By Bob Schaller//Contritbutor | Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Jack Roach is a household name in the swim community, a trusted coach, mentor and advisor, to just about any swimmer, coach, official or staff member with USA Swimming. His work with the National Junior Team helped push the program forward to incredible new heights in 2012 and 2016, and the international meets in between. With his wife, Meredith Vinger-Roach, going to medical school on the east coast, Roach stepped down as coach but stayed on as an advisor. The Marine Corps. Veteran, who won the Purple Heart, wondered what was next -- and now, he is poised in January to be the CEO/Head Coach of TIDE Swimming in Virginia. He talks about that, recaps 2016, and provides updates on his wife, their incredibly loving dogs, and his swim future in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Why TIDE, and why now?Jack: For me, the center of who I am is human-based relationships, and for me to help people become the best they can possibly be is what I love. So the step at this point in my life is to do that utilizing the skills and knowledge I accrued by being part of something that was so special and so unique -- and a time in swimming that you wonder if it will ever be replicated again. Being able to watch and learn from all those experiences, and see all that growth in young people and older veteran athletes was so unique -- now I have the ability to bring that back to a club and hopefully be impactful in the community. It feels so right at my age to give back.
2. Your actual age of 70-ish or your real age of 25?
Jack: I would like to think (laughs) it’s my mindful age. I think that because I have been so blessed to be allowed to be a part of this culture that has for so many reasons been based on all these wonderful coaches and swimmers in it...I never dreamed when I started coaching, I never thought it would reach this point. I am so thankful.
3. Golden Goggles is in six days -- a great memory because we sat with you and your wife Meredith, isn’t it amazing how much your lives have changed since?
Jack: That question stops me in my tracks because you stop and think about the past. You start with envisioning what is possible. I knew Meredith had these unique gifts she was still seeking to identify and explore. When I look how far she has come in four years, it is so humbling and remarkably respectful that I was able to watch her find herself, and blossom more and more even weekly. The impact she is making on the school she has embraced, and that has embraced her, is pretty special.
4. You are my first thought on Veterans Day -- what do you, as a Veteran, think of?
Jack: Having moved to a military town and having served, for me Veterans Day has changed -- I watch the different appreciation people have for it now compared to where it was, where the military was in the public’s mind during the Vietnam War. When I came back from Vietnam I was embarrassed to tell people I was in the military because so many didn’t feel good about the military. I don’t know if that answers your question. But I just stand back in deep gratitude for what I see happening now in how those who are charged with protecting our country are respected now, and how much that means to me.
5. Michael Phelps bringing it like he did a final time in Rio, and how he went about it -- seeing as how you two have been so close for so long -- what did that mean to you?
Jack: I have to give this some thought so I can articulate what it means to me...I felt like the people in Michael’s life, and the way that Michael embodied or embraced those people, he allowed himself to be surrounded in a situation where it became very tribal to me. I talk about tribal meaning it’s that one step advanced that’s a stronger bond, a stronger group. He had a tribe around him that he led. You don’t see punches being thrown by him mentally, not that struggle -- you saw this conviction in him, and from that, this happiness. It wasn’t the perfect storm, rather, it was the way Michael guided his life with these new choices to this new point. He connected with this incredible woman, he had a child, he started to appreciate what he had never been able to appreciate before --and all that he accomplished. How does someone constantly manage to stay on top and recreate that? That is very, very powerful. It’s so powerful. It’s one thing to be able to do it once, not that that isn’t enough to be admired, but to do it time and time again, there is so much power in that. My observation was this was about Michael appreciating all that he has earned and all that he has had, and all that went into it. The pressures that had been on Michael before had never given him the opportunity to feel good about who he was as a person. It’s completed him as person.
6. We likely lose Michael from the lineup for the 2020 Games, but you look at Townley Haas and a bunch of the young men on the team -- and some who did not make it -- and how do you assess the men’s team’s future?
Jack: Yes, when you look back at the Olympics, and there is a list of people I would love to identify. But if you look at the veterans, (Conor) Dwyer, Nathan (Adrian), Anthony (Ervin), Michael, and then the group with Ryan Murphy, Tom Shields, Kevin Cordes, Cody Miller, it’s just an incredible group. Look at the guys coming through, and that’s a big group because even Josh Prenot is still young. How about Blake Pieroni, what a phenomenal person he is, Jay Litherland, Ryan Held, all those young guys in their first Games, and they have just begun to explore what they are capable of. And they are true explorers. Athletes who make it to that level, or anyone who reaches their own peak, has realized the value of being able to walk out on that ledge where you can fail, because it makes you better once you embrace it and learn from it. You test things. You fail. You learn, and you improve. And they are willing to do it. That’s a tribute to the veterans and the young guys.
7. Ryan Murphy coming up all gold, all big time swims, what have you seen from that young man that impresses you, and who better to follow in the character and role model that Aaron Peirsol set than a man like Ryan?
