By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Rachel Komisarz-Baugh has excelled on the deck just like she did in the water. The former University of Kentucky star who won gold and silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games – part of the 23 total international medals she won on the U.S. National team – was recently named the head coach at Ohio University after serving as an assistant at Louisville. She’s living in Athens, Ohio, and says in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday that she knew she was ready for the challenge of being a head coach.
1. What’s it like to be a head coach?
Rachel: It’s incredible. You know, to be honest, I feel like I am living in this dream world right now and am afraid to wake up and pinch myself.
2. How did you go from swimmer to assistant coach so seamlessly?
Rachel: It was a pretty smooth transition from swimming to coaching. And as soon as I began coaching, I wanted to be a head coach. I wanted to get to that next level.
3. It’s quite a responsibility and opportunity isn’t it?
Rachel: Having my own program now and to be able to impact the life of any swimmer is incredible.
4. You didn’t have to move too far, but a move is a move, isn’t it – not a lot of fun?
Rachel: There is a lot that goes into it! And actually, my husband and I are living apart for the next few months. He’s trying to sell the condo. I am living in an apartment while our house is being built in Athens. We are in a transition and haven’t made the full move yet, but I am excited to get into the new house and have my husband with me.
5. When we talked before 2004, you sounded like you’d be happy with a medal. You left Athens with two, and when we chatted again you sounded like you felt like you could’ve done more, correct?
Rachel: I do think that an elite level athlete is never satisfied with what they have done. You can talk to any Olympian. They’ll be happy in the moment, and in the net moment think about what they can do better the next time. That’s the character of any elite level athlete, not just me; you are always striving for more.
6. Your run up through 2007 was just incredible, serving as a U.S. team captain on an international trip and all of that – can you believe how much you did, how many places you went?
Rachel: I look back at it now and I am still a little bit like, “Was that really my life. Did I really do that? Did I really live that?” It seems crazy to me. When you go through it you don’t realize the magnitude of it at the time. And not a lot of people get to do that. But at the same time, you don’t focus on the right now because your first thought after any swim is, “How can I do this better? Where’s the room to improve?”
7. You always like those USA uniforms don’t you?
Rachel: It means so much to each of us. I am humbled to have represented the United States as long as I did.
8. I had talked to Michael at the OTC in 1999 with Bob Bowman over lunch, and I had no clue until Tom Malchow told me that Michael would be the best ever – did you see that as a teammate in Athens?
Rachel: I think so. I think we all looked at him and kind of referred to him as a freak of nature – in a good way, because he is just so talented. But even leading into 2004, I don’t know that anyone besides he and Bob knew how good he was, or how good he could be. I think if he swims in 2016, with as smart as he is as a swimmer and the talent still very much being there, he could be just as strong, and win whatever he focuses on preparing for.
9. I was frustrated in 2004 that the media tapped out when he had six golds and two bronze and kind of had the attitude, “He didn’t do it all,” – how can that be?
Rachel: I can tell you we looked at what he did as phenomenal, but I think coming out of Athens, with how much smarter he was getting and figuring things out, we knew he had more in him.
10. Did the swimmers also notice the media’s high expectations?
Rachel: No one’s expectations were higher than his own. And we all knew what he had done, and that 2004 performance was, especially in this era, just beyond what it seems like anyone could ever do. But when you are on that team, you see him understanding what it takes to be at that next level, and it is so inspiring. You know, even though the media did have the all-or-nothing approach in medals, the press really did make its push in 2004 to start covering swimming more and make it the Olympic sport, and that’s a credit to Michael for bringing that recognition to the sport and push us into the public’s conscience more.
11. Wasn’t it exciting seeing the media finally grasp how spectacular swimming is as a sport, how athletes train for it, what it can do for kids, and how great it is at the masters level?
Rachel: It was really was great, and important for us. It also raised the bar. It’s funny, because I look back at Athens, and Aaron Peirsol won two (individual) gold medals (and a third gold on medley relay), and he really didn’t get a lot of coverage. People were like, “Well, you know he just won (three) gold medals.” And I was like, “Do you know what it takes to win a gold medal, or any medal, or what it takes to just get on this team?” But inside the sport, we saw it for the amazing accomplishment it was.
12. So Michael’s impact on the sport’s growth can’t be overstated?
Rachel: It really can’t. As a swim coach and former swimmer, I’d like to see that kind of coverage more often. I think what it did was it kind of globalized our sport to where people know more about swimming, and what it is. They know about Michael Phelps, and they know who Ryan Lochte is, and Missy Franklin. That opened the eyes to what swimmers do. It opened doors for a lot of us who were on that team because Michael got everyone talking about swimming. Even me, personally, to benefit in how I did to sign contracts on endorsements that allowed me to make a living as a professional swimmer because of the way Michael had opened so many doors, or doors that were kind of opened he opened even more.
