By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
A late bloomer himself, Sergio Lopez relishes the opportunity to develop his athletes.
It’s the main reason the Spanish native and head coach of The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., became a coach in the first place.
Each interaction with a young swimmer needing guidance motivates him to step in and share his own experiences growing up to help them see their potential and become the athletes he knows they can be.
“I’m proof that hard work and dedication can get you to your goals and dreams if you want something badly enough,” Lopez said. “I wasn’t a very good swimmer when I was younger, but I knew what I wanted, and I worked hard to get it. It’s possible, and I want to make sure my swimmers know that it’s possible for them, too.”
Lopez, a member of Spain’s Olympic Teams in 1988 and 1992, said it wasn’t until his teen years – somewhere around 17 years old – that he came into own as a swimmer.
He accepted a scholarship to swim for James “Doc” Councilman at Indiana University and trained in the United States leading up to the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. There, he won the bronze medal in the 200 breaststroke, one his country’s four medals.
He returned to compete at the 1992 Games in his home country and city of Barcelona but failed to repeat and missed the podium and a second medal. He considered retirement following the Games but came back and tried for a third consecutive Olympic Team in 1996 before coming up short.
A member of the Spanish national team from 1984-96, Lopez won a silver medal in the 1993 world championships in the 400 medley relay, has held European and U.S. Open records in the 200 breast and has held or currently holds 14 records in Spain. Lopez earned nine All-American honors in the breast, 500 free and individual medleys at Indiana and American universities.
“Swimming was exactly what I needed to stay out of trouble as a kid,” said Lopez, who started swimming around the age of 4 because his mother worked two jobs to support the family and he needed a constructive outlet. “I learned about life as well as swimming. The sport gave me so many opportunities that I really doubt I would have had otherwise. I owe a lot to it.”
During his competitive career, Lopez, who insists he always wanted to coach after retiring from the sport, served as a volunteer coach at Arizona and also volunteered at the Honved Swim Club in Budapest, Hungary, from 1994-96.
A year later, he assumed the role as the technical director at the Cantabric Swimming Federation in Santander, Spain, from 1996-97. From 1997-2000, Lopez was head coach at Hillenbrand Aquatics in Tucson, Ariz., where his responsibilities included coaching the senior national training group. While there, he grew the senior-high school program from 12 swimmers to over 100 in three seasons.
For the next three seasons, he served as an assistant (2000-2003) and associate head (2003) coach of the Northwestern University swim program. While at Northwestern, Lopez helped the Wildcat program produce seven All-Americans, eight Big Ten champions, eight Big Ten championship meet records, a Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and a Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Under Lopez's guidance, 43 of the school's 56 records were broken over four seasons.
While at Northwestern, Lopez also served as head coach of Wildcat Aquatics and Northwestern Aquatic Swimming Association. He hired and oversaw the coach of the program and coached the men and women during the summer season. He took five swimmers to the 2004 Olympic Trials and 11 swimmers to the 2002 USA World Swimming Trials.
“It feels great when you know you’ve made a difference in the life of an athlete, especially when you help them earn a scholarship to swim and get an education,” Lopez said. “That’s how I see my job – to prepare them for the next level of their lives.”
Up next for Lopez was a three-year stint as the head coach of the West Virginia University men’s and women’s team, where he said he saw continuous improvement.
He guided the men’s team to its first-ever Big East Championship in 2007 and was named Big East Men’s Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2007. The women’s team had the highest placing in program history at the Big East Championships in 2007, finishing third. Under Lopez, swimming and diving honors improved from zero to 18 All-Americans, zero to 31 individual and relay Big East champions (27 men, 4 women), two Big East men’s Swimmers of the Year, and 11 Big East records (8 men, 3 women).
During Lopez’s tenure, West Virginia swimmers also competed at the World Championships, U.S. Nationals, European Championships, World University Games, Mediterranean Games and Central American Games. Lopez served as coach of the Mexican national team at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.
Lopez also founded and directed West Virginia Aquatics, a USA Swimming club. He hired and oversaw a staff of a head coach and five assistants to guide over 100 registered USA Swimming members. He also organized swim meets and coordinated fundraising efforts, helping to foster interest and awareness of swimming in the community and state.
His longstanding opportunity as head coach and aquatics director of The Bolles School and Bolles Sharks club program began in 2007, and according to Lopez, it’s proven to be his most rewarding thus far. In his six years at the helm, the program (including the Sharks club) have grown from just over 100 to upwards of 450 athletes total.
During his time at Bolles, Lopez has guided the boys' high school teams to the National High School Team Champion titles in 2009-10 and 2011-12, bringing the program's total national titles to six. The 2009-10 Bolles girls were barely edged out for the National High School Team Champion title, earning runner-up honors.
He also has earned Class 1A coach of the year accolades multiple times, and through the years, has guided numerous swimmers to college scholarships at various levels.
Most recently, he helped 2013 Bolles graduate and U.S. National Team member Ryan Murphy to a scholarship as a member of the prestigious University of California-Berkeley swim program.
“We have had roughly 100 percent of our seniors each year go on to swim at various levels of college swimming. That really feels good to know I played a part in that,” Lopez said. “Empowering kids is an important part of coaching and teaching, and I hope our kids leave knowing they can do anything they truly want.”
In his time at Bolles, Lopez has built upon the program's strong tradition of success, preparing several athletes for the 2012 London Olympics. A total of 17 swimmers with Bolles ties participated in the Games, including gold medalist Charlie Houchin and 2009 World Champion and 2012 Olympian Ariana Kukors. Lopez also served as an official coach for Singapore.
Four years earlier, Lopez guided the training of six swimmers for the Beijing Olympic Games and served as the coach for the Netherland Antilles, the national federation of Olympian and 2008 Bolles graduate Rodion Davelaar. The 2008 Games were Lopez’s first as a coach.
“It’s true that I always wanted to be a coach, but I never could have imagined how much I get back from the athletes,” Lopez said. “Working with them, I also learn while teaching and that helps make me a better person and coach. I love what I do, and can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Lopez’s Five Pillars of Coaching:
- Understand your talent – feel powerful in realizing that talent
- Understand your opportunity
- Coaching is not a profession – it’s a dedication and passion
- Share your knowledge – we are walking encyclopedias so share important experiences.
- Believe in yourself – never doubt you can do something.