Todd DeSorbo Focused on Creating ‘Great Environment’ for U.S. Olympic Team to ‘Thrive’

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U.S. women's Olympic team head coach Todd DeSorbo -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Todd DeSorbo Focused on Creating ‘Great Environment’ for U.S. Olympic Team to ‘Thrive’

At the University of Virginia, there is no countdown clock mounted on pool deck to remind swimmers how soon are the Olympic Trials or Olympic Games. Head coach Todd DeSorbo typically reminds his team once a week, in an email sent each Sunday containing the upcoming practice schedule, how far out they are from international meets, selection meets and collegiate championships, but otherwise, stick to the day-to-day training routine and listen to the coaches.

Plenty of high-level coaches post consistent reminders of upcoming championships constant to provide motivation, but DeSorbo and his coaching staff see the dynamic differently, careful that swimmers do not get too bogged down in the pressure of trying to qualify for the Olympics and then win medals. That’s why he calls the NCAA season a “positive distraction,” even in an Olympic year, to keep his pupils from worrying too much about upcoming legacy-defining meets.

“We have a saying, ‘Overthinking kills your happiness.’ I don’t really want them thinking about it. I keep telling them, ‘Let me think about it. I’ll develop a program and a plan for you. I know the goal. It’s my goal for you, too. I’m going to do everything I can to put you in the best possible position. You don’t worry about it. I’m going to give you this workout. You try as hard as you can. You listen. You make adjustments, and let everything else happen and fall into place,'” DeSorbo said.

“From September to March, we just focus on NCAAs. We focus on putting ourselves in the best possible position to contend for a national title. We focus on individual development. If you’re developing short course, you’re also going to be developing long course, and certainly we train a lot of long course over the course of the year, but I don’t want them thinking about it too much.”

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Todd DeSorbo guided Gretchen Walsh to her first world record at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

DeSorbo has developed a reputation for his insightful training strategies and an on-deck intensity that permeates through his teams, but his philosophies on team-building have been a major factor in Virginia’s streak of dominance in women’s swimming over the past four years, which includes four consecutive NCAA team titles, all in blowout fashion, and four current Cavalier swimmers qualifying for this year’s OlympicsGretchen WalshEmma WeberKate Douglass and Alex Walsh.

Now, DeSorbo is ready to bring those ideas to the U.S. Olympic team as the women’s head coach for the Paris Games. He is in lockstep with men’s counterpart Anthony Nesty after the two roomed together while they were assistant coaches at the Tokyo Olympics and then rehearsed their tactics as head coaches of the American teams at the 2022 World Championships.

In planning for the three weeks of buildup for the U.S. team between its assembly this week in Cary, N.C., and the start of Olympic swimming July 27, DeSorbo and Nesty prioritized the comfort and enjoyment of the 46 swimmers qualified to represent the Stars and Stripes in the pool. In their minds, that’s how to prime them for ultimate performance.

“It’s the biggest stage for our sport. It’s the pinnacle for our sport. There’s going to be a lot of pressure, and there’s going to be a lot of stress, but we want to relieve a little bit of that by providing an environment for them where they’re enjoying themselves, taking a little pressure off them and setting themselves up to be as successful as possible,” DeSorbo said.

Those aims came into play when selecting the staff of assistant coaches that would accompany the team throughout (although all personal coaches are invited to the first several days of camp in Cary). DeSorbo admitted that the plan he and Nesty created “might not have been the most traditional way of picking a coaching staff,” but they believed the coaches they invitedCarol Capitani, Dave Durden, Braden Holloway, Chris Lindauer, Greg Meehan and Chris Plumb — were the best people to manage the group of already-motivated and well-prepared swimmers in their final Olympic preparations.

“It’s been a lot more about staff dynamics than anything, trying to create a staff that’s going to create a great environment for the athletes to thrive in, to have a good time in, to work hard in and to help build a bond,” DeSorbo said. “We had in our mind a list of coaches that, assuming they put an athlete or two on the Olympic team, that these are who we’d want to go with. It’s people that we trust, people that work really well with others and can work well with a lot of different athletes and a lot of different personalities.”

This American team faces the task of trying to reestablish American dominance in the pool one year after Australia topped the gold-medal count at the World Championships for the first time in 22 years, winning 13 gold medals to the Americans’ seven (three of which were on the final night of the meet). The Americans emerged from Olympic Trials with a huge contingent of medal contenders, with favorites to reach the podium in all women’s events except the women’s 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, but few heavy favorites for gold outside of Katie Ledecky in the distance freestyle events.

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Todd DeSorbo (right) with Missy Franklin during an Olympic Trials medal ceremony — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

DeSorbo is confident that the swimmers who qualified for the American roster can improve from Olympic Trials to the Olympics: individual athletes and coaches will watch race video and examine splits to find room for growth, and U.S. collegiate coaches have mastered the skill of helping their athletes peak for their conference-championship meets and then swim even faster at the NCAA Championships.

Yes, the Olympics will be a pressure-packed event, but DeSorbo believes less so than the just-completed Olympic Trials, which were held in a bigger venue than will be utilized for the Olympic swimming competition.

“I think that the U.S. Olympic Trials prepares our athletes better than any country for the Olympics,” DeSorbo said. “I would say the Olympics is the Super Bowl, but getting to the Super Bowl is more difficult than winning the Super Bowl. They’re prepared for that. They’re used to not thinking about what’s going on around them.”

DeSorbo also noted a pattern of Americans making massive improvements to win gold medals that few expected, and he and Nesty will try to channel that success into individual and relay swims in Paris, hoping that their work behind the scenes will help squeeze out another set of memorable golden moments.

“Historically, the U.S. has done the best job of any country in the world of being better and performing at a high level,” DeSorbo said. “Certainly, there’s some events for both genders where we’ve got a significant amount of ground to make up, but I’m confident in the motivation and excitement and commitment of everybody, men and women, on the team that are prepared to do that and do some pretty special things.

“I think there’s a lot of examples over the years — Lezak’s comeback [in the men’s 400 free relay at the 2008 Olympics], the U.S. women beating the East German women in the 400 free relay way back [in 1984] — where we weren’t supposed to win, and the U.S. finds a way to do that.”

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