arrive at race-type times in practice. He was a master at building confidence.

Flip was not a yeller or screamer. Not once do I ever recall him losing his coolness. Black square sunglasses, no shirt, hair everywhere on his chest and back, a pipe sticking out of his mouth, watching our every move in practice. That was his M.O. If we didn't want to do it, he wasn't going to yell or scream it out of us.

The greatest thing about Flip was his loyal friendship. Once you were his friend, you were that for life. Years after I had retired and was practicing eye surgery in Phoenix, Ariz., Flip heard that the Board of Medical Examiners was attacking me. Twice he drove over to Phoenix from Orange County for some hearings just to be there for me. I didn't ask him to come. He just came to lend support. That is the kind of coach and person Flip was.

I believe Flip's life and career culminated when he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Coach just three years ago; a reward he richly deserved. I was proudly there in Ft. Lauderdale on the evening he was inducted. It was his crowning moment, and one we both cherished.

Flip, I will miss your golf jokes, but much more, I will miss you. Thank you for everything you did for me throughout my life. Thank you for teaching me how to think big. Thank you for making swimming a better sport in America. And, most of all, thanks for being my friend.

Your friend, Gary Sr.