By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
photo courtesy USOC
U.S. National Team Director Frank Busch might well have known about the pressure on the U.S. – so much on the line, Phelps Pharewell, Missy’s debut, and some familiar faces not on the team. But if Busch, the NCAA championship coach at Arizona and multi-national U.S. team coach, did know about the pressure, he showed he knew how to handle it, setting a tone for the team that led to a phenomenal collective performance in London, which he discusses in this early edition of 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How does it feel to come back from London after that performance?
Frank: I feel blessed to be associated with such great young people and the coaching staff as well. I’ve had the fortunate experience of being on a few staffs, not only at the Olympic level but at World Championships and so forth, but I didn’t see an agenda here by anyone, or any type of selfishness. We had the ability to enjoy the process. I think for my position, understanding that is hugely important. If your athletes are enjoying the process, you have a pretty good chance to be successful.
2. How great was the coaching these athletes received in their careers, and at the Games?
Frank: When you have some first timers placed in positions on the biggest stage in the sport, it really does take some great coaching and mentoring, and the ability to be at their best when they need to be at their best.
3. You mention club coaches a lot – they are more important than ever, aren’t they?
Frank: We’ve seen a demographic change in our sport in the age of our Olympians and Olympic team. As that has changed over the past three or four Olympics, there’s a tendency to look at the upper end of our sport and want to put all your time, resources and energy into that one demographic, that one age group, that 22-and-up age group because they are going to be the ones who are the players on stage. Because of that, we neglected the grassroots of our sport and the people who are the developers of these people who will one day be Olympic and World Championship team members. It was natural to say, “Hey, this is where this all happening – where it all begins,” and focus back on that. So my job when I came into this was to study the history a little bit more and find out why the decisions were made the way they were. I thought that we had lost a little bit of our focus on our club programs. To me, it was a no-brainer to get back to focusing on that. We have to nurture our coaches so they can develop these top athletes.
4. How did you decide on the tone for the training camp? Natalie and others have said it was literally like nothing they have ever experienced, and it was absolutely wonderful. Can you explain what she meant?
Frank: The very first thing that you face when you come out of Trials – and there’s obviously some elation that you made the team – but there is also exhaustion from what you have just gone through. Having a couple of days off – some had as many as 5 days off – that was huge in that it gave them a chance to go home, sort of decompress and know that Trials are over, and realize that when we got to team camp in Knoxville, Tennessee, that’s when the Olympic Games began. I think before, and in 2008, it all ran together, and we were, as a team, a little stale by the time we got to Beijing. So the number and timing of the days off was critical. We had a lot to do in Knoxville, still being on American soil and having media obligations and logistical items, getting fitted for gear and everything, but then we went to France.
5. And then it went even better in Vichy?
Frank: They just kept forming together as a team. When you get out of the States and to a place where not everybody speaks the language, the team pulls together and forms its personality as a group. When we got to Vichy, it was real important to me that we realized that we were the United States team and to be very proud of that, but also that we were in a different country, so we’d travel in groups, explore the country with each other, come together as one team, and form a culture that we would project as we went on to present our team in competition.
6. “Call me Maybe” – 9.9 million hits – that video, that personality, does it warm your heart?
Frank: When they made the video – which I was completely oblivious (laughs) to, by the way – I knew something special was going to happen. We had a very confident team, yet they were so relaxed, and when you have those two things, they are going to perform well. There was that specialness to this group – they were really great to be around, very easy to be around.
7. That leadership from the coaches was special as well, wasn’t it?
Frank: We had great leadership from (women’s Coach) Teri (McKeever) and (men’s coach) Gregg Troy. They really had great ideas. We did a lot of things differently this time. Whenever we had meetings, they were always held around a meal, because I felt like in the past we’d have a meal and a meeting afterward, and that didn’t work as well – so this allowed us to make the most of our time and limit the number of meetings we had. We could communicate during lunch or dinner, so once we were done eating, no one had the obligation of another meeting coming up because we had just covered whatever we needed to at that time and could move forward.
8. You were really fun at both camps – I saw a photo on SwimSwam of you dancing – and then again at the Games – how did you decide when you’d talk to the team, and when it would be light or serious?
Frank: That’s a really good point – an important thing to think about. I really tried to pick my spots. When the team meetings were going, Gregg would run the guy’s meeting and Teri would run the women’s, and I saw my place as just pointing things out from time to time, and being ready and aware to say something important if it was needed. I wanted to make sure that I addressed the team infrequently enough that when I did say something, it would be important – it would mean something.
9. That moment did come, didn’t it – can you recall it please?
Frank: I remember halfway through the games, I talked to the team and said, “I really feel like we have another gear, and I don’t feel like we’re going to see that gear unless everyone becomes more of what they can be, and that will help the team. I want to see your ego out on that deck. I do not want anyone to feel like your egos do not need to precede you on that deck. When you are out there, I want to see that swimming ego. That’s what you worked for, that’s what Omaha was about.” In the team setting we had, people were great about keeping egos out of it, but I wanted them, when they hit that pool deck, to let the world see how amazing they are, because each and every one of them is outstanding. That seemed to really hit a chord with them, and we picked it up from there to the end. That was the night Missy won the 200 back and 200 IM – I think Katie might have won that night – I am still so (laughs) excited thinking about that, I might have the races or nights mixed up. It was amazing.
10. Teri and Gregg – could not be better, but could not be less similar, right?
Frank: Completely different people, exactly. To their credit, they used each other for direction and for strength, and they, to me, were a great pairing, as if it were luck, or even fate. Maybe destiny.
11. What did you think about having such classy veterans as team captains – Brendan, Natalie, Peter, Jason, Rebecca, etc?
