Lessons From Legends: Dillon and Bev Rhodenbaugh, Super-Swim Parents


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

Parents in youth sports are often mocked for their emotional, ineffective and even intrusive behavior. But at the last three Olympics, Michel Phelps’s mother Debbie has become almost as well known as her son. She must be doing something right.

What is the difference between a great swim parent and one that sabotages their child’s experience?

Dr. Dillon Rhodenbaugh learned the difference from his eight-year-old son, and with his wife Bev, raised one of the great swimming families in the history of the sport.

The Rhodenbaughs entered the sport like many swimming families in America, through a summer swim league. One day, Dr. Rhodenbaugh hurried from work to see his oldest son Jeff swim in one of his first swim meets. Jeff just missed winning.

Dillon was excited but also a little disappointed. When his boy jumped from the pool looking for his dad’s approval Dillon asked him one simple question, “You were so close to first son, why didn’t you go a little faster and win?” Jeff began to cry and said. “Dad, I did the best I could.”

The professionally-schooled and trained dentist learned in that moment that he had made a huge mistake. Dillon had measured his child’s performance on the basis of the result rather than his effort. He never forgot the lesson.

Dillon and Bev Rhodenbaugh were the proud parents of eight children, and if they made a mistake with one child, they learned, and the younger ones benefited. They engrained the habit of praising effort, not outcome. They also set an example of contributing to their swim club, the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins, by accepting the responsibility of leadership roles and officiating.

What followed were their children winning races, becoming high school champions, then national record holders and eventually representing the USA on numerous National Teams. One of their boys Greg became a finalist at the Olympic Trials. Kim became a national champion in breaststroke and represented the United States in the 1984 Olympics. Mark or “Mook” won an NCAA title in the 100-yard backstroke and was a World University Games gold medal winner.

Why was the lesson the Rhodenbaugh’s learned to praise effort versus outcome so important?

  • Effort can be duplicated with no chance of failing to deliver.
  • Outcome praise suggests an obligation to a child to re-produce the same results. This can lead to the fear or failure and the reluctance to try.
  • Consider the example of schoolwork. Praising someone for applying himself or herself is something they can successfully accomplish each day. Praising for A’s alone can create tremendous stress in a child to deliver a result they may not always be able to control. The same is true in swimming fast.

You might recognize the Rhodenbaugh name today since Greg is currently the head coach at the University of Missouri and Mook at the Dallas Mustang Swim Club. Both have had a great deal of success, perhaps following in their parents’ footsteps of knowing how to treat and lead children.

Greg recently recalled, “My parents have always been my heroes. I learned so much from them that I still see today. Many people look at their own actions and regret them because they see their parents in themselves. I see my parent’s legacy live on in my brothers and sisters and myself. Thank God for my parents.” 
And Then They Won Gold (Small)
Has Greg taken his enthusiasm for parenting to an extreme? 

He and his wife have eight children – his siblings a combined twenty more.

For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.  

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