By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Bruce Gemmell has Nation’s Capital on a roll. Following Katie Ledecky is an impressive group of young swimmers led by National Teamer Cassidy Bayer and others. The former Michigan swimmer -- who started his career under Jon Urbanchek despite Urbie’s prodding for Gemmell to pursue engineering after Bruce earned his master’s degree -- had a great 2016, and hopes for an even better 2017, as he explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. First of all, your son, 2012 Olympian Andrew Gemmell, how is he doing?Bruce: Andrew is doing great. He’s down at Georgetown, second semester in a master’s program in economics, and he’s helping coach the swim team.
2. I didn’t know Andrew was interested in coaching, did you?
Bruce: I never saw that coming, but in a way, it doesn’t surprise me. The coach they have there, they get along really well, and it’s a good fit.
3. So you coached with Greg Meehan this summer eons after coaching with him at Michigan?
Bruce: I think some of the story got crossed up there. I was only at Michigan for two years, and I think Greg did camps for a couple of summers after I was gone. But it’s pretty amazing and a credit to Jon that so many of his coaches have made an impact in the sport.
4. With Bob Bowman as the head coach, could you relate to the challenges he faced with Michael and learn from things in how you worked with Katie?
Bruce: You know, Bob was with Michael from the time Michael was 11, so there was time in the development and the progression to see the direction it was going, and so on. My coaching of Katie started when she was already the Olympic champion and Yuri had done a great job! So I hope it doesn’t offend her and I don’t think it does, but there have been Olympic 15-16 years olds who were one and done and I think the jury was still a little bit out on her when I started with her -- to see if she fell into that category or not. Obviously, that was not the case at all and she continued her incredible trajectory and raised her level. But with seeing what Bob did, absolutely it’s something anyone coaching an incredible athlete can learn from because while everyone is different, there can be some parallels.
5. When you moved to NCAP, how did you approach the challenge of coaching an elite, world leading swimmer like Katie?
Bruce: Given all the things that go into moving to a new club and moving your family and relocating family and children, I don’t want to say Katie wasn’t (laughs) a priority, but my fear and apprehension didn’t center around her, they were more about family relocation and the new club and the hundred plus other swimmers and family. Katie really was one of the easiest pieces that fell into place because of who she is as a person and how she goes about things, and what Yuri had done was outstanding.
6. Katie’s training, from before London through Rio, was so program oriented -- so much thought went into that staying on the program mentality, didn’t it?
Bruce: I think it’s very accurate - that was important. Because of how she had been coached and the approach they had taken, there was no feeling of having to stop or slow down to prevent something in the future. She ended up sticking with that plan, knowing there would be changes along the way, really worked out well. And even when there were changes, we were excited to tackle them as they came up.
7. You and Katie were also just a great fit too, right?
Bruce: There were certainly very compatible personalities and philosophies and work ethics which made for the right situation for what she wanted to do.
8. I always marvel talking to her that she’s involved or thinking about something outside of swimming, and I get more excited thinking about her in the real world than I do for 2020, is that something you relate to?
Bruce: I have said for years if I haven’t said it a hundred times a week, she’s a better person than swimmer. We all know she’s a pretty good swimmer, but absolutely she’s a better person than she is a swimmer. When she is finished with this sport, she’ll be working her way up likely leading a company, foundation or organization, and having a big impact on her community through her involvement in it. She likes being involved.
9. How did you deal with it after those dominating wins, after the last race and last National Anthem?
Bruce: Both of us kept it together really well Then we collectively took a deep breath and maybe a tear or two in appreciation for what had been done.
10. Was this more plan or this partnership of an organic evolution, because Katie’s times over the last 18 months of the quad coming down was even more impressive in the moment than the times themselves?
Bruce: Can I say both? Certainly, there was an organic evolution but at the same time Katie and I mesh well together, there was mutual respect and understanding, this is how we want to play the cards, for lack of a better term -- this is how we want to approach it and these are the goals.
11. She was so great on relays, and then turned in huge distance swims -- when did you know “she had this,” so to speak?
Bruce: They all went well but for as well as things were going we knew we had another swim, so we started on that right away -- she was thinking that before she got out of the water from her last race. The fact that one went well and she was able to execute as planned gave us hope as she prepared for another swim. And Katie is, as far as that goes, better than anyone when it comes to finishing a race and being able to get out and be ready for the first one. That was the great part when we got to the 800 -- I was able just to watch her execute exactly how she had practiced it the last few years.