Jack: You’re probably spot on, when you talk about the personalities of the two. When I grow up (laughs) I want to be Ryan Murphy -- that’s the best way I can articulate what I think about Ryan Murphy. I got to know him at Junior Pan Pacs when he was a junior or senior in high school. There was something special inside that guy.
8. On the women’s side, Simone Manuel’s swim -- actually, swims, plural, were so historic, what does that mean to someone like you who advocates for diversity?
Jack: Another case where I have watched her since she was a junior in high school through her career to the present time. She has contributed so much to the people around her and to the sport. I watched her operate with so many things going on around her; you can’t appreciate all that she has to go through and deal with until you see her get there and understand her journey. That’s the lesson from Simone’s accomplishment, to embrace all of that and be powered by it. One of my first recollections with Simone was when she was on the National Junior Team, we were in Colorado Springs and she fell on the incline and was hurt. I got to know her and I saw this incredible force she was generating from inside herself to make herself more than only she could have ever imagined. What an impressive young woman.
9. Lia Neal didn’t get a lot of attention for it but she became the first African American woman to medal in two Games, and two consecutive Games, what has her drive, class and quiet dignity shown you?
Jack: Lia has a real special place in my heart. I’ve traveled all over the world with Lia from a time when she was so young I had to (laughs) call her home from Europe to let her Mom know she made it okay -- I still kind of hold onto that child-like goodness she has because she still has that in the best way. She’s a great swimmer but you’re drawn to the incredible character she has a person. I was thinking about her the other day watching the club girls and the innocent quality of their love for the sport and how they’ll grasp that power like Lia has done so strongly and so gracefully -- but so assuredly from within as well.
10. A lot of people knew Maya DiRado inside the sport, and then the world got to meet her -- in terms of big-meet, rise-to-the-occasion performances, where do her clutch swims rank?
Jack: I think for me, Maya, having observed her and seeing her grow through the sport, it means a lot. At 2011 WUGs in China, Maya qualified first in the 200 IM, and she was disqualified. The whole coaching staff was running around, because it wasn’t a good call so we were trying to get it changed. When I went up to Maya and told her we could not get it changed, she wasn’t fazed at all. To be really good at what we do, you have to know what you did and how you did it, and how you can recreate it. Maya has that unique quality. She knows herself so well she only focuses on what she can control. And that’s how she has moved through the sport. She’s Summer Sanders -- such great class and always ready to knock it out of the park.
11. Lilly King dominating, and like Stanford’s women getting back to the top, how she’s helped boost Indiana University’s swimming, what did you think of her effort and how all these colleges are simply getting better and better?
Jack: The college season is so exciting. One of the things I didn’t talk about in these conversations so far today is these support groups around these people. For Simone, Lia or Maya, for example, you think of their great club coaches, then of Greg Meehan. You can’t think about Greg without thinking about how he worked and learned from Dave Durden. You can’t think of Dave without thinking of David Marsh, and you can’t think of David Marsh without thinking of Bob Bowman because of how they worked together. So when I think of Lilly King, I think of Ray Looze. I had the opportunity to work with Ray when he left USC and came to the University of Texas pre-1992 Olympic Trials. Watching that guy’s work ethic and knowledge of the sport, it was only a matter of time before Ray started doing what he is doing now and the success he and Lilly -- and Cody Miller and Blake Pieroni -- have had working together.
12. Katie Ledecky’s legendary performances -- literally a Games we will never forget because it’s hard to imagine anyone ever replicating that -- how do you explain that to people in terms of what it took for her to do that and how dominating she was?
Jack: We can go back to the last question. You have Bruce Gemmell who swam for Jon Urbanchek and how Bruce was the first team captain Jon had at Michigan. He went onto work for Jon at the time after he graduated. You’ve got where Katie came from at Nation’s Capital. It all connects. Then you look at her family. You look at her support group. And then you look at her incredible talent and her incredible drive. She’s another one of those Maya DiRado types -- I spent a lot of time in Colorado Springs with Katie through the years, and watching her operate independently of anyone; she would just swim so hard in workouts. She is the prime example of not being afraid to fail in practice by understanding how that can elevate performance. But you can connect Jon to Bruce, Bruce to Yuri, and Yuri to Dave and then back to Greg -- these coaches are so prideful but they are never afraid to give and share because they can improve each situation.
13. In the Summer of 2015 there was a lot of real and imagined concern about how the team would do in Rio, how did this team raise its level or was it more a case where the U.S. was just spread thin that summer?
Jack: The first place you have to start is that those teams were picked two years out, so there is no predictability in teams of performance based on life circumstances. You can’t, looking at the performances there, ignore that the U.S. is so good at identifying and embracing that challenge and then addressing it through the swim community -- the coaches and the swimmers. That 2016 was outstanding.
