Lessons from Legends: Dick Shoulberg, Coaching a Village


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

The objective results in the sport of swimming are what earn athletes and coaches recognition at every level in which they compete. A winner, even by one-hundredth of a second, can rejoice over a victory and be applauded by teammates and spectators. One of swimming’s greatest winners in coaching is Richard Shoulberg.

The Olympians he’s coached includes such names as Wharton, Berkoff, Radke, Crippen, Jorgensen, Heon and on the list goes. He’s been named an Olympic coach, coached hordes of championship teams at Germantown Academy, and had hundreds of high school all-Americans. His highly endurance-oriented program is unique with several innovations.

At times his swimmers train in a 15.3 yard pool (swimming widths of the GA pool) to develop turns and speed. He utilizes a wide array of creative dryland training modules and various blends of all four strokes in training. Naturally, individual medley swimmers have come out of his GA program in droves, but so have national record-setting sprint relays, as recently as last year.

For many coaches, developing world-class athletes is an all-consuming task that may involve recruiting, and most likely includes a pre-occupation with training that dominates their consciousness. Richard Shoulberg does much more than train world-class swimmers. He coaches his whole village.

For the past 44 years, this 74-year old coach has had a remarkable sphere of influence in his community. He teaches water safety, ice safety, CPR and first-aid classes. He has said that a great moment is watching a child jump off the diving board and swim to the other end of the pool for the first time.

Recently, some people in the GA community provided their view of Shoulberg’s role at GA. They can tell his story far better than anyone else can. 

“From teaching me how to swim many years ago, to teaching my Lifeguarding class, he is one of my role-models. He is like a father to all of us at GA,” Kaela Griswold. 

“I was blessed to be able to teach with Dick for 12 years until my girls were born … One of my favorite memories at GA was walking into the lunchroom with Shoulberg and the 1st graders practically tackling him with love and shouting “Mr. Bonehead,” Suzanne Thomas. 

The list goes on with comments about Shoulberg’s kindness and encouragement to all students, not just the swimmers. But then occasionally one hears a deeper story. 

“My son is a Type 1 diabetic. Dick could have said that this was not a good idea, that he was unwilling to deal with the medical issues at hand. He never, ever did. He told my son that he would take him as far as he wanted to go in the sport. Dick attended doctor’s appointments so that he could learn about diabetes and ways to maximize my son's training, diet and safety… He even facilitated a meeting with Gary Hall (Olympic Champion & diabetic) so that my son could identify and talk with someone in the sport who was dealing with the same health issues and succeeding in the sport of swimming. He didn't care if you had Olympic potential or not. He wanted the best for all that stepped on his pool deck.” 

In a season of giving, around these holidays, the Richard Shoulberg testimonies make for many examples of how swimmers, coaches and teams can extend themselves to all those around them, while striving to achieve success in their sport at the same time.

A GA student, class of 1983, recently told this story: 

“I never swam for Coach Shoulberg but knew him well and respected him. Still do…My sophomore year, I broke my knee early in the football season. I was in a cast for six weeks. Though not one of his athletes, Dick approached me and promised I’d be ready to play in the Charter game. Coach put me through the ringer on that [pool] equipment, cast and all, and yes, I was ready for the game…my only victory over the Quakers…Yet, what I am most indebted to Coach Shoulberg for the kindness he extended to my father, Jim. My dad was recuperating from heart by-pass surgery when Dick commanded him to swim. He oversaw my dad’s recovery even to the extent of reserving a lane for him during swim practice. Dick Shoulberg inconvenienced his world-class swimmers and altered his swim schedule to accommodate my dad.” 

Or Franz Ahrenhold’s story: 

“My husband kept putting off having needed hip surgery. Shoulberg called him monthly … to make sure that Frank actually scheduled his surgery!! I could go on and on. The point I am trying to make is that Shoulberg is beyond a coach. Have you ever heard of a high school coach having a Xmas Eve brunch after swim practice at the pool, that hundreds of alumna swimmers and their families from years gone by, show up to??”

Well it’s almost time for that brunch if Shoulberg has time for it. You see a man with a beard on Christmas Eve with his kind of heart makes one quite suspicious. How does he do so many good things, for so many people? Someone recently discovered that the leader of Santa Clause’s sleigh, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, is in fact female. This can explain how a chubby man, near sighted man, can find his way around the entire world in the middle of the night without getting lost. And also have the goodness to bring gifts to all. Rudolph sounds a lot like Molly Shoulberg, Dick’s wife of 50 + years.

On Tuesday, Richard Shoulberg was named Coach Emritus at Germantown Academy. It’s difficult to know exactly what that means, but perhaps Ryan Galano summed up this man best:

“There are men in this world who somehow inspire you to lead yourself to greatness. He is not a mentor or your father, he is not your boss, he is not your coach; he becomes something more than all of that. He helps you become a better individual by taking you through the path that has been tried and true for years. That is Coach Dick Shoulberg.” 

And Then They Won Gold (Small)Sometimes around the holidays it’s warming to think of Santa in his village getting ready to bring joy to the world. It’s also comforting to know that Coach Shoulberg has found the time to take care of his village too.

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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