12. I like the story about how when she went to National team camp she couldn’t do a pull-up or however many pushups -- she wasn’t rushed along was she?
Bruce: I’m a big believer in all of that as proper progression for all the development programs right on down the line. There’s a reason for that and long-term development models support a structured philosophy so you can’t cheat them. Yuri did a great job before I got there. And certainly I was tempted to integrate weights earlier, but that wasn’t the right thing at the time. And now it’s moved along perfectly (at Stanford) with (head Stanford and assistant Olympic coach) Greg (Meehan’s) more than capable hands. He and I still talk periodically and he and Katie are great together.
13. You and Greg’s former boss, Cal Coach Dave Durden, is also an engineer, how does that make you and Dave different from other coaches?
Bruce: I think not only engineering, formal education, but having worked in the industry helped me a lot both in how to manage things and see the connection among them, and to the future. I think what we bring is a little more methodical long-term and a little less of the seat-of-the-pants approach to it.
14. How fun was it being around Durden and his brilliant engineering student-athletes like Jacob Pebley and Josh Prenot?
Bruce: It’s a lot of fun to hear these brilliant thinkers until you realize you might be the dumbest one in the room!
15. Being with Dave and Greg, seeing this uptick in results and opportunity for the next generation of coaches, how good is that for the sport?
Bruce: Yes, I mean, Dave and Greg are obviously great coaches, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of great college and club coaches in the USA Swimming coaching system, which makes all of us better, and is great for the swimmers and the sport itself.
16. Golden Goggles, I noticed you sort of shied away from the attention -- you still had fun seeing Urbie and everyone though, right?
Bruce: Well, I wouldn’t say ever say that attention is, for me personally, the most enjoyable aspect of the sport, but aspects of it are nice. I was so proud of and happy for Katie, and her other coaches. It was so nice to see people, friends and colleagues, so there is that nice social aspect. It’s always nice to receive recognition for your work, but that is not (laughs) why I get out of bed on a cold winter morning! But it really is nice to see everyone and see the sport and its athletes recognized.
17. Katie was so on top of her school work as if that was part of the program, is that correct?
Bruce: I think that’s very accurate. I think her parents and coaches were willing to take, early on, a long-term approach to this so from the beginning she was buckled down on schoolwork so she’d have the best opportunities when she started looking at college swimming.
18. How did the NCAP coaching staff build itself up so strong the last few years, from top to bottom?
Bruce: Well, you know I think the credit starts with the coaching staff that is assembled here. We work so well together yet we work separately. The egos are not involved. Every coach asks for help from another. Swimmers are comfortable asking another coach for a perspective or something on training.
19. So the calendar flips, and here we are already well on the way in 2017 -- good memories of ‘16 though, right, and though Golden Goggles took you away from the pool, you got to spend late November in New York with some folks you really like, right?
Bruce: 2016 was a very good year and I have a healthy 12-year-old daughter and a happy wife -- so that’s always a good year. Seeing Jon, as it always is, was great. He’s part of not just my coaching, but my friendships and other relationships. You know we missed him (in Rio) this time, but he was still with us because so many of us learned from him, and are shaped by him. And frankly, since he’s been claiming since 1996 that he’s retired, I don’t think (laughs) he’s going anywhere and we’ll see him around. But it’s great how all of us are connected to Jon.
20 You having Andrew, your son, at NCAP as he pursued 2016 Trials -- every time I talked to Katie, and in Austin, she talked about how great he was for her training -- as a parent and coach, did you take great pride in that?
Bruce: We’re definitely better for the experience and it was a great, memorable period of time. I think maybe that story with Andrew and Katie is little bit overlooked because as training partners they were very special together. There was one ingredient Katie could not supply herself and that was a swimmer who could train with her, and Andrew, as a men’s Olympian, brought that work ethic, doing things the right way, and his commitment to the sport. That was a great match for Katie. He’s a really good person, and like Katie, he will do very well in life and make whatever he is involved in better. So spending two years with them leading up to Rio was a tremendous benefit for both of them, not just swimming wise, but as people. I was very privileged to observe what was going on, and those are memories I will treasure for the rest of my life.