14. I imagine you still talk to a lot of coaches, and it seems like, more than ever, the U.S. is really a leader in club and college coaching in this sport, how important is that and what is the status of that in your opinion?
Jack: I don’t think it’s ever been healthier. Maybe it’s been as healthy, but the standard has been set very high and it continues to trend in that direction. The young club coaches I observe at national meets are very good at challenging each other, and identifying what is being done well or needs some work. They are in touch with what needs to be done. It’s an incredible thing to see how they work together. And what a wonderful thing we have with the college coaches -- and almost all of them used to be club coaches. And so there is a great appreciation for club coaches and a lot of working together.
15. Let’s talk about your wife, Meredith -- when we talked when she started applying to Med School, taking classes to take the entrance exams, leveling course work, and then getting in and all the way forward to now in her second year at Eastern Virginia Medical School, how in awe are you of this amazing woman?
Jack: I think more than how in awe I am, the best way to explain this is an example. She really only applied to a few schools and all are community outreach -- where they get out in the community right away. I watched her, when we decided to come here -- being older than all the other students -- so I watched her humbly, silently going to class and coming home. It didn’t appear it would be an easy connection, understandably, to connect to younger people. Though she had been teaching English at a university, that’s different from being a classmate, being a peer. Last Friday, I saw a gathering of her friends. She has become not just a peer, but this young lady who is having a positive impact in the program. She also speaks Spanish fluently, and in this clinic they have she and others have put together a program to help at risk Hispanic kids in the community, which really means a lot to her.
16. A step forward is a leap of faith if you really believe in what you do, but how did this move to the east coach end up going in relation to what you hoped or expected?
Jack: I do want to identify the TIDE team and organization I have joined as this family that I am so excited to join. There’s this group of relentlessly hard working, very positive parents who truly care about the skills their young people are learning from swimming -- skills that are not just about swimming. Most great clubs really have that.
17. What a spectacular feeling in terms of good fit?
Jack: I feel like I am gaining more from this community than I can ever give back, but I will work my hardest and best to give back. And there is this whole community, some doctors we had met who also have kids that swim, who have helped us adapt and fit in with this community. There is little chance now that we would ever leave this community -- we can’t ignore all that we have been given. We want to reach in and give back like they have and are to us.
18. You always push away the praise when your impact on swimmers and coaches comes out in the media, what do these coaches mean to you?
Jack: That’s a question you could answer only with an entire book. Almost regardless of age, the connections I have made have given me relevance in my life. I can say that about the athletes, the coaches, the leadership and everyone at USA Swimming, the volunteers who power the sport, and the families who embrace this lifestyle. When you are 70 years old, the conversation goes from the present to the past -- because, to be honest, there’s probably not a lot left for me. But looking around at all these friendships I have been so blessed with, I have been given a relevance to find great opportunity and care in this great sport. I would not have this without so many people I could name for hours.
19. Your ultra-marathon birthday run from Colorado Springs to Denver a few years ago, and talking to Jon Urbanchek right after -- he correctly predicted your time within seconds, what are you doing physically now to stay so fit?
Jack: Meredith and I live on the water. I have reconnected with the water. Back in my lifeguard days I used to be out in the surf. I did a lot of rowing. I am connecting with that. I am looking for a boat big enough to row with my dogs in it with me! They are doing great, and have really adapted well. They too have benefited from all the goodwill offered by the open hearts in our communities here.
20. What have the past two quads, going back to 2008 even and the Junior Team taking off under your direction, taught you about yourself?
Jack: That is a tough question. It’s impossible for me to separate myself without thinking how the only way to be better than yourself is to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I was certainly part of something, several things, much bigger than me. Early on, I understood the possibilities of what Mark Schubert had allowed to be in a position to direct at USA Swimming, and the success that we had stemmed into the outreach with the coaching community. Our club coaches and college coaches -- without them, there was no way to maximize this. I got great constructive criticism there. You have to mention George Heidinger, because he was in this as a young person and so willing to work hard for it, and with an old soul in terms of knowledge and guidance, and he’s developing a program in Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Athletics.
For me, it’s been so much fun. Here’s what happens in swimming as a swimmer or a coach: You work with great people. The challenge is so hard that you fail so many times, but that is what shapes you and makes you better, not just in swimming, but in life. You end up celebrating the failures the most because of the hard work and lessons that come from them and the rewards they lead you to -- you grow and learn from all that. Fail forward. Fail fast. Fail frequently. Because when you get back up, when you push through it, you are successful. You succeed beyond your wildest dreams. You find out who you are. And you are more incredible than you ever imagined! The pursuit is what is so rich. Not worrying about things you can’t control. That recognition is what changes your perception of everything you can do, in the pool and in life. You focus on what matters, and what you control - then everything else falls by the wayside, and everything for you comes into view. It is so empowering. And then you find a place even you thought you could never reach.