20 Question Tuesday: Kris Kubik
By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
He is as well-known as anyone in college swimming and a fixture on U.S. international team coaching staffs. And as Kris Kubik, who swam at ‘72 Olympic Trials and was an all-American in two events his freshman year at North Carolina State, hits the midpoint of his 33rd year as Assistant Coach at the University of Texas, he’s never enjoyed it more.
If a Longhorn alum is getting married, he’s either at or in the wedding more often than not. He’s also been part of National Team staffs at WUGs, World Championships, Pan Ams, and as a special Assistant at the 2008 Olympics. He talks about what makes his job, swimming, and the Longhorns special in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You swam in college at NC State -- how good were you?
Kris: Actually, I was truly a great swimmer -- until I turned 9 years old (laughs), and it was all downhill from there. I grew up in Memphis -- if I ever really grew up, so let’s just say I spent my formative years in Memphis. I was not the most mature 17 year old on the books and I was not ready for the college experience. So I came home after a year.
2. What did you do then?
Kris: I was swimming for the legendary Coach Dick Fagen, who had swum at NC State and was a world record holder (and NCAA Champion in the 200 fly and 200 breaststroke). So that first summer back from college was great, because there were a bunch of other college swimmers who were training with us when they came home from school. But when they left for school in the fall, I was the only one (laughs) on the team above 13.
3. So then what?
Kris: Completely by fate, Eddie Reese was in his first year at Auburn, and we ended up talking when he was seeking a character reference on a kid I swam with. Then he said, “So what are you doing for the rest of your life?” I had planned to study at the University of Memphis, which was then Memphis State University. Eddie said, “I always thought with your personality you could be a coach someday. Would you like to be my volunteer assistant?” I said, “Sure, what would that pay.” Coach said, “Nothing.” But after talking to my parents, and trying to figure out what path my life was going to take, I decided a year down there would be good. I would always read swim magazines and just loved the sport. So I went to Auburn, and this is when Rowdy Gaines was a freshman. So it was an incredible opportunity that changed my life. Eddie took the job at Texas and I was fortunate enough that he brought me to Austin. I ended up with a degree from Auburn, so it worked out well for me.
4. The Longhorns have quite a special place in swimming under you two -- what does all that history and the NCAA titles you have been a part of winning and creating mean to you?
Kris: Most of what has happened here is because of Eddie. Through Eddie, I have patterned the way I coach and teach to be much like him, though certainly I have -- and with his encouragement -- developed in my own way as well. As far as winning, our goal truly has never been to win a National Championship. The goal is for each individual on our team to improve every year. If we have the right blend of people and we do improve, then we are in the mix for a National Championship. But we preach weekly if everyone does their best and we end up 10th or 12th, we will shake hands with all the teams that placed higher than us and we will be very, very proud that we did our best.
5. So that’s not on the board or anything, “Win NCAAs?”
Kris: The question is, did we treat everyone fairly? Because that respect is so important, and the respect they have for their teammates and the people they interact with while they are here. Now part of developing a person is working to be their best, as a teammate, student, young man, and as a swimmer. So that often results in them improving their times. So when all of that happens and they are ready for the world and are prepared to be successful in life as responsible young men, then we have accomplished our goal. I made a “Perpetuity Award” in our program. Here’s an example: Brett Ringgold is here as a sprinter, and he learned “how to be” in our program from Jimmy Feigen, who learned from Ricky Berens, who learned from Garrett Weber-Gale, who learned from Neil Walker, who learned from Josh Davis, who learned from Shaun Jordan, who learned from Chris Jacobs -- and I could do that all the way backward in any stroke. They have learned the “past is prologue” (Shakespeare) and they are part of something.
6. So the system you two brought is pretty reliable?
Kris: I credit Eddie for that. And I would imagine it evolved over time. The real goal is for us to find really good people who know there is more to life than swimming up and down a pool - who, by the way, happen to be swimmers. We can, as coaches, help them with swimming. But the first part is from their 18 years of life before they got here. So they were raised by incredible parents. When you get the right people, it’s easier to get chemistry with the team because they are on the same page -- and that doesn’t mean they are the same because they are very different personalities from all over the country and world. But they have a common goal in coming here, to get better in life. It’s important that we start off knowing how to communicate with the people we’ll deal with, whether it’s “Yes ma’am,” “No Sir,” “Thank you,” or having your hand over your heart and standing up straight when the National Anthem is played.
7. So your goal is to develop young men?
Kris: It is our goal. And I do hope we become friends for life and they can count on me as a resource as much or as little as they see fit moving forward. Certainly, my coaching has been influenced by the ones in my life. Dick Fagen taught me that a great coach isn’t necessarily the one who gets you a specific time but teaches you to be responsible and is there when you struggle to provide direction. And I couldn’t begin to list everything I have learned from Eddie and how fortunate I’ve been to work with him. We’ve been so fortunate that our swimmers went on to do such great things and be such good young men -- PhDs, MDs, law school, good and reliable young men that have been through our program. To still be in touch with them 20, 30 years down the line is very humbling.
