Coast To Coast: Taking The Leap

Written By: Richard Hunter

While there is a plethora of information on stroke technique, season planning, athlete development, and mental training, I rarely read about how coaches, athletes, and parents encounter and deal with change on a daily basis in our sport. Maybe it is just so ubiquitous that we acknowledge it as a constant, and instead dedicate our efforts and energy towards figuring out the ever-changing moods and motivations of the young people we work with. As things stand, swimming has been a part of my life for 30 years and I am over a decade into my coaching career. More than ever, I find myself reflecting on the people, events, and decisions that led me to where I am today. Through the years, embracing change has been a recurring theme for me. For the purposes of this article, I will tell my story as it relates to my time as an age group swimmer at Mission Viejo, a collegiate swimmer at UC Berkeley, and the bulk of the focus on my time as a coach in both Southern California and Virginia. My hope is to shed some light on my own thought process in making decisions that allowed me to embrace change and specifically, to make major leaps despite an abundance of unknowns.

I began swimming for the Mission Viejo Nadadores in 1992, the same year Coach Bill Rose began his tenure as head coach. Through all of the changes in my own swimming career, Coach Rose and his wife, Coach Siga, were a constant. Siga probably had more to do with my athletic development than any single coach I had over my 17 years as a swimmer. I worked with her, either directly or indirectly, for roughly 5 years. And then from age 10 to 14, I had nine different lead coaches. I remember at some point, asking my mom if there was something wrong with me and my peers that we literally had a new coach almost every season. In retrospect the constant coaching turnover, and subsequent changes in philosophies, standards, and personalities, made me figure out what worked for me. I don’t recall ever wondering which coach’s program was most effective or how the changes would affect me. While the changes were challenging, this was more based on having to build and rebuild relationships continuously. I quickly learned to focus on what I could control and look for ways to be successful, rather than worry about various obstacles. That being said, it was not an easy process, and I distinctly remember considering quitting at multiple points in that timeframe. I look back at this inflection point which I experienced as a teenager and realize how different my personal and professional life may look if I had stopped swimming. More importantly, I learned that I never wanted to play the victim in relation to someone else’s decisions.

As I transitioned from club swimming into the recruiting process for collegiate swimming, I knew that my decision would encompass numerous factors. However, after having gone through so many coaches as an age grouper, my main focus was on finding a team, school, and environment that I felt would allow me to thrive as an individual and as part of a larger group. I was fortunate enough to swim for both Nort Thornton and Mike Bottom for my first 3 years at Cal. Ironically, Nort announced his decision to step down as Head Coach between my Junior and Senior year. Mike took the position at Michigan, and a nationwide search was conducted. We began my senior year, without knowing who would be at the helm of the program. Again, I remember wondering how things would turn out, but feeling that we would be okay. Well, that turned out to be an understatement! Dave Durden was hired, brought on Greg Meehan as his assistant, and the program started its ascent to where it stands currently as a perennial top-two program in the US.

After graduating and spending a year working an office job, I found myself back on deck at MVN in a part time position while I studied for the LSAT. By happenstance, I spent part of every day next to Tyler Fenwick, who had gone the route of starting law school, until he realized that his passion for the swim world was a much larger draw for him. This, along with several other factors, kept me coaching for another 3 years, until I finally conceded that I was in it for the long haul. In 2015, Coach Rose announced his plans to step down as head coach at MVN. This initiated yet another transition period for me. I had been with my then girlfriend, Abbey, for 5 years. We knew that change was coming, but whatever came next for me professionally, we wanted to explore it together. We got engaged in June of 2016 and this was the most important step in establishing personal stability going into the unknown of my next steps in the coaching realm. Leading into Olympic Trials, I got a call from Jack Roach, whom I knew of, but had never met. We talked about an opportunity in Virginia Beach with Tide Swimming in which Jack would serve as Head Coach for 3 years, while I served as Associate Head Coach, with the understanding that I would take over in the 4th year. Abbey and I took a weekend trip out to Virginia Beach, met Jack, and got a feel for the program from both dry and wet side leadership. The position was intriguing and I will get into some of my thoughts and considerations in more detail shortly. The biggest discussion point for Abbey and myself was moving across the country and away from family (both Abbey’s and my parents live in SoCal). We took the leap and moved out in August of 2016 and are in our fifth year in Virginia Beach and loving our situation. Our attention and energies are currently consumed by the whims and whimpers of our 16-month-old daughter, Charlie.

In the time since the move, I have had the opportunity to reflect on why it worked and how fortunate we are to have landed in a good situation. I think it is worth sharing some of the challenges of making a cross country move for a job and some observations on things to look for when considering a new professional opportunity.

1. Empower athletes to work well with and without you

After the initial positive feelings of accepting the position, I remember feeling profound guilt when it came to the athletes I was working with at the time. I was the 13-14 Division Director and also worked with a group of about 20 of the National athletes at MVN. To this day, one of the hardest conversations I have ever had was with each of my two groups, telling them that I would be leaving. I could so acutely remember being in their shoes, as an athlete, and having to go through numerous conversations along those lines. As I look back on it, I absolutely overstated my own role in their development and lives. Kids are resilient, often more so than adults. They figured things out and at a minimum came away with a new understanding of their own role in finding success while navigating change. I realized that a larger part of my role as a coach had to do with equipping them with the proper tools to handle situations without me. It should also be noted that having the opportunity to spend every day on deck with Jack cannot hurt when it comes framing my perspective on both the sport, and my role in it. I do not take this for granted.

