And Then They Won Gold: Coach-Athlete Relationship of Olympic Champions


And Then They Won Gold (Medium)By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

This is the second in a series of themes that author Chuck Warner discovered in the research and writing of the book, …And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence. Highly acclaimed by swimming leaders around the world, the book is written for swimmers, coaches and parents to learn the steps to swimming excellence.

The book chronicles the development of eight great swimmers who collectively won 28 Olympic gold medals in all four of the swimming strokes and in most distances. Their careers are chronicled from their start in swimming in summer leagues, to working their way to the top of the Olympic podium.

The swimmers are: Matt Biondi, Dave Berkoff, Mike Barrowman, Josh Davis, Lenny Krayzelburg, Ian Crocker, Grant Hackett and Aaron Peirsol.


…And Then They Won Gold, Theme II: Coach-Athlete Relationship of Olympic Champions.

Coach-Athlete Relationship:

  • Number of Coaches: The average number of coaches per athlete over the course of their career was five. Nearly all of them were interviewed, and nearly all significantly affected the success of the athlete.
  • Age Group Significance: Nearly all athletes equally praised and expressed the importance of their age-group coaches as they did their senior coaches.
  • Coaching Style: The most effective coaches allowed swimmers to express their personality while providing program structure and training direction.
  • Coach Personalities: Different athlete personalities matched better with different coaches’ personalities. Some really enjoyed a stern task master while others did not want it or seem to need it.
  • Put the Athletes First: In the overwhelming majority of cases coaches put the athlete ahead of their own ego.

Shoulberg and Berkoff chapter opening:
The younger swimmers’ practice at the cavernous Germantown Academy pool started precisely at 6:30 pm, and Head Coach Dick Shoulberg patrolled the pool deck. It was his domain, his classroom—every inch of it. His beard shielded his face from his swimmers’ eyes. He could stare you down when he looked out of his glasses, but it was difficult for a swimmer to catch a clear look into his eyes. His voice could sound like a growl when he wanted it to. He let you know who was in charge, and when it was time to start practice, you were in the water or you heard his growl.

Hmmm … let’s see … yes, the large red fiberglass starting block behind lane six was a perfect spot. David had used such a hiding place before at times just like now when he wasn’t yet ready to take the plunge into the cool water. Even Coach Shoulberg couldn’t outsmart him. David tucked himself into a small ball and cuddled up behind the side of the starting block near the corner of the pool.
“I want a 300 individual medley in reverse order,” the coach barked. “First length is drill, second is swim and the third is kick. Go on the 57.” Shoulberg liked innovation too. Why start on a round number? Anybody could do that.

The swimmers entered the water precisely on the 57 and every five seconds thereafter—that is all except for 11-year-old David Berkoff. David pressed his cheek and shoulder flat against the fiberglass block. His heart raced. He heard all the other swimmers turning and stroking but didn’t move a muscle for fear it might expose him to the sight of his new coach. Beyond the normal sounds that accompanied a collective of swimmers moving through the water, David sensed a stillness, a silence-like sensation that roared in his ears.

Where was Coach Shoulberg?

Shoulberg saw a foot sticking out from the side of the red block number six? Quietly, he bent over and picked up two hard Styrofoam kickboards and then tiptoed over near the block. He slapped the two boards together with all his might. “WHAACK!” The crack sounded like lightning had struck the very spot David was hiding. David scrambled to his feet and raced down the pool deck in the opposite direction as fast he could.

“BERKOOOFF!!!” the coach screamed in his loudest growl. Underneath the beard he couldn’t help but smile as he watched the chubby little boy scoot down the deck. “Berkoff, in the water noooow!!” David made a leaping dive into the pool and slithered into the group of swimmers.
Later that night Shoulberg met Judge Elaine Berkoff in the hall after her son’s first session at Germantown. The coach relayed the events of the evening.

“He’s a pistol,” Elaine said.

“We’ll look after him.” And Dick Shoulberg did.

Dave Berkoff swam for 14 more years with a variety of coaches, most notably Joe Bernal at the Gator Swim Club under whose guidance he broke world records several times. But in his run at a second Olympics, he finished his career with Coach Shoulberg.


For more excerpts, check out Theme I.


For more information or to order …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. The author is Chuck Warner, who has also written the highly regarded book Four Champions, One Gold Medal, the story of the preparation and race for the gold medal in the 1500-meter freestyle at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.