By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Sue Chen, head coach of the Machine Swim Club on the campus of the University of Maryland, relishes being a role model for young women – especially young women interested in coaching.
But there was a time not long ago when she often had to fight for her own identity as a coach.
When she was younger, she was often mistaken for a swimmer, and it has taken years for her to be recognized and respected for her coaching accomplishments over the years.
“Now I get mistaken for being a timer,” said Chen, who started the Machine location on the Rockville-Maryland campus last March with a handful of swimmers and has grown the program to 100-plus. “I still have a hard time getting heat sheets at meets! Recently, I actually had a coach introduce me as ‘a token female,’ and it floored me since at that point I had already put several swimmers on the National Junior Team.
“This is particularly interesting because I think I am the only female coach that is on the national coaches’ roster for being the coach on record of a male swimmer (Jack Conger). That should not be the case, and we need more women involved in our sport at this level.”
Chen, a former swimmer in her own right who started coaching by assisting at her club as a teenager, has a simple philosophy about women in coaching: be yourself – don’t try to be what or who others want you to be. Have faith in yourself, your thoughts and your coaching, and others will believe in you.
When she left the Rockville Montgomery Swim Club last year after 20 years with the program, Chen did just that – believing in her own abilities to not only direct the team but start it from scratch.
She admits it was a daunting task because she didn’t know what to expect, but rather than be hesitant, she jumped right in, quickly making a name for herself in the community.
Chen has relied upon that same philosophy and motivation in her coaching for the better part of her career. It’s what drives her in the way she motivates her athletes to help them achieve their best results and continue to dream about the future.
“I was never a national caliber swimmer, but I learned a lot about the sport, technique and how to motivate athletes by observing, and I learned a ton,” Chen said. “Starting the Machine, I just keep plugging away, and we’ve experienced some really strong growth. But I will always stress quality over quantity when it comes to my athletes.
“You always want to have great numbers in your program, but I want to make sure they have a great experience and take something home with them each day to become better swimmers and people.
She moved onto coaching at the local YMCA and then worked with triathletes – always using the same intention and motivation she mentors and guides athletes today.
“It’s all about teaching them about more than the sport; it’s teaching them about life, setting goals high and learning to fail as well as succeed,” Chen said. “It’s what I love most about coaching because coaching is teaching, and I get to do it every day.”
Among her many pupils several years ago was a young, malleable swimmer eager to learn named Jack Conger.
She first noticed his large hands and feet along with his natural ability. But it was the then-eighth-grader’s desire to succeed and improve that made her realize he was something special – and she could help him achieve his greatest success as soon as she helped him accept personal responsibility.
“I knew Jack (Conger) was special right away,” Chen said. “He came to me with a load of talent – I just had to make sure to put together the right plan to develop that talent. One of the biggest challenges over the years has been adapting his program to his physical growth because his body has changed so much.”
Before he left to work with Eddie Reese and his staff at the University of Texas this past fall, Chen proved instrumental in helping Conger win gold in the 200 backstroke last summer at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia. He also won bronze as a member of the 400 medley relay team.
She said she still speaks with Conger every other week and they text almost every day, providing advice or even just a sounding board, and will coach him later this year when he returns home for the summer.
“I have a tremendous amount of trust and faith in Eddie and his staff, and we talk often about how Jack is doing, how he’s progressing, etc.,” Chen said. “I know what I’ve done with Jack, giving him great tools, and he’s building on that with Eddie. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open. He’s knows I’m always here for him if/when he needs me.”
Sue Chen’s 5 Pillars of Coaching:
1. Empower swimmers of all ages to become leaders in and out of the pool.
2. Teach swimmers the process – connecting the dots between practice and racing.
3. Make a positive difference in the lives of each swimmer.
4. Teach children that motivation to succeed comes from within.
5. Have FUN – make the swimmers want to come to practice every day!