Written By: Bill Roberts
Extremely tight-knit, highly functioning teams are the expected norm in the
military including the United States Naval Academy. In any branch of the military
past or present, this point of emphasis is spelled out both in writing and through
word. There may be variations in how the message is crafted and presented.
However, it is my observation that the theme, the directive, the expectation remains the same: we cannot achieve our goals without working as one.
In my earlier days as an assistant coach, one of the appealing aspects about
teaching and coaching at the Naval Academy was going to be the overall
environment established by the leadership of the Naval Academy. As I was
applying for the vacant assistant position in 1997, the allure of working for a
program whose school preaches many of the same things that a swimming coach
is going to instill in their athletes was beyond intriguing. At that time & despite
having some important connections to the Naval Academy, I did not truly
understand what it is about Navy other than there is a unique aspect to how they
develop their students.
Upon arrival and for the next three years as an assistant coach, I learned a lot
about the inner workings of USNA. My education about the Navy way went
beyond coaching competitive swimming and diving. At that time and still to this
day, I spend a minimum of 6 hours per week on deck teaching required swimming
classes for the Midshipmen. This component of my job description presents both
significant challenges and opportunities. Challenges in that myself and my
assistant are spending valuable hours on deck as our coaching counterparts are
solely focused on their respective programs. Just from a recruiting standpoint,
this is critical as the expectation to perform remains the same despite having a
few less hours per day. On the flip side, opportunities to work with a greater
portion of the student body is special. Most specifically, the experience gained
from teaching and coaching has ultimately made me a better coach. I have found
that this dual role has had a significantly profound role in my development as a
swimming coach. Teaching has made me a better coach especially in terms of
communication, skill development and understanding how human beings grow and
develop. Coaching has made me a better teacher for the same reasons. It may
sound a little obvious however it is worth highlighting as teaching is such a
prominent component of my job description and daily schedule still to this day.
One of the important outcomes is gaining a greater understanding of what exactly
our MIDN are going through. Though the daily experiences are different between
midshipman and coach, I do believe we share a common feeling of a rigorous daily
schedule in a shared setting. Again, my point is not that we are going through the
same exact components....rather just that we are moving about our day with a
greater than normal to do list prior to arriving on deck at 0530 in the morning or
3:40 in the afternoon. Though time, I have learned, forgotten and relearned and
now finally starting to remember that when we walk on deck, how important it is to
compartmentalize our day and to remove any and all mental distractions if we are
to be the best version of ourselves be it athlete or coach. We ask this of our
athletes. We must demand this of ourselves as well. Having this understanding
and being able to follow through on a daily basis then allows us to focus on the
more pressing challenges of being part of a collegiate athletic program; the
development of team culture & environment.
Fast forward to when I was hired as head coach for the Navy men in the spring of
2003, and through 11 seasons of collegiate coaching, I was convinced that having
a school that preaches a message that is similar to what we preach as coaches
was perhaps going to be the greatest coaching tool in the toolbox. This is not to
state anything bad about any of the terrific schools that had enough faith in me to
put me on their payroll. Rather, just an observation that in Navy, I found that their
stated mission was most closely aligned with my stated mission for how we will
operate our swimming & diving program.
MISSION OF THE NAVAL ACADEMY: The mission of the United States Naval Academy is to
develop Midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and imbue them with the highest ideals of
duty, honor, and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of Naval service
and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest
responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government.
The key term in my opinion and through experience is “to develop Midshipmen
morally, mentally and physically....” This perhaps is debatable however in terms of
running a collegiate swimming and diving program, this IS what we do on a daily
basis. We are constantly developing and challenging our athletes to be a well
rounded and contributing member of our society.
In my time as head coach, the synergy amongst the key decision makers of the
Naval Academy became more aligned to only further strengthen the school’s
commitment to developing their students. In short, it is about people supporting
each other even when they have completely different roles or job descriptions
within the organization. When this is taking place, coaching the Navy Swimming
and Diving team gets a little easier. I do not want to say it is ever easy because it
is not. However, one very simple example, is practice attendance. We have very
little conflict with students missing practice due to non-athletic obligations. We
have tremendous practice attendance percentage (generally between 97-98
percent each year with the 2-3 usually for illness. It is extremely rare that a team
member is missing practice due to an academic or military conflict. As we all
know, want to boost our chances for success at the end of season, show up to
Perhaps the most crucial element of having the two missions aligned is that of
teamwork. One thing the Naval Academy does very well is instilling the concept of
teamwork in all vested individuals. Whether you are a student or employee, they
have chosen to make this a priority and one that has not changed in my time in
Annapolis. It begins with a program called plebe summer, which is a new
student’s indoctrination into the military. It is different than a “boot camp” in that
there again is a massive focus on the esprit de corps of the entire class. I always
marvel at how close each class is by the end of plebe summer. Much of this has
to do with the daily and even hourly notion of facing and overcoming challenges
together. There are too many to list however one example that we witness first
hand is the act of jumping off a 10m platform with your company. The act itself is
less than 2 seconds from top of the 10m to when a person hits the water.