8. The times have changed but your results have not, that must feel good right?
I honestly don’t think I have (too much) to do with the results. A lot of these guys come in and are very talented and very driven. People ask me quite frequently how the generations have changed. And I have been here since the late 1970s, but what I see is that 18 to 22-year-olds have a desire to learn and to be guided, and our role is to keep them headed in the right direction as they pick up the pace and focus on their lives. They own that part of it, and we are proud of that transition.
9. The medals and honors must thrill you, and you are so talented coaching all the strokes, or at the least the results support that, don’t they?
Kris: I don’t know that I am a great distance, sprint, backstroke, or specific coach, day in and day out or that I can get their hand on the wall in a specific time, but I do know that (laughs) I have a lot of work to do as we help them become their best. We have some very talented freshmen who need some fine-tuning before Olympic Trials or they will miss out. We have some where a semifinals at Trials would be a great accomplishment for them. So I don’t know that I contributed mightily (laughs) to the physics of how Aaron Peirsol did all the amazing things he did, I think he was just talented and motivated, but it sure is a great thing to be part of that up close.
10. The focus shifts after the season to Trials, that must be exciting?
Kris: It really is for the athletes and we’re fortunate to have a small part in it. Looking back all the way to 1980, and the Olympians we have had and how well they did, I can tell you I am more proud of the incredible men they were when they went on with life. You get that diploma and it doesn’t mean any student is ready to face the world, but because of swimming they are definitely more prepared for life once they leave here with that degree.
11. I was sitting alone at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Austin last week and Eddie Reese came in and saw me, I guess I looked forlorn, because he announced who I was and pretty soon I had 25 new friends -- how special is that man?
Kris: Eddie has a kind of famous line, “People are one of a kind.” And the truth is, he is truly one of a kind. There is none other like him. What you see is how he is -- genuine, sincere, honest and more humble than anyone could ever imagine. When a (reporter) tries to credit him for one of our young men’s success, he’s the first one to say, “Well he did well, but it was probably in spite of me not because of me.” And that’s certainly not true, but that’s just how he is. That’s how a great man, a winner, carries himself. How he lives every day, every interaction. He makes it fun. Tex Robertson, who went onto start one of the most successful recreational swim camps in the country, said the most important thing for a camp is to have the right mix of discipline and fun. I really think Eddie has done that as a swimming coach as well. On any given day we probably don’t work as hard as some other programs, yet by the end of the week I feel like we have done as much work as anyone in the country. But if you took a peek at our practice, you’d be thinking it was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey circus (laughs) at times. It’s not that we aren’t working hard, but we’re going to find a way to take out the doldrums and create an atmosphere where guys want to come in and work hard, and they respect that so much about Eddie. He’s a unique person who definitely has a gift with people. And he’d be successful if he was coaching basketball, racquetball, or any other sport, because of the culture he creates and how much he cares for everyone.
12. Not hard for you to choose to stay in Austin for your career is it?
Kris: When people ask why I didn’t pursue other jobs, I say, “Why take happier when I’ve already found happy.” I’ve had plenty of opportunities to leave, but the atmosphere at work is something I truly enjoy day in and day out. Why leave when you’re around the best people in the world? These have great value to me. Look at the coaches we have had here: Paul Bergen, Richard Quick, Mark Schubert, Jill Sterkel, Kim Brackin and now Carol (Capitani) -- I have had access to those incredible minds just five feet away from me. I’ve also had the pleasure of working and developing friendships with Jack Bauerle, Frank Busch, Harvey Humphries, Ted Knapp, Teri McKeever, Gregg Troy, Bob Bowman, Jack Roach, Dave Durden, Yuri Suguiyama, Mike Bottom -- and I’m not even close to starting the list! These are absolutely phenomenal people. Great people. And great coaches because they care about people first.
13. I got to see my first Tower lighting -- does that still get to you when you win a title and see that?
Kris: Well, it certainly moves you when the Tower’s lit up. But it moves me more when a 49 flat flyer goes 48 for the first time. I get goosebumps a lot seeing our student-athletes achieve incredible goals. I remember 2008 by the warmup pool in Beijing when the 400 relay started, standing next to Aaron (Peirsol) watching the race on the big screen because there was no room on the pool deck, when Jason (Lezak) came off that last wall and had 25 meters left to make history. I looked at Aaron and I said, “This is impossible -- I have goosebumps on the palm of my hands!” I get goosebumps when I see a club swimmer break a minute in the 100 free. It’s just something innate in me because I appreciate people doing things maybe not a lot of other people, or even those people themselves, don’t know that they can do. So on the Tower, it is nice -- especially if you are west of town, because I have heard you can see it from up to 30 miles away on the right night. But that’s the cherry on the cake -- it’s the cake itself being done right that’s most important.
14. I still stand in awe of the title banners -- do you?
Kris: Well, to borrow from Mack Brown, that title is a moment in their life, but it should not be the defining moment. The lessons from the journey to that destination are what will shape them and lead them out into the world, and those lessons will help them throughout life. For me, in swimming, like the USA Swimming logo says, “Funnest Sport.” This sport is fun. And doing your best is fun. I have coached people at various levels who have done lifetime bests and didn’t win a medal and that swim means as much to me as any trophy or medal because it’s about becoming your best version of yourself, whether that’s making a B final at state, or a gold medal at the Olympics.
