By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, July 6, 2017
It wasn’t long ago that Cory Chitwood was preparing to swim for the United States on an international team during the summer.
Now, after four seasons with the University of Virginia and one with Louisiana State University before that, the former All-American swimmer is ready to be an All-American coach.
Having coached 2016 Olympic gold medalist Leah Smith and open water competitor Brendan Casey to this year’s FINA World Championship team, Chitwood earned an assistant spot on the women’s coaching staff – and he couldn’t be more excited.
“This really is a dream come true for me,” said Chitwood, who won three NCAA titles (200 backstroke) before graduating from Arizona in 2012. “To be chosen as a member of this coaching staff – with legends like Eddie Reese (Texas) and Jack Bauerle (Georgia), among others – is a true honor. I can’t wait to spend time learning from them over the course of camp and Worlds.”
Chitwood, who works primarily with the Cavalier distance group, will help coach the U.S. women, along with head coach Greg Meehan (Stanford), Arthur Albiero (Louisville) and Ray Looze (Indiana). Cal’s Dave Durden will act as head coach for the men along with Reese, Bauerle and Gregg Troy (Florida).
As the youngest and least-experienced member of the staff, Chitwood said he plans to focus on working with Smith – who qualified in four individual and one relay events – as well as the other members of a very strong women’s team that features many of last summer’s U.S. Olympians.
While he may be short on experience compared to his coaching counterparts, Chitwood hasn’t been short on results.
He helped Smith win both the 500 and 1650 freestyle events at 2015 and 2016 NCAA Championships, and was with her last summer when she qualified for three Olympic events at Trials in Omaha.
This past year, Smith finished as runner-up in both events at NCAAs but had the meet of her life in Indianapolis last week. Earlier this spring, Casey, who is part of Chitwood’s distance group at Virginia, qualified for the open water competition at Worlds with a second-place finish at Open Water Nationals.
He said he believes that – just as he does at Virginia – he will be able to connect with and understand the athletes because he’s not far removed from his own competitive days.
In fact, he’s younger than Matt Grevers and is the same age as Nathan Adrian, so he’s confident he will fit in.
But he knows it’s a fine line between peer and coach when he’s so close in age.
“I definitely want to rely upon my own recent competitive days when working with athletes; it’s something I know we can related to together and it creates a special connection,” said Chitwood, a member of the 2011 World University Games team, the most prestigious international team he competed for as an athlete.
“But I always want to maintain that professional distance and balance as a coach. I want to encourage a fun atmosphere at practice while keeping on task.”
Chitwood said while he’s helped Smith improve her usual distance freestyle events over his four years as a Cavaliers coach, the two decided to add the 400 individual medley to her repertoire late last year.
At Nationals last week, they agreed to have her compete in prelims of the event and then decide if it was advantageous for her to compete in finals.
“We agreed if she went 4:38 or lower in prelims, she would seriously consider the finals; but we wanted to make sure it made sense because she had so many other long events that we didn’t want to jeopardize with another long, arduous event,” he said.
“When she went 4:36 in the morning, we knew she needed to compete in the final, and she went on to win the event in a personal-best 4:33. That’s just the type of competitor she is. She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”
Chitwood leaves for camp in Croatia – the same place the U.S. Olympic team camps – next week along with the rest of the team. After Croatia, they will head to Budapest, Hungary, for the competition.
He said he plans to savor every moment of the competition and the event with the ultimate goal – outside of helping U.S. athletes swim to gold medals – of returning to the United States and Charlottesville as a better coach than he was when he left.
“I’ve had great coaching mentors and examples throughout my life, starting with my parents, who coached me in football and baseball (dad) and swimming (mom),” he said. “I’ve learned some things from every coach along my swimming path, and now I want to do the same from the World team coaches.”