By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
All Charlie Houchin does is win medals. Well, maybe not always, but in middle distance freestyle, the Michigan alum has been solid for nearly four years now. A late bloomer, Houchin is now getting ahead of the curve in the swimming community, starting a pro program in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C. He says an announcement on that is weeks away, but he gave us a few insights on the club, and his incredible three year run – which he hopes to continue through 2016 – in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You have really built a reputation as an adaptable, consistent athlete. Is that accurate?
Charlie: You know, I haven’t put much thought into that before. Frankly, I’m not sure what the perception is out there. I hope it’s good. I think it’s just like anything, being an athlete or starting a business or whatever, the work goes unnoticed and then you start to make progress, traction gets greater, and you start to see positive results after time.
2. When you switched teams in 2011, how hard was it to move at that point in time?
Charlie: When I left it was 3 ½ months before World Championships (at Shanghai) in 2011, and I was swimming the 400 free there. It wasn’t a solution I needed at that time, but it did work out. Steve Pickell at SoCal Aquatics really took me in and allowed me to finish my season there. He’s a wonderful guy. I got to know him and his family a little bit. I can’t say enough about SoCal Aquatics. At the end of the year, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida with (Coach) Sergio (Lopez), and that was the permanent fix before the Olympics.
3. You enjoyed Florida a lot, didn’t you?
Charlie: I’d still be in Jacksonville now if it weren’t for some opportunities that presented themselves. The same things I said earlier about Steve, I would say the same about Sergio, because we had a great relationship, and I enjoyed working with him. The way he took our group in and let us make it our own experience was wonderful.
4. You have had a lot of great resources in swimming, haven’t you?
Charlie: That’s right! That’s the idea, isn’t it? You want to learn from as many people as you can in your space around you. You know, it’s worked out well so far – swimming with so many different coaches and teammates. Being a sponge and learning so much. You learn great things to do, and sometimes great things not to do.
5. And then you end up now swimming back home. Was that part of the plan?
Charlie: Well, I think I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how it would unfold. There was definitely a seed ever since I was a club swimmer for Ron Turner at the Y in Raleigh. It was always a seed - not just a dream to come back, but a goal. At this point, I’m just surprised at times that I am swimming through this quad, but it feels like a natural progression.
6. So no regrets on any of the moves?
Charlie: Well, absolutely, I loved my time at each place. But it’s not about the place: The common thread is I loved the people. That was the reason I went to each of those places, and there was a person or group of people that were part of choosing each place. It’s all about who you are associating with and what they are able to teach you. I am a student in every aspect of my life. Those people helped me further along and helped me become more knowledgeable. That has always been a driving factor in my decisions.
7. You almost always seem to medal – four golds (Olympic, Worlds, two at ‘ 11 Pan Ams, and a silver at ’10 Worlds) – do those mean a lot to you?
Charlie: You know, they are cool, yes. But honestly, from the Olympics for example, the medal is probably one of the things that I think about least. I will qualify that by noting I was on the prelims in London. I had the opportunity to swim at night, but I didn’t take advantage of that, so I was not picked for the final. But it’s the people you remember.
8. How about the gold from Worlds?
Charlie: That time on the night relay with the guys on the podium hearing the National Anthem is something I will remember forever. I love Barcelona and I love London, but it’s the people and those moments you remember, though it’s nice to have the medals. To me, the medals are what you bring home for others. There should be finger smudges all over it for those 12-year-olds to enjoy and for their eyes to see it. That helps you frame the story, but again, that’s also all about the people and the moment, the medal just represents it.
9. Is the medal from Barcelona validation after London in some way, making the night relay?
Charlie: If there is any validation, it’s the personal climb with the training and how I approached it. When I came back from London, I didn’t see a pool until the second week of October. I did two or three workouts to get back in shape, committed in January to training again, but didn’t hit full workouts until the middle of March. That’s not to say I was cruising, because when I was in the water, I was 100 percent engaged, but the point is I knew that if I would commit to four more years, then taking a break after the Olympics was just as important as getting a year of training in a year out from the Olympics. Resetting mentally and physically had to be part of it in 2012 and 2013.
10. What are you doing now? I saw that Chloe Sutton and Ashley Twichell have moved to train with your new pro team in Raleigh. Is that what it is, a pro team?
Charlie: It is a pro team. I will preface it by saying there will be something of more substance to share in the coming weeks. Externally it will make more sense to someone who has more sense or knowledge about it at this point, so it is hard to explain. Since I left FAST, I knew that to be excited about the sport, and be excited about being in this space, I wanted to begin a pursuit of creating something that I could take ownership in and be proud of, and, really, just enjoy it. I am taking things I learned along the way to build something here.
11. So there’s a coach, too, correct?
Charlie: We do have a head coach, John Payne, and we have Chloe and Ashley, and they are awesome. So right now there is a core group of three of us. The quantity is small, but I can’t say enough about the quality of those women. It’s the kind of thing where it’s important to associate right away with the right people, and everyone involved is very much in alignment, and we are getting great indirect support from those around us.
12. We will look forward to the announcement. Back to swimming, looking at the places you went for international trips, how well did that work out with Great Britain, China, Dubai and Barcelona?
