With the U.S. Olympic Team, Bob Bowman and David Marsh Helped Craft a Masterpiece

Photo Courtesy: David Rieder

By David Rieder.

Bob Bowman and David Marsh stood in front of a crowd of the country’s top swim coaches, who all stood and applauded. Marsh and Bowman were returning to give the keynote address at the American Swim Coaches Association World Clinic in Ft. Lauderdale after having just presided over one of the signature efforts in Olympic swimming history.

Prognosticators forecasted doom and gloom for Team USA after a sluggish performance at the World Championships in 2015, where American swimmers won just 23 total medals—and only eight gold—in their worst showing at that meet since 1994.

Entering the Rio Games, an American held the top time in the world in just five of 26 individual events. The U.S. team had just over a month to get things straightened out in time for the Olympic Games.

They did. The U.S. won 33 medals in Rio, a record-tying 16 of them gold—half of the events on the schedule. But before the team even got to Rio or even pre-meet training camps in San Antonio and then Atlanta, everyone went home. For a full week.

Swimmers, coaches and staff went their separate ways from Omaha July 5 and met back up six days later deep in the heart of Texas.

“I actually felt like a normal human being,” Bowman said, noting that he often finds it incredibly difficult to come back to Earth after an emotional, stressful Trials.

But by the first day of camp, the swimmers had figured out their travel logistics and handled their media commitments and even returned to intense training.

“I was very impressed how our coaches came in with a solid plan,” Bowman said. “It wasn’t just what we were doing tomorrow—this fits into what’s going to happen next week on this day and the day after and then at the meet.”

Bowman and Marsh both felt the excited vibes among the team when there were swift performances in practice—most notably Katie Ledecky keeping up with Jordan Wilimovsky on a series of “infamous” 100s on 1:20—and then when the team moved onto Atlanta, it gelled.

This year’s team figured to depend heavily on rookies—more than two-thirds of the pool squad had never competed in an Olympics before—but they had plenty of guidance.

“At Olympic Trials, as different personalities were making the team, it was this all-star, team-oriented checklist of people that kept qualifying,” Marsh said, specifically citing David Plummer, Elizabeth Beisel, Allison Schmitt and Cammile Adams.

“And then there was this handful of folks that we didn’t know very well. They came in kicking the door a little bit. They wanted in on the action a little bit.”

Those veterans helped make clear to the rookies that simply being content with making the team would not be good enough. It was medals or bust.

On evenings when athletes would be competing in finals, they would have to carry to the pool the case containing the Nike uniform designated for use in medal ceremonies.

“I can guarantee if they carried those uniforms over there, they wanted to wear it on the podium!” Marsh said.

And each of the swimmers on the team had a keen sense of what they were representing—their country, but also the specific individuals that they beat out to earn the right to swim in Rio.

“Can you imagine David Plummer getting through that race and not acknowledging Matt Grevers for making him better? That happened in almost every event. You were swimming for that person that might have finished a little bit behind you,” Marsh said.

The swimmers named to the team bonded over that common goal of winning medals for the USA, and so did the coaches.

Bowman recounted an encounter with assistant coach Ray Looze, with whom he had almost no relationship prior to the camp, early in the morning soon after they arrived in San Antonio.

“I coached against Ray Looze when I was at Michigan and he was at Indiana. I said maybe two words to him [in four years], and it wasn’t nice,” Bowman said. “We text every day now. We’re a lot alike—I think that’s why we didn’t like each other!”

Bowman’s first experience as head coach of an Olympic team was made special by the relationships he built and all the medals he helped the U.S. team earn. But Wednesday night in Ft. Lauderdale, when the subject switched to Bowman’s protégé and his Brazilian swan song, Bowman’s eyes lit up.

Michael Phelps relished every minute of his fifth Olympic Games, and so did his coach. Bowman and Marsh both noted that Phelps went out of his way to take on a major role in the team dynamic and become a leader for the younger members on the team.

For the first time in his decade-and-a-half on the National Team, Phelps was named a team captain—he received the most votes of anybody, Marsh pointed out.

For Phelps, this Games was different. This wasn’t the Phelps that broke records at a machine-like rate every time he touched the water. He was not even perfect.

But Phelps won six medals in Rio, five of them gold, and his eyes watered as he watched the American flag raised in his honor one last time.

“Honestly, his swimming was better a year ago—there are reasons for that,” Bowman said. “Who gives a crap?”

And now, Phelps says he’s done. Plenty of others from that Olympic team—based on past statistics, a majority of them—will not make it to another Games. Much in the sport will change in the next four, eight and 12 years.

But these 45 will always be Olympians, and their efforts have inspired youths around the country to get involved in swimming. USA Swimming’s registration numbers will undoubtedly receive the standard post-Olympic bump this year—and maybe one of these new recruits will win an Olympic medal for the U.S. in 2028 or 2032.

Marsh’s message to his peers Wednesday evening: stoke their fires.

“Those summer league kids coming into your program, they have a dream. Keep that dream alive! Don’t stifle it! Don’t make them swim 8 x 200 on the second day or put them next to someone who will lap them 18 times,” he said.

The Olympic team came together in Omaha, San Antonio and Atlanta and ultimately dominated in Rio. The pieces to future teams have only begun to be crafted, and those young boys and girls will have quite a standard to live up to. Eventually.

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Dan Smith
7 years ago

No kudos for Dave Durden? Meehan? Cal and Stanford were backbone of team in several events.

David Rieder
7 years ago
Reply to  Dan Smith

Bowman and Marsh said very nice things about all the members of the coaching staff. Especially funny was Bob’s comment about Durden being more prepared than him. Believe me, tons of great material that did not fit in here! Will try to do a wrap-up later.

7 years ago

No video, audio?