Tribute: Jon Urbanchek Inspired Entire Swimming Community to ‘Keep it Moving’

jon urbanchek

Jon Urbanchek Inspired Entire Swimming Community to ‘Keep it Moving’

Last week, the U.S. swimming community lost a legend when Jon Urbanchek died at age 87. Over the next few days, tributes poured in from across the swimming community, athletes who swam for Urbanchek at the University of Michigan or as professionals as well as from other coaches. Almost all of the memorials invoked Urbanchek’s favorite phrase, his approach for life both in swimming and outside the sport: “Keep it moving!”

Nearly each comment can summed up as such: great swimming mind but a better person.

Katie Ledecky, who swam in Urbanchek’s group during training camp prior to her first Olympics in 2012, said, “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.” Emily Brunemann Klueh, a former U.S. National Team swimmer and current mental health staffer with the organization, wrote, “The impact you had on me, my career, my family is like none other.”

A powerful statement from Katie Hoff, who swam for Urbanchek at a USA Swimming training center in Fullerton, Calif., asked rhetorically, “how do I articulate the joy and meaning that you’ve brought to SO many lives, including my own?” Hoff added, “Thank you for always caring about me as a person first and athlete second.” Hoff recalled how Urbanchek would pretend to forget the assigned workout twice per week” and how he provided “infectious energy that made me want to stay in the sport even when I was going through it.”

At Michigan, Urbanchek led the Wolverine men to an NCAA team title in 1995, and following his retirement as head coach in 2004, successors Bob Bowman and Mike Bottom both begged Urbanchek to stay on as an assistant. Bowman and Bottom each publicly shared their remembrances, with Bottom’s statement calling Urbanchek “the Yoda to world swimming, add on the sense of humor and occasionally needed warm hug. His wisdom grew and spread over the decades.”

So few people are universally beloved, but Urbanchek was part of that exclusive club, a genuinely kind man to all. Even as one of the sport’s elder statesmen in recent years, he brought a youthful joy and energy to all sorts of pool decks as decades leading Michigan led into six years assisting the Wolverines, the stint coaching professionals in Fullerton, some time assisting Dave Salo at the University of Southern California and finally a few years as USA Swimming National Team Technical Advisor.

There were hundreds of championship meets over that time, but perhaps none were less significant than his appearance at U.S. Masters Nationals in Riverside, Calif., in April 2017. That was the meet where Ryan Lochte, then training with Salo and Urbanchek at USC, made his first racing appearance since the infamous gas station incident at the Rio Olympics. Lochte was still serving a USA Swimming suspension at the time, but USMS allowed him to race, and Urbanchek followed.

Were these the most competitive swimmers in the world? Of course not, but Urbanchek was in his element. “We have tremendous competition in the pool and good vibrations all over this deck,” he said. “It still feels like I’m in Coachella Valley right now, all the vibrations coming over here.”

Urbanchek set up a tent in one corner of the deck marked off with caution tape and a sign reading “Jon’s Gang.” It was an exclusive group, but maybe not considering all the people on deck who knew the coach.

I interviewed Urbanchek at that meet mostly about Lochte’s return to swimming, but the conversation delved far beyond that. He mentioned how he enjoyed assisting his successors at Michigan, Bowman and Bottom, “because the buck stops with the head coach. If something goes wrong, go see him! I’m just an assistant.”

Urbanchek recalled how he ended up on deck part-time at USC: Salo knew he was living in Los Angeles and asked for help, and Urbanchek’s wife, Melanie, had graduated from USC. Urbanchek recalled her saying, “You gave your life to Michigan. How ’bout giving the remaining of your life to my school, to USC?”

He shared how the “Keep it moving!” mentality was infectious among the swimmers he was working with at the time. “I go to USC and see all these people, young and enthusiastic. I suck it all in and shove it right back to them. They always ask me, ‘Jon, what makes you so happy?’ I say, ‘I have caffeine, and I also have your energy.’ Usually I have a quad latte. That’s four shots,” Urbanchek said.

“They ask, ‘Jon, what makes you so happy? It’s 5 a.m, 5:30.’ ‘Heck, I’ve got my juice. I still enjoy it. Probably keep doing it as long as I’m healthy. Just because I’m retired, my wife says it doesn’t mean you stop coaching. ‘I want you out of the house for three days a week.’ I’m doing it.”

And at one point in the conversation, Urbanchek actually took credit for Lochte breaking the world record in the 200 IM, albeit in a joking manner, harkening back to when Lochte qualified for his first Olympic team in 2004 and he swam in Urbanchek’s group leading up to the Games.

“We’re doing some IM work, and I see him doing an old pivot turn on IM from back-to-breast. I said, ‘What the — how the hell did you make it to this level if you don’t know how to do a crossover turn?'” Urbanchek said.

“Katie Hoff was on the team, so I said, ‘Hey Katie, how about showing Ryan how to do the crossover turn?’ And she couldn’t get it. Ryan couldn’t get it. So I’m on deck just like this with my board shorts on. ‘(Gosh darn) it! I’ll jump in and show it to you. (Darn)!’ Finally, he set the world record for 200 IM — I guess he still has the record. I said, ‘Ryan, you owe me five percent of that. That was my turn!’

That conversation on a sunny spring day in Southern California was classic Urbanchek: begin with a few specific questions, and end up spending 14 minutes laughing and smiling at Urbanchek’s spirit and zeal. He was the first coach to receive the International Olympic Committee’s Lifetime Achievement award, and the reasons go far beyond his ability to write a workout. Simply, the man could inspire.

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T Hill
T Hill
14 days ago

Such great stuff to read & recall our own time with him- always fun & uplifting, He and Jim Richardson were a great team and always willing to share & learn. How to we keep his legacy alive ?

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