By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
He was wounded as a Marine in Vietnam, though you might recognize him these days for his USA Swimming uniform and as the National Junior Team coach. But those who know Jack Roach were amazed yet again as he celebrated his birthday last year with a nice jog from Colorado Springs to…to…Denver? The animal rights advocate and proud husband of Meredith Vinger-Roach talks about that, and his special relationship with Michael Phelps and Jon Urbanchek, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So you turned 40 last year?
Jack: I wish that were the truth! I am 66 in March.
2. Okay, let’s get down to it – last year’s birthday run – how’d it happen?
Jack: When I was 50, I wanted to run 50 miles to celebrate my 50th birthday. My birthday falls in late March, and usually I am at a big meet, Nationals, or something – NCAAs – important is going on. I was unable to do it. So last year, I thought, “I have put this off way too long.”
3. But 65 miles? Coach Urbanchek called me to tell me the time he predicted for you, and he was so proud to be within minutes of being exactly right – but I was like, “Wait, Jack Roach ran 65 miles?”
Jack: (laughs) I can’t remember what compelled me to do it but 65 seemed to be a great year to pick up where I was able to fulfill that quirky dream I’ve had since I turned 50. I mentioned it to Jon Urbachek and one other person – I had not even told my wife…but I had to wait until a week after my birthday because I was away at a competition So on my first Saturday off after that, I walked out my front door. I live in an area of Colorado Springs that is just three blocks from the Santa Fe Trail, which runs parallel to I-25 – more or less, because the Air Force Academy is to the north and it goes around that.
So I started running south three miles to Fountain, and turned around to head north. I had my GPS and telephone with me, and I ended up running 68 miles, a little father than I had thought. I sort of got lost in the moment when I started. One of the reasons it was fun, and so easy, to do was that my mother kept a real detailed baby book, or scrapbook, of all of us. I literally have three books that are three or four inches thick with nothing but stuff my mom collected. Prior to doing the run, I went through the books and made notes of what I felt was important to her – she had passed away several years ago. Each year, I had jotted down a line or a few words that would connect me with the thoughts my mom had at those times. Each mile during my run I would look at those cheat sheets I had with me, so my mother was with me the whole time. I probably went (laughs) farther than I thought.
4. “Farther than I thought” – isn’t that your mantra in life, how you extend yourself to people, your commitment to animals, your integrity?
Jack: Well, first of all, the run (laughs) really was farther than I thought! But yes, to answer your question, I would like to think I left a place better than I found it, and I always want to make the most out of my relationships, and any places I go.
5. You are always so upbeat – is that a theme in who you are?
Jack: I can’t imagine where we would be in life if we were not happy with our experiences. I have never been one to be driven by anything other than an appreciation for life. That is the vision through which I run my life.
6. I was able to sit with Coach Frank Busch and his wife, Todd Schmitz, and you and your wife at Golden Goggles – learning a bit about her and all of her good causes and work, you must be proud?
Jack: Let’s talk about Meredith! She’s not just my soul mate, but she’s the person I aspire to be the most like. She’s compassionate, caring, articulate and intelligent – and she’s all about making something better than she finds it. She seeks these situations out that I think are impossible, and I see her do great work. I see her down in Guatemala building a school, and taking computers and library books down there by herself. She speaks Spanish perfectly, without an accent or anything. She went to medical school for a while when we were in Mexico, so she was able to master the language. I could go on and on about her; she is the inspiration in my life, and you are right, I am blessed to have her in my life. We have a lot of fun together.
7. You have a strict no-meat diet and a love for animals – where does that come from?
Jack: I quit eating meat in 1968 and have never looked back. I can’t say it was originally driven by the protection of animals though – it was for my health. As my spiritual life grew – I had always had dogs in my life – I dove into the world of nutrition. If I have a true passion in life, it is animal rights – almost to a fault.
8. Your work with the National Junior Team has been superb – what do you credit that to?
Jack: I suppose you could say it’s that ignorance (laughs) was bliss – I didn’t realize how daunting it was! But this isn’t about me, give the credit to Mark Schubert, Frank Busch, Chuck Wielgus, Mike Unger and the real core of coaches in USA Swimming. They have been so supportive and offered such great expertise during my period of trial and error that it has allowed us to get where we are now. I came to realize that you don’t make the National Team in pyramid fashion; you look at all these little bubbles swirling around, and any of them can go into the National Team. So you cast a wide net, and grab the talent as soon as you can, and introduce them to the National Team culture. With the help of all the people I just mentioned, we move forward.
9. Still, with so many people coming from your Junior Team to the National Team and points beyond, it must make you feel good, right?
Jack: It does warm my heart. Again, I don’t really want to call it my program because it’s an assortment of these amazing people who really appreciate the fact that we are trying to somehow identify where National Team level athletes come from, and open up areas that give them an opportunity to look into the life of a National Team athlete, and see that it’s not intimidating.
10. I saw the results from the last few NCAAs and I see Junior Team alums from all regions on the championship results – I imagine you notice that too?
Jack: Absolutely. Here’s the important thing to remember: The most important thing swimming does is help these young people get an education at a university that takes pride in who you are more as a student than as an athlete. In no other sport in our country is that more true than it is in swimming. One of the important reasons behind that is the coaching these young adults get from their club coaches and in high school – swimming, the lifestyle and program, helps them grow up, learn about themselves, be a teammate and be accountable.
11. I see Elizabeth Beisel and all these Olympians who spent time on the Junior Team – this has been quite a run, hasn’t it?
