By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
USC assistant coach Catherine Vogt made quite a splash in the swimming community with her work in both open water and at the University of North Carolina before moving west to work with Dave Salo. There she helped guide the college and club programs at USC. She talks about this year’s Olympics, and what the future holds in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How do you rate Rebecca Soni’s tenacity in London, to cap off a quad of being so outstanding in both breaststroke events?
Catherine: I think Rebecca is a true competitor. I loved to see her emotion when she touched the wall in the 200 breaststroke. That was like an exclamation mark. That let you know it was a special thing; four years of hard work. No one was more determined.
2. You have Ous Melloui who won open water gold at the Olympics from USC’s club team, and you go to the Olympics, though not as a U.S. coach – it was still great to be there, wasn’t it?
Catherine: Oh definitely. I’m fortunate to be working with Dave and working with Ous and to be able to go to the Olympics with him was an amazing experience. That was the first time I have been. The bronze in the mile and gold in the 10k was truly amazing. And how about Haley Anderson? I truly believed she would medal, she’s just such a special person and athlete.
3. That was the next question: Winning Olympic silver is amazing enough, but how she did it, coming off winning at NCAAs, and then having to win her way in through qualifying – how did that even happen?
Catherine: I know, what she did is just incredible. We kind of looked at it when we knew open water would be her focus, and we knew that nobody qualified in Shanghai, so there’d be another step to qualify at our Trials, and if it went well there, go to Portugal, and then hopefully London. The way I broke it down was that she basically had to view it as prelims, semifinals and finals. She really embraced the challenge. She did not want to rest at NCAAs, and the way she had trained, we knew she could be really successful in the pool. Her mentality really worked with our training philosophy, and you have to point out the USA Swimming staff that was there for her – Tim, Paula and Bryce – worked great together and really helped her to an incredible Games.
4. Wasn’t London’s water different than what she had been in leading up to the Olympic Games?
Catherine: Yes, but I think everything kind of played into our hands as far as the London course being flat and cold water, because we knew that Haley does better in cold water. That was part of what built her confidence. I knew she was the fastest in the field from what she had done in the pool, which was another source of confidence for her. The 10k is going to be in the ocean in 2016, and I was there (South America) for Pan Ams, so I know that will be a different race, and it might not necessarily be the fastest swimmer who wins there.
5. Dave Salo got a lot of attention for his success with sprinters, yet at the Olympics his middle distance and even distance swimmers, as well as swimmers in all strokes, really did well – he’s just a great all-around coach, isn’t he?
Catherine: Yes, and that’s the reason I wanted to work with Dave too, because he had success in every event, and every stroke. To be able to work with all the different strokes and different distances was something that was challenging.
6. We probably tried to connect for two months – you are just swamped, aren’t you?
Catherine: It’s such a hard time for me to find time (laughs) to call you back! It’s busy. It’s been nonstop, but it was a really exciting summer and now fall. (Daughter) Carson is just really on the go. My husband (Matt, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan now studying business) and I chase her around all the time. She just loves coming to the pool and being involved with the swimmers. She knows all their names. But I still have time on a night like this for dinner, and Rebecca (Soni) is over here now in fact – we just finished.
7. Pretty neat. How have your swimmers had such success in open water?
Catherine: I think it’s about maximizing your athletes’ strengths. Chip Peterson was a big part of pushing it forward for us – in fact, Thomas Lurz actually called him after the 10k and said, “Chip, this is for you, too.” Open water is a great family community and tight knit where everybody looks out for each other. Yes, everyone wants to win, but at end of the race, you are still talking to each other. You have to really communicate well with your athletes, and know them – and trust each other.
8. A week ago was the anniversary of Fran’s passing – he made a mark on you too, didn’t he?
Catherine: Oh, definitely. Fran touched so many people’s lives. I texted Coach (Dick) Shoulberg (At Germantown) and said that I hope I impact my athletes the way he has impacted all of his. The swim community is small, and Fran is a special part of that. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him when I did. Fran was a true champion. Sometimes it still doesn’t seem real to me that he is gone, because he’s with us all, all the time.
9. When we started talking five, 10 years ago, did you ever think you’d be where you are now?
Catherine: No, even five years ago I never thought I would be in southern California. But we are excited about the kids who are coming out to train with us and want to be in the program. We’ve been in the top three (at NCAAs) two of the last three years, so we’re proud of that. It’s tough to do that – to stay in the top five. But we look at the big picture; we want to get the best kids who fit our program, who will excel in the program and be a great part of the program. Plus, we love living in southern California.