However, the lasting impact of conquering that fear amongst your peers lasts a
lifetime. For some the 10m is of no challenge. For others, a 10m jump is their
Mount Everest. Regardless, everyone has at least one 10m moment throughout
plebe summer. For an entire class to experience this together before they even
take their first class in the fall is pretty awesome. And by the time, our incoming
athletes arrive on the pool deck, I do believe an advantage has been created by
our institution in terms of what it takes to be on a highly functioning team.
Why does all of this matter? Environment & culture lead to performance. The
opportunity to perform at a very high level is exactly that...an opportunity. Like
most collegiate swimming & diving programs, our traditional competition schedule
did not exist this fall. Fortunately, we were able to get in a few meets this
semester which I wanted to provide a few highlights.
The reason we coach. We recently conducted a two day event at Navy. Shortly
into the first of four sessions, I was reminded a few times over of why we have
chosen the coaching profession. In the first event, the 1650 free, freshman
swimmer DC Hellams, was charged with getting things going for the Navy men’s
team. Challenges he faced at the start of his race included; he was swimming the
longest event of our event line up... all by himself... & as a freshman. In addition to
matching his career best at the 1000 flip, he dropped four seconds off of his
previous career best time. Though it does happen from time to time, I cannot
recall outside of a time trial where an Navy athlete has been in this same situation
before. His four second drop was not going to be too significant at the national
level of the NCAA. Yes, he did earn an NCAA B cut. What the numbers do not tell,
like most swimmers, DC did not have a traditional summer of training &
competition. Though he was in very good shape based and has made some
technical gains in the short time we have had together, I would not have been too
surprising had he just simply come close to he previous best time.
This performance got things going for Navy Swimming as it turned into an
incredible two days of racing and performances. Within the same session, several
team members produced career best performances under less than ideal
conditions in the months preceding. Without much of a summer of consistent
training and competition, to operate at our highest level is an expectation that we
would like to remain the same however understandable if we performed slightly
below that bar. One example was Caleb Mauldin who swam a :46.41 in the 100
backstroke and :46.98 in the 100 fly in the same session. These were best times
for Caleb and both ahead of our school records.
These are a small sample of events and occurrences that have taken place this fall
in the Navy Swimming & Diving universe. In DC’s case, he was a member of our
team who was not afraid to step up in a unique position. Part of the reason he did
so was that we feel he is operating in challenging and exciting environment. It is
not the only reason however it is one that must be present for each of us to
perform at our best. Final point... the smiles and excitement we get to witness
when one of our athletes experiences a breakthrough performance is a dominant
reason why we coach swimming & diving. No dollar amount can replace the
opportunity we have each day to work to produce and foster an environment that
leads to these moments.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. The environment at Navy and
within Navy Swimming is not perfect. It is the best we have been able to produce
to this point. Our goal is to continue to collectively make it even better. My hope
is that your find at least one element that either challenges you or you can use to
better your program! As always, I am more than available to talk and answer any
questions you may have about this article or the Navy program.