Frank: Absolutely, their experience is second to none, but their ability to share that with the team is where they did a wonderful job. We had great captains – absolutely phenomenal captains.
12. You really enjoyed Dave Salo, David Marsh, Todd Schmitz, Bob Bowman – the whole coaching crew, didn’t you?
Frank: It was a lot of fun being with this staff. Now remember, just kind of look at the dynamics here: Michael is swimming in his last Olympics and it doesn’t start very well. And we have Ryan Lochte expected to win everything he swims. Things do not necessarily turn out that way. We have anticipations for Natalie, who makes the team on a relay – be honest, no one would have expected that. The coaches handled this team so well. Jon Urbanchek, who is retiring, was with us, so it seemed like every time a situation arose, we had the perfect fit for someone who knew how to handle it. I have so much respect for the coaching staff and the way in which they gave of themselves.
13. Those veterans – Natalie et al – they were a highlight for you, weren’t they, because only you and those who were there can fully appreciate what they did?
Frank: They really did – that is so true. Look at Jason Lezak, and what he did in 2008, and how he’s on it because Lochte pulled out of the 100 free. There are stories in every Olympics, very special stories, and in this one you look at this team, how it was formed, the mix of veterans and rookies – 28 or 29 of the people on our team had never been on an Olympic team before, out of 49 athletes total. So well over half were first-timers. Yet you would have never known that watching them through camp. They were focused but enjoying the process. If you get that down to any part of life you go through, when you enjoy the process, you most assuredly are going to achieve your goals.
14. How do you get so many wins and medals from unexpected sources, literally breakout performances left and right – did you count on that?
Frank: No way. There is no way. How do you say, “Okay, Michael’s not going to medal in the 400 IM?” You and I both would have said, “Come on, we’ll bet our houses on that.” But what if someone said, “Don’t worry, that will be negated by Nathan Adrian winning the 100 freestyle.” Someone would be like, “Come on, he hasn’t been on the podium for that.” And then, “Hey, Michael is going to get upset in the fly but then Katie Ledecky is going to upset the Queen of Distance in front of the Royal Family swimming on home soil?” No one could have written that and had it believed!
15. I guess knowing them so well, what I was so happy to see were their personalities shine through – did that play a part in the success as well?
Frank: It really did. Here’s a great story for you: I’m watching Missy (Franklin) and Schmitty (Allison Schmitt) get ready for their swims. I look over and here’s Elizabeth Beisel – you have been around her, and as anyone who has ever been around Elizabeth knows, her energy level is tremendously high all the time – her enthusiasm is always up there. She has that ability to relax people because her laugh is so infectious. Beisel has Missy and Allison laughing so hard that they are in tears before they get ready to race, and I can’t stop laughing just watching the three of them! Then I watch Missy be successful and then Schmitty be successful. I told Elizabeth after that, “You make sure before those two girls swim again that you are over there making them laugh so hard they can’t handle it!” I mean (laughs), I really do give Beisel, who is young but has the experience of a veteran, credit for that. If you ever need someone to keep people loose, go with Beisel. She has a way with everybody, but with those two, for sure. So many of our athletes were like that, giving of themselves to help others bring the best out of themselves. It was just incredible to watch.
16. After Michael narrowly lost in the fly – I got goose bumps when he smiled and hugged that kid from South Africa who beat him – what did you feel?
Frank: How could you not get goose bumps? If anyone is going to listen to anyone, they are going to listen to Michael Phelps. What he has done, no one else has done and never again will do. People look at him from a standpoint where they see him as a superhuman. For him to prove that he is just human by hugging the guy and making those statements, it was enriching for the sport, and for him as a person. He knew it wouldn’t be Beijing again, that there would not be eight gold medals. But for him to do as great as he did and still give back to the sport of swimming with the way he carried himself – well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
17. How about Phelps bringing it home on the relay to end it?
Frank: Oh boy, everybody wants to turn around and see Michael Phelps on the end of your relay! It makes you feel pretty good about your chances of getting a gold medal if you are on a relay with Michael. Seeing so many of our athletes be part of that, like with Davis (Tarwater) and so many others who had also earned it, was just awesome – there were so many awesome things. What a privilege to share time with those people.
18. How could Missy Franklin be so young and swim so well and be so perfect in interviews and with such a great attitude?
Frank: All I can say about Missy Franklin is that what you see is what you get. There is no pretension, none! She is the same person winning or losing. She keeps things in perspective better than anyone I have seen in a competitive arena. I really respect that young lady, her parents, Todd, teachers, friends and family for the way she handled herself. She is a very special person to USA Swimming, with not only her drive and talent but her ability to put everything in perspective. I have never quite met anyone like that – ever.
19. Your ol’ Pac-12 stomping grounds are again among the brightest stars shining in college swimming – what’s that mean to you?
Frank: It’s wonderful. For me, the key factor is to make sure that college swimming on the men’s side stays strong. It’s a big, big issue as we go into tough economic times and have exorbitant coaching salaries (for football and basketball) – there are just so many things that are happening that can threaten men’s programs. We have to show the world of athletic directors and college presidents that swimming is one of those sports that develop people who are great leaders and great people.
20. Michael’s articulation, grace, even humility – as great as he was in the pool, and once again he was the best in the world, he was the best outside of it, wasn’t he?
Frank: You just said it all right there, absolutely. I’m sure Bob Bowman felt the same way. When you step back and see someone as extraordinarily talented as Michael is – the greatest of all time – and then you see him like that, and it turns out he really does put his pants on one leg at a time. No matter how great you are, you have to have that ability to relate to people. I think those moments in London were big in his life because Michael wanted to leave a legacy of being not just a great swimmer but also of being a great sportsman. He achieved it, and went out with a great team on top of that.