Jack: it has been a special era. The thing that the National Junior Team has done smart is having repeat members – it used to be one (year) and out. This has allowed the young people to create relationships at an early age in their development as swimmers and people. They have, with the outlets of Facebook, email and Twitter, been able to stay in touch and keep each other accountable throughout the process. I bring that up because at Olympic Trials, I was watching certain athletes fresh off the junior team getting behind each other, and just watching that was pretty cool. These people are sometimes thousands of miles apart, but they stay in close touch from the relationships that started on those teams, or just go back further, to a zone camp where kids start to get to know each other, and begin communicating – which leads to holding each other accountable.
12. You really have embraced social media?
Jack: Meredith being younger than me, got me into it. I tended to think Facebook and Twitter were unnecessary, and in some ways didn’t think it was a good idea. But I learned more about it, and now I promote it at my camps. I think it needs to be used with certain parameters and specific purposes – such as conveying a message you believe in, and it can help you articulate who you are and what you aspire to be. Spending too much time on it or bullying people, certainly, like anything else, can have a negative side. But if you use it intelligently, it can be a wonderful tool.
13. Are you still shaking your head at what the U.S. team was able to do in London?
Jack: You know, it’s hard for me to get past what the athletes achieved. I have gotten to know so many of them on a personal level, so I understand and saw the sacrifices they made. I’m merely one of many who support these kids. It’s interesting, as I have gotten older, I am not the same person I used to be physically, but at some point I made a conscientious decision to explore who I am as a person, because as you get older, you are going to deal with all these different physical letdowns, so you better be ready emotionally to hold onto something spiritual – that’s going to hold you up and help you grow.
14. Michael Phelps talking to your Jr. Pan Pac team three years ago – what was that like?
Jack: It was pretty awesome. I think Michael, having never been on a national junior team, was just blown away by the amount of excitement the Jr. Pan Pac team had. He was gracious and wonderful, but I think he was pretty taken aback by it as well.
15. You really are part of Michael’s life now – what’s that mean to you?
Jack: I’m very…I don’t think “invested” is the right word, but his entire family is important to both Meredith and I. His mother is just wonderful. His sister Hilary shares a lot of diet information with me – we’re both vegan, so we talk about that. But yes, his whole family has become close to me. And I’d like to include Bob Bowman in there, too. It’s hard for me not to look at Michael and Bob in the same light, because what they have done to change this sport is beyond the ability of me to articulate. It’s awesome, daunting, and I just can’t get over it. You look at interviews Michael did years ago and how he was so focused on what he hoped to accomplish, and what he did accomplish – all that he set out to, yet even more. Michael and I were texting two days ago, and every time I hear from him he’s doing something else to make this world a better place. Who would have dreamed that anyone in our sport could make such an impact not just on our sport, but the whole sporting community? He’s so humble in interviews, and so bluntly honest, too. That’s also something I admire in him.
16. Google the Call Me Maybe video, and there you are – is this the point where we talk about Meredith being consulted on future purchases of sunglasses?
Jack: Wait! Let me tell you how that came about on the plane! Michael and I were playing cards, and no one was in the seat in between us. In two seconds, Caitlin Leverenz comes up, puts these yellow sunglasses on me, and Ariana Kukors slides into the seat between us, and Call Me Maybe starts up on someone’s phone. I had heard it (at team camp) in Vichy so I was familiar with it. Someone said, “Just move your head up and down!” Michael and I just looked at each other, and decided to do it. If you look at us, we have not a clue what we are doing, but it ended up being great fun and a really good representation of what that team was like. So my wife Meredith finds out about it when I mention they made a video. She went online, and there I am in the thumbnail of it with Michael and Ari. She calls me, “Jack, you and this Internet thing, it’s getting a little worrisome!”
17. What did that camaraderie mean to this team?
Jack: It was sort of what sealed the deal on this team’s legacy. The success had so much to do with the young energy and experienced energy coming together – and it did come together like no one could have ever imagined. The athletes get the credit for that. Boy, it was magic, and it happened so quickly.
18. Almost like a dream performance in London, top to bottom?
Jack: I would agree, absolutely. I don’t think anybody would argue. Short of a few individual performances, everyone on that team needs to be given the credit they earned for what that group accomplished as a team, because everyone helped their teammates reach their potential – and best of all, they learned something doing it, and obviously enjoyed the journey.
19. You and Jon Urbanchek have this wonderful friendship – what does he mean to you, and where did that start?
Jack: I met Jon in 1986 and I think he offered me a job in ‘87. To me, he has been a mentor, a dad, a younger brother, an older brother – the role he has played in my life is very special. Here is how you can tell how special Jon is: Mention his name to ANYONE who knows him, and watch the big smile that comes across their face. That’s because he has impacted everyone in such a wonderful way; he makes any situation he is in better. He is family to me, and means so much to us all. He gets that little smile on his face, where he looks around a room without moving his head. What a wonderful man.
20. Did you set out to swim, and how did that coincide with your service to our country as a Marine?
Jack: You know, I had a lot of coaches who influenced me early in life. I wasn’t a bad swimmer, I was okay. I left home in the 10th grade and lived at a boarding house. I got tired of high school, and tried college. I realized I was too young to go to college yet. I went into the Marine Corps., and learned a lot of great lessons there. Being in the VA Hospital (after being wounded and earning a Purple Heart), I appreciated youth more, and understood the importance of helping guide young people in the right direction, because I did not have that in my life – but everything I did learn was a great life lesson even when I felt I was wasn’t being treated fairly, and it shaped me into who I am. So not being a “typical swimmer,” I think if I have strengths to bring into this, it is from what I learned away from the sport in my life. As it turned out, I get to work with the most amazing coaches, staff and athletes in the entire world, and they have all influenced my development as a person. Swimming is in the equation of my life, and I’m really thankful for that.