Coach Bill Roberts
Bill Roberts enters his 18th season as the head coach of the Navy men’s swimming team and his 21st year as part of the program’s coaching staff in the fall of 2020. Roberts has led the Mids to the Patriot League title in each of his 17 seasons on The Yard. Navy has tallied 202 swimming event crowns at the meet over this time, with the remainder of the league winning a combined 103 event titles. He has been tabbed as the league’s coach of the year 10 times. In addition to the team’s success at the Patriot League Championship, Navy also has won 11 ECAC Championship crowns in the last 12 seasons. Roberts has been named as the ECAC Coach of the Year following 10 of those team titles. Navy also has been successful during the regular season under Roberts. The Mids have posted double figure win totals in 11 of his 17 seasons, have compiled an overall record of 180-60 and are 63-1 against Patriot League competition. Included among Navy’s losses over the last nine seasons (83-29 in all, 26-1 against league foes) have been defeats to nationally-ranked foes such as Auburn, LSU, Michigan, Virginia and Penn State, with three defeats coming to Princeton, two to Columbia and North Carolina. Navy has posted a regular season record of 52-13 over the last five seasons, which includes a 20-0 record against league foes. The 2016 season saw the Mids compile a 12-1 record, with that lone loss coming to North Carolina, while the Tar Heels, Penn State and Columbia accounted for the only setbacks during a 9-3 season in 2017. Navy then posted a 9-3 record in 2018, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Princeton (151.5-148.5) and Columbia (151-149). The Mids tallied an 11-3 record during the 2018-19 campaign, with one of those losses being a four-point setback at Princeton. Last season, Navy’s defeats during its 11-3 regular season were to Michigan, Auburn and North Carolina. Additional memorable campaigns for the Mids under Roberts include 2012 when Navy defeated both Penn State and Virginia before becoming the first team in league history to win all 18 swimming events at the league championship, and 2011 when Navy became the first team to defeat Princeton in the two-decade existence of DeNunzio Pool.
With the success of the overall program, Navy also has consistently qualified individual athletes for national meets under Roberts. The program returned to the NCAA Championship Meet for the first time in nearly a decade during his inaugural season of 2004, with four swimmers competing in a combined six individual events at the national meet –– which included Noah White’s ‘A’ cut time in the 50 free –– and earning Honorable Mention All-America certificates in a pair of relay events.
Navy again sent multiple swimmers to the 2009 NCAA Championship, with both Adam Meyer and Erik Hunter competing in a trio of events. Meyer would join the illustrious list of Navy swimmers to have garnered All-America accolades when he received Honorable Mention All-America honors that year. He then duplicated his efforts in 2010 to become the first Navy swimmer in 40 years to garner multiple All-America accolades in a career. Meyer’s brother, Mark, joined Justin Vagts in competing at the 2011 NCAA Championship. Included among the program’s seven competitors at the 2014 NCAA Championship was Tom Duvall, who advanced to the championship final in the 500 free that year to bring another All-America accolade back to The Yard. Duvall also competed in three events at the 2016 meet, which made him just the second Navy swimmer in over three decades to have qualified for multiple NCAA Championships. Most recently, Marlin Brutkiewicz closed his four-year career by swimming in three events at the 2017 NCAA Championship and Luke Johnson qulaified in three events for the 2020 meet. Additionally during the Roberts era, Navy swimmers have annually taken part in national meets such as the World Championship Trials, the World Military Games, the ConocoPhillips National Championship, the USA Swimming Spring Championship and Arena Grand Prix meets. Mids also are regulars at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Navy qualified six swimmers for the 2016 meet after having qualified 13 for the 2012 trials and three for the 2008 meet. Success has also been achieved by the men’s swimming and diving team in the classroom under Roberts. The team as a whole has been recognized multiple times as an Academic All-America Team by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. In 2017, Ryan Bailey was tabbed as the Patriot League Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year, earned a second Academic All-America nod and garnered an NCAA Post Graduate Scholarship. Also, 2019 graduate Zach Piedt was named the league’s scholar-athlete of the year in each of his final two seasons and Micah Oh earned the accolade in 2020. Roberts first arrived at Navy during the summer of 1997 when he joined Lee Lawrence’s coaching staff as an assistant coach. In three seasons together the Lawrence-Roberts duo guided Navy to a 27-10 record, including an 18-9 mark in the Eastern Intercollegiate Swimming League. Roberts coached Navy’s 200 freestyle relay team that won the 1999 EISL title, and helped develop sprinter Clint Cornell to a 2000 Olympic Trials appearance and to the 2001 EISL 50-yard freestyle title. A 1992 graduate of Springfield College, where he was a four-year letterwinner and served as team captain for two seasons, Roberts began his coaching career upon graduation as the head coach of the women’s team at Wells College in his hometown of Aurora, N.Y. After two seasons at Wells, he served as a graduate assistant coach at East Carolina, where he also earned a master’s degree in athletic administration. In the summer of 1996, he joined the Villanova program for one year before coming to the Naval Academy. Roberts left Navy in 2000 to become the head coach at Colgate, during which time his men’s and women’s teams combined to post a three-year record of 39-36. Roberts and his wife, Nicole, have three sons –– Will, a senior on the Michigan swimming team and high school-aged Nick and Jackson.