15. UT has high academic standards, so I guess you factor that in during recruiting?
Kris: My experience has taught me that most universities throughout the country are very academically oriented so that’s something everyone considers. The thing that works for swim coaches is that swimmers learn time management skills at a very early age. They are for the most part, highly driven, certainly as athletes, but they are also competitive in the classroom. Not just in Texas or at the University of Texas, but across the board in the sport. If you did a poll and looked at the various sports’ ACTs or SATs, I can tell you swimmers will be at or near the top. But yes, you are right, UT is an academically challenging school and we’re very proud that 80 percent of our students are in the top 8 percent of their (graduating) class. We’re also proud that our team has a collective GPA above 3.0 and our majors run the gamut - neuro-biology, mechanical engineering, economics, you name it, we probably have several on our team now or have in recent years. Our student-athletes really deal well with the academics. We have always said that academics are Number 1 and swimming is 1A. You recruit properly motivated student-athletes and that’s rarely an issue.
16. What’s your most memorable international trip?
Kris: My first international trip was to Rio in 2007, to Pan Ams. Then National Team Director Mark Schubert asked me to go on staff and I turned him down. I said I did not want to take the place of another coach, especially a club coach, who worked their whole life to be on a National Team -- it wasn’t my place to go as a college assistant. Mark told me, “If you don’t go, I’ll restrict assistant coaches down the line from ever going” -- I thought of Catherine Vogt, Ted Knap, Harvey Humphries, Josh White and now people like Yuri -- “you are going to have to pave the way for them.” So that was a pretty amazing experience.
For Beijing, I had a unique title, “Special assistant to the National Team Director” and as I mentioned earlier, that was an experience I’ll never forget -- it’s still vivid in my mind.
Fast forward to Rome (Worlds in 2009) and then WUGs (2015 as an assistant coach with Yuri under head coach Mike Bottom) -- all of these experiences have been unique. I am so thankful for those experiences.
17. What made your Rio experience unique?
Kris: Rio was a great experience because Rio was trying to prove they could host an Olympics. They did. And in my mind they will do a great job.
18. You mentioned Beijing -- what happened we didn’t see?
Kris: That is my lasting impression -- what Michael Phelps did, but what people didn’t see that he had to do as part of it. People don’t talk about anything but the gold medals -- and that makes sense because it is such a remarkable, historical accomplishment. But what surrounded it was so amazing. He woke up -- remember, the finals were in the morning -- and had to swim, eat, come back and warmup, race, warm down again, go to press room, have drug testing and then that afternoon swim prelims against the other best in the world in his races, and all wanted to beat him. And then at the end of the day, it would start again the next morning, for eight solid days. All of those other things going on, and Michael handled it perfectly. It was incredible to see that. On a personal level the Games were bittersweet: Eric Shanteau had come to train with us, and had been diagnosed with cancer prior to going. Eric left the day after his swim to have surgery, but then he came back in Rome (where Kubik was part of the staff) and broke the (American) record (at World Team Trials) and medaled in Rome (silver in 200 breaststroke, bronze in 200 IM, and fourth in 100 breaststroke and won gold with Phelps and Longhorns Aaron Peirsol and David Walters, breaking world record). Aaron also had a great (Beijing) Olympics, and what a person he is. What a career.
19. There’s a video of something special at WUGs I have heard about, can you share the story?
WUGs was refreshing, and you have to think 4 to 8 from that team are going on the Olympic team. We had people all over the World at Pan Ams, WUGs, Worlds, all these things going on. What a great team dynamic we had, great people -- swimmers, officials and coaches. We finished the meet and we were going to leave at some terrible hour the next morning to drive to Seoul, and we had a team meeting until midnight. Ray Looze, the women’s head coach, thanked everyone, and so did Mike (Bottom). Jack Roach was on the staff which of course is always a great thing. They wanted us all to say something. I guess they thought I’d be the most long-winded they had me (laughs) go last! I was so tired I couldn’t see straight. And our swimmers were just champions in every sense of the word. So when it was my turn to wrap it up, I just said, “Can everyone just put their hands over their heart and we’ll hum the National Anthem?” They don’t play the National Anthem at WUGs, just this song that sort of sounds like the Price is Right music. Chelsea Chenault (of USC) was on that team, and she said, “We’re not humming it, we’re going to sing it!” and they all did. It was so beautiful. They deserved it -- they had a right to hear the National Anthem, and they did, in their own voices from their own collective heart.
National Anthem from the World University Games
20. What has swimming taught you?
Kris: You want the lengthy answer (laughs) again? I’m back to it being more about life The pool and water just happens to be the conduit through which I can pass what I have learned onto others, and do it in a positive way to help them grow and learn. To have this opportunity in this place with these people through more than three decades is more than I could have ever hoped for, and I realize I am very fortunate.