Charlie: I’ve been very fortunate. They have been very cool places. Even for the World Championships in Shanghai, the team camp we had was in Brisbane, Australia, and that was just amazing. It was not ideal logistically because we had to change plans because of the earthquakes in Japan. But with the switch from (Japan) to Brisbane, we were able to experience two totally different places.
13. How did you decide to focus on the 200 and 400 exclusively?
Charlie: I learned that when I got to Fullerton in 2010, when the coach was signing me up for the first meet and I was asked what I thought I could be the best in the world at. I said at the time the 200 and 400 free, so those were my events. I knew I needed to be selective and focus on where I could be great.
14. How about being able to swim with former Michigan Coach Jon Urbanchek again in California after leaving Michigan?
Charlie: I talked about a couple of coaches earlier, but he is the man. Everybody knows him, and everybody loves him. You cannot say enough good things about him. He had a great career at Michigan and did a great job of taking people under his wings when they needed it. Tyler Clary and I for example, when we moved from Michigan to California, even though we weren’t swimming for Jon directly, he still helped us in any way he could. That’s just testament to the kind of person he is.
15. How about your alma mater Michigan winning NCAAs? Once a Michigan man, always a Michigan man, correct?
Charlie: That’s right! I hate that I wasn’t in Indianapolis for it in the spring! I mean, wow! That’s what they had been gearing up for, for several years. I can’t wait to go back up there and see the banner. Actually I should say another banner, the first in the 21st Century.
16. What a program now, and then pre-2008, when you headed to Michigan, right?
Charlie: I have to go back to “who” was part of that, because it was a great school and program with great people. Both Jon and (Coach) Bob Bowman did an awesome job at Michigan. They were both there when I was being recruited, and were selling it as a place to come and be a very successful student-athlete and part of a very successful team, but also have the goal of making the U.S. Olympic team. That was very clear, when Bob was recruiting me, that we were going to swim very fast at Big 10s and NCAAs, but we were also going to put people on the Olympic team. Every 8-year-old kid’s dream is to be an Olympian, and that sold my 17- or 18-year-old heart on Michigan.
17. How about your performance at 2012 Olympic Trials?
Charlie: Well, four years before that was totally different. In 2012, of course, I had nervousness and doubts like any of the other guys, standing on the blocks and leading up to it. I figured out in 2010 leading up to Pan Pacs that trying to ignore the doubts and nervousness was not the way to do it. They are just human emotions like the confidence you feel on the other end of the spectrum. So you take a deep breath, remember your goals, and it kind of dissolves the worry or anxiousness.
18. You mentioned ’08 Trials were different. What did you mean by that?
Charlie: I learned a lot in 2008, but it was a very different experience. I wasn’t in a position to swim at my best at that time, and a lot of factors that went into that. One of the cool parts is that Bob has been my group coach at the last two meets, the Olympics and Barcelona, and to see that relationship then and now between us…both he and I are pretty proud of what we built together
19. That Club Wolverine team and the University of Michigan team up to 2008 – what was it like to be part of that speed on a daily basis?
Charlie: You know, those were awesome swimmers. That was ultimately a big part of my decision to go to Michigan, because I felt so at home with those guys. It wasn’t limited to those guys on the college team, because the post-grads were awesome, too. All of these guys were great swimmers, but they really had great personalities and were high quality individuals, and they came together wonderfully at meets – but these were smart guys, hard workers, and great personalities first and foremost.
20. You get Michael Phelps to swim with at Michigan and then on all of these National Teams, and you are part of one of the greatest true teams, as far as chemistry, in 2012. What does all this mean to you?
Charlie: For the second part, I’ll just reiterate and paraphrase what Brendan Hansen said at one of our last team meetings (for the 2012 Olympic teams). He said he has never been part of a more positive group of people for one of these competitions. And that’s coming from a guy who is a multiple Olympian who has seen all of the different dynamics. The type of people on the National Team right now are just incredible, and that chemistry and performance speaks volumes of the character of these people individually, and collectively – great individual swimmers in their own rights, but still team-first and seriously caring for their teammates.
In regard to Michael, let me share a personal experience from a moment I had with him in 2012. You know, I had a great experience with Michael, rooming with him in France (at training camp) and then living together in the same suite at the (Athletes) Village, so we were together a lot for three or four weeks. After the 400 IM (in London, where Phelps was fourth), we all got back to our room. He was a little late because he had to warm down. He came in, and I didn’t know what to say. Maybe something like you might be disappointed or something, but instead I just said, “Hey, still a nice, solid swim,” and he just smiled. He was in such high spirits. He had already shaken it off well before he had come back to the suite, and he was already excited for his next race. He didn’t let that affect the rest of his schedule, and because of how he handled it, knowing we all look to him for so much, he made it a positive for our team, like, yes we will have some adversity, but we’ll get through it together. So he made that a good thing for a team. To see a personality react with that much class and being so positive really affected a lot of people in a great way. It had a strong impact. That really helped us get going on the right note, and it came, of all things, from a fourth place. That, right there, shows what a true champion he is, and the kind of teammate and leader he was for us.