2. Take the leap, but do your homework

At the time that I was speaking to Jack about the position, I was very confident in my ability as a coach, based on a positive track record while at MVN. I thought I was 100% ready to be a head coach. Looking back, I was ready for the title, but not all of the responsibilities. I knew I was ready to expand my day-to-day duties and take the leap into guiding the vision of a club. What I also knew was that I needed to be surrounded by a mentor and a supporting cast who knew the specifics of the team’s history and current environment. I can never understate the significance of having mentors like Coach Rose and Jack Roach. I have always had a built-in sounding board and support system which allowed me to fail forward. When making the decision to take the position at Tide, in speaking with Sandra Jones, the founder, Jennie Carder, the Executive Director, and Katy Arris-Wilson, the board president, it became apparent to me that the team had the infrastructure in place to allow for growth and success. Without those pieces and those individuals to help guide the process, we would not be where we are today. While there is no perfect situation, finding an environment where your impact can be made is a good starting point.

3. Evaluate organizational stability over performance in the pool

After my initial phone call with Jack, a quick internet search gave me an idea of some of the successes of Tide’s athletes. Callie Dickinson, a high school sophomore at the time, had recently qualified for Olympic Trials in 5 events, and I got to watch her in person at the 2016 Olympic Trials as she qualified for a semi-final in the 200 Backstroke as a 16-year-old. While this was exciting to watch, I found much more significant insight into the team’s overall health by talking to current board members on the phone. It quickly became clear that the dry side leadership had the desire and commitment to move the team forward while also being open to allowing the coaching staff to guide the process. This was further reinforced when I learned how there were many parent volunteers who spent hundreds of hours a year to help the team in any way they could. The health and sustainability of a club can largely be evaluated based on the vision of the leadership coupled with a group of individuals who are not afraid of the grind.

4. Culture first, performance second

During my time at MVN, I did not think very much about the team’s culture. To be honest, having swam in the program for 17 years, and then coaching there for 6, I think it was so a part of me, that I could not stand back and observe it or put my finger on it. By the time I gave it much thought, I was 3,000 miles away. Jack and I had hours upon hours of conversation about the direction we wanted to take the team and the culture shift we needed to implement in order to get there. I started to realize that nothing “just happened”. At MVN, there were numerous athletes who moved up from the 11-12 division into the 13-14 division and had breakout seasons swimming with me. As I look back, Siga Rose(8 & Under), Bryan Dedeaux (9-10), and Sarah Dawson(11-12) had so much more to do with that success than anything I did with the athletes. High level performance can happen in a multitude of different ways. As we all know, coaches have to believe in their program. And yet we have thousands of coaches in the USA alone, all finding success in different ways. Repeating performance is the challenge. A team’s culture is like an ever-evolving roadmap. It provides a reference point for continued successes as well as a guide back to forward progress after a failure.

5. Go all in

When we left Mission Viejo, in the back of my mind, I thought we might return. This was a place where I had grown up, returned to after college, began my professional career, met my wife, purchased my first home, and developed lifelong relationships. At a minimum, I thought we could return if something didn’t work out. I even gave thought to the possibility of renting our house in California, in case we ever wanted to move back. These feelings started to change after the longest travel day of our lives. I guess a cross-country flight with a cat, dog, and all of the belongings we could reasonably bring with us, a rental car debacle, a meandering journey to locate our apartment complex which was new enough to not be on our Maps App, and a 2AM trip to Walmart to purchase pillows, toilet paper, and a litter box, will do that to you. After a 3AM PST wake up, we finally went to bed at 3AM EST. At this point, I realized that all of the planning, conversations, travel, and logistics that went into us relocating our lives was not going to be thrown away to return to a known commodity. With each challenge that arose, both personally and professionally, we became that much more committed to building our life here in Virginia. Making a change of that magnitude is not easy, and I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like if we had not gone in 100% from the outset. Safety nets are nice, but they don’t do much to promote growth.

I will close by saying that my advice to anyone considering making a change is to be very transparent as to your own motivations. Over the years, I have heard various clichés about not running away from problems. Whether you are running towards or away from something doesn’t really matter. The important part is to know your reasons, commit to your decision, and embrace the changes you will inevitably encounter as a result.

Richard Hunter is the Head Coach of Tide Swimming, a 550+ athlete club in Virginia. He joined Tide in August 2016 as Associate Head Coach and was promoted to Head Coach in August 2019. Born in Iowa, he grew up in southern California and swam for the Mission Viejo Nadadores. Richard went on to the University of California at Berkeley and swam for the men’s team from 2004 – 2008. After graduation, Richard joined the staff at Mission Viejo and coached in various capacities from novice to all levels and ages between 8 and 18. Richard primarily served as the 13/14 Division Director, National Team Assistant Coach, and Dryland Programming Director. In 2009, Richard spent a month in Japan running and facilitating a sports camp for Japanese children ages 4-16. Most recently, Richard was honored with the Virginia Swimming Senior Coach of the Year Award in both 2019 and 2020. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife-Abbey, daughter-Charlie, dog-Gnocchi, and cat-Sushi.

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