13. Not making it in 2008 was an odd situation for you because you had been swimming great but health-wise I don’t think I can remember a swimmer so ill and injured, right?
Rachel: In 2008 at Short Course World Championships I broke records in the 50 and 100 fly, so things were still going well for me. All of the sudden the proverbial piano fell on my back: I had a torn muscle in my shoulder, I was breaking down physically, and then I got really ill – those aren’t excuses, and I wasn’t taking care of my body as much as I should of because I was trying to make a lot of money doing a lot of appearances – I didn’t have that right balance, and I didn’t take care of myself like I should have.
14. Did not making it affect you dramatically more than you thought it might?
Rachel: I didn’t make the team because there were a few other things that kind of held me back a little bit. I had shoulder surgery after Trials, and then when I got up on the blocks at Nationals after that, I had lost a lot of passion. I was 31, married and ready for what was next. It’s hard to do this at that level if you aren’t all in, but I still loved the sport more than ever, and I think that’s why I was so excited to move into coaching.
15. In a way did the adversity maybe shape you into a better coach faster?
Rachel: I think it did. You do have hurdles through your life that make you a stronger person and get you ready for the next step. When I was a kid and broke my back, I thought it was the end of the world because I couldn’t do gymnastics anymore, but that is what led me to the pool and swimming – and look how that worked out! What 2008 did was give me this ability to relate to swimmers, and this compassion for dealing with adversity and finding the best way through it. I had success after success after success leading up to 2008, but those lessons in 2008 ended up being part of a greater success when I went into coaching. I had to learn an understanding of when you have all these highs and then the lows, how do you bounce back? Things aren’t always going to be perfect. And the lows make the highs that much better.
16. I know you went to UK and it’s a little distance away, but how happy were you seeing another college swimmer from that great state make the team – Western Kentucky University’s Claire Donahue?
Rachel: Absolutely, I was so happy for her. I think I root a little bit for the underdog, so for her to come from a mid-major really shows it’s possible to have that dream and make it happen. She is just an incredible swimmer and person. With Caroline and Clark (Burckle, native Kentuckians who went to college at Florida), there’s a lot of pride in Kentucky around swimming and the communities really get behind it.
17. Why leave a great assistant coach position at Louisville for the head coaching job at Ohio?
Rachel: I think it was a great opportunity all the way around. I feel I can be successful building a program at Ohio U. Academically, we offer over 250 majors, and we have very high standards of academic excellence – you get great student-athletes. We also have one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen in my life – people call it the “Ivy League” of Ohio because it really does look like an Ivy League campus. We have a lot of supports in athletics from the administration and with all the amenities we have, we have everything you need to be successful.
18. Did your work at Louisville prep you well for this?
Rachel: At Louisville I saw how the program was built, from the ground up, that can also happen at Ohio University. It’s a great opportunity to move into a situation and build a program of my own. I see a place where this team can be successful.
19. All the World, Olympic, Pan Pac medals – don’t those just give you an instant credibility with swimmers, that and having been an Olympian?
Rachel: I’ve always been comfortable talking about it because I like to share the experiences, that’s the value in the medals especially as you get older, understanding how it helps you give back to the sport you love so much that has done so much for you. The student-athletes are pretty engaged when I speak to them because they believe I am the coach who can take them to the next level. Everyone at Ohio has been very welcoming, and the swimmers are ready for the next step. I don’t actually (laughs) take the medals everywhere I go, there are 23 of them so I keep them in boxes. It’s been 10 years since the Olympics, so I don’t expect a lot of people to know what I’ve done, but with the Internet and everything, people knew what I had done, and who I was before I got here, and that was a really nice feeling.
20. I bet you would have liked training with Katie Ledecky, her tenacity and drive really remind me of you – what do you make of her and that group today and how well they are carrying the torch for those of you that came before?
Rachel: I think her, Missy, all of them, are just amazing swimmers, but they are also even more amazing as people. The best part about swimming is the swim community itself, because we are such a family. And as far as being an Olympian and a connection to the group now, I think once you are a part of Team USA you are always a part of Team USA – part of your heart stays there and beats for those who are on the team now. You want to see them do phenomenal things. I see most of these young women from time to time, and even though it’s not a lot of time we have together, I am always so impressed, and it’s just wonderful to see all the excitement around them and how they, like Michael and Ryan, inspire young swimmers, and young people to get into swimming. So I am not on the U.S. National Team any longer, but I will always be a part of it, if that makes sense.