10. How were you able to make the change across country, with your husband at war, having a new baby – and have it all “work,” so to speak?
Catherine: I think that speaks volumes about the people I work with, our coaching staff, support people, and all of our friends at ‘SC, plus our families being so supportive. The USC team and the Trojan Swim Club kids are really special people.
11. How about Jessica Hardy coming back so strong?
Catherine: Jessica Hardy. I am so proud of her. That was the thing, after the 100 breaststroke at Trials, she could have gone one way or another – she had a decision to make. She was either going to come back and race her heart out like she did, or it could have taken her focus away. She really showed that what she went through was hard but she persevered. That showed what kind of person she is. I am so proud of how she responded – coming back and seeing it through like that wasn’t easy, but it was great for her development as a person and once again proved to herself she can do anything she sets her mind to, and see things through.
12. The PAC 12 is really loaded in swimming these days, isn’t it?
Catherine: We’re loaded, yes. It’s exciting being part of the best conference in the country. We were third at the Pac 12 meet and third at NCAAs, so that kind of puts it in perspective. It’s tough recruiting against those schools, but you also know that Georgia and Florida – those SEC schools – are also always going to be vying for the top spot at NCAAs too. But it is really fun to be a part of this conference.
13. I was able to attend several PAC 12 dual meets, isn’t that an electric atmosphere?
Catherine: It really is. I think we definitely are focused on NCAAs, but we want to simulate that in every dual meet. March is going to be our focus. You are always going to have the best competition, and you really don’t know who will step up from which school; but that’s what is exciting about college sports; who is going to step up and be the best?
14. Why the PAC 12 for you when you were ready to move up the coaching ranks?
Catherine: One of the things I was looking at was where the best female coaches were, and a lot of them were out in the PAC 12 – Dorsey Walker, Lea Maurer, Teri McKeever, and several others – all people who I look up to and respect.
15. What about the job Teri did, coming off another NCAA title, and molding that USA women’s team into the best in recent memory?
Catherine: Oh definitely, Teri is unbelievable. What she has done, what she has created, and what she continues to do… she sets the bar really high and that keeps us all motivated – that’s a challenge. The job she did at the Olympics – something that no one else has done before (as the first women’s head coach). She did a great job with our athletes, and she carries that over into the college season as well.
16. So I hear Rebecca there in the background. Did she make one of her Mom’s mouth-watering, senses- stimulating Hungarian dishes?
Catherine: She does not (laughs) cook Hungarian meals with me. We keep it simple! But I know she loves to cook. Health is an important part of her way of life, and it’s fun to see all the creative dishes she can come up with. I put Carson to bed and now Rebecca (laughs) is doing the dishes.
17. Pretty sweet deal, multi-gold medalist doing your dishes – it’s just really stimulating and motivating working out there, isn’t it?
Catherine: Oh definitely. I think the second you think you know everything, you have stopped learning. I think that is true. I feel like I have been prepared for every opportunity that has come up. Jon Urbachek is on deck with us now – he’s our volunteer assistant coach and it doesn’t get any better than that, to hear his words of wisdom.
18. Does Jon always have his coffee with him?
Catherine: Ha, you know him well! Yes, of course he does: It’s called a four shot latte. You know one of the great things, too, is hearing his stories about Michigan and what they accomplished, and his work with the U.S. National Team. And you know of course that on top of that he is just such a great person.
19. So how is the post-Olympic lag or hangover dealt with in your program, for both athletes and coaches?
Catherine: I think I am still experiencing that, can I (laughs) get back to you? You have to find time to recharge your batteries. I went back to North Carolina for a couple of days, sat by a pool, and I have been to the beach. You want to approach every season a little differently. There is always a new challenge, and always a different group of people.
20. How great in terms of people – plus accomplishments of course – was this Olympic team? Do we even have a grasp of how truly outstanding these young men and women are going to be as national and world leaders, and how incredible their performances were?
Catherine: It’s exciting to see it carrying on back home with Michael Phelps, Nathan (Adrian) and Matt Grevers all over the press, and Missy Franklin getting so much positive coverage. Allison Schmitt has this tremendous outlook, and Katie Ledecky is so young but has such a great future in front of her even with all that she has already done – that’s just really exciting. It also shows that the club and college coaches are, all over the nation, doing a great job, and that USA Swimming has put together the right program for this to grow and carry on through the years. There is more interest than ever in our sport, and that is just such an exciting thing to see and be a part of.