The Identity of Austin
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Every swim program has an identity. Some programs take on the identity of their coaches, like Trojan Swim Club and Dave Salo. Other programs are known for a particular way of training, like Gator Swim Club and coach Greg Troy’s epic workout regimes. A few programs have instituted themselves with a particular “vibe” that is identical to their surrounding environments, like the relatively zen, health-conscious atmosphere at Cal and its surrounding Berkeley.
But then there’s Texas. When you visit Austin, you immediately see bumper stickers that say, “Keep Austin Weird.” There are few chain restaurants here. There’s a mix of cowboys and intellectuals, football and arts, BBQ and vegan restaurants. It’s a melting pot of music, food, sports, art, and academics almost unparalleled in any smaller city in the country. It’s an active community, it’s an artistic community, it’s a tech-friendly community, and it’s a musical community. But what is Austin’s swim identity?
Austin, site of the upcoming Austin Grand Prix January 18-20th, has one of those hallowed natatoriums, home to the Texas men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. Texas’ identity, for many years, has resided with its longtime men’s swim coach, Eddie Reese. Reese is a living legend on pool decks in Austin. But he has, over the years, imparted on the swimming community more than just his charisma and personality. He’s created and trained a group of leaders who have consistently led Team USA in the domestic and international trenches. And it’s that type of strong leadership that has solidified Austin’s identity in the national limelight.
Think of some of the names who have either attended school in Austin or trained as a post-graduate: Aaron Peirsol was one of the great leaders of Team USA. There’s Brendan Hansen, one of the great stories of the previous Olympiad and co-captain of the 2012 Olympic team. Kathleen Hersey and Jimmy Feigen both made the 2012 Olympics and are both dynamic personalities. Dave Walters has won an Olympic gold back in 2008. Eric Shanteau, cancer survivor and a great leader in his own right, trained in Austin at one point. Legends and Olympians like Josh Davis, who continues to make an impact today by giving motivational talks and swimming commentary, and Mel Stewart, who may not have competed as a Longhorn, but now resides in Austin, is ingrained in the swim culture today. And many others.
If you really want to see what Texas swimming is all about, look no further than Ricky Berens. An NCAA Champion who helped lead Texas to a national title, Berens just won NBC’s “Person of the Year” in Charlotte. Not just for swimming, not just for sports, but in all categories.
Berens is one of those types of guys its impossible to root against. Affable and always smiling, perhaps no one else in the swimming world has experienced more unusual circumstances throughout a career: from his “wardrobe malfunction,” to his discovery that he was swimming an individual event in the Olympics through Twitter, to his “norovirus” experience at the NCAA Championships a few years back, Berens has experienced it all. In a career of unexpected events, he’s always smiled, and laughed along the way, and – oh yeah – swam really, really fast. Just last month, Berens, at the AT&T Short Course Nationals, defeated Ryan Lochte in the 200 freestyle, continuing his momentum from London.
Now, Berens has been voted NBC Charlotte’s “Person of the Year.” It’s quite an honor, but if you knew him, and knew the reputation of the Texas swim program, it’s not entirely a shock. Texas has been cranking out leaders with the frequency of Michael Phelps winning Olympic medals. Leadership has become synonymous with the Texas program.
As the swimming community once again turns its eyes towards Austin, as it did last month for the Winter Nationals, we celebrate the identity of the town and swim programs that reside there. When we go to Charlotte, Santa Clara, or Minneapolis, we celebrate the local clubs and college teams that make those places great swim communities. When talking about Austin, it’s impossible to talk about the region and not recognize the army of leaders raised and honed between the concrete walls of the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center.
Austin may be “weird,” it may be a melting pot, it may be a lot of things… but it’s also a place where some of our swim leaders have trained. Texas’ swim identity has come from the names that built the program, from Hansen, Peirsol, and Crocker, to Rick Carey, Davis, and Walker, to all those dominating women’s NCAA Championship teams back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, to Ricky Berens, the latest – but probably not the last – Longhorn to win a “Person of the Year” award.
It’s just in Austin’s identity.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and “Splash Magazine.” Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.