By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Greg Meehan’s Stanford women’s team won the 2017 NCAA Championship. And this was after his incredible collection of at least FOUR once-in-a-lifetime stories at the Olympic Games. Lia Neal became the first African-American woman to medal in two Olympics; Simone Manuel won the first gold medal (among four medals) for an African American woman; Maya DiRado’s 200 back to win gold was a comeback for the ages and one of the most talked about races at the Games in Rio; and of course, Katie Ledecky became America’s Golden Girl. He talks about, not so much expectations, but how having a vision and plan is among the keys he follows, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How’s practice and the season going?
Greg: It’s good. We’ve had a fairly productive fall. We’ve also had a couple of injuries and sicknesses go through the whole team, so we’re working through that like a lot of other teams probably are.
2. A different year in some ways?
Greg: So, it has been a typical fall in some ways and an unusual fall in other ways. We’re looking forward to the team being off campus for a while after final exams ended (last weekend), and then we’ll get together in Colorado Springs and get back to training.
3. There isn’t a magic formula to getting to, or staying at the top, then?
Greg: No, there isn’t. And you know, you do a lot of work and a lot of preparation and you hope it comes through at the right time. You don’t know at the end of the day if that will happen. But the more opportunities you give yourself to be successful, the more chances you have to show what you are prepared to do.
4. Maya DiRado’s come from behind win in the 200 back at the Olympics and Simone Manuel’s 100 free win -- that’s not even counting Lia’s history making moment or Katie Ledecky’s incredible performances -- are two memorable moments for a lot of folks, were you able to savor those memories?
Greg: Two of the most incredible moments of the Games and for two different reasons. And since then we’ve been riding on that. I was able to appreciate it in the moment. I was able to appreciate it for the next few weeks after that to sit and reflect on that, in the process of things, how we got from point A to B from September 2012, to August 2016
5. Maya’s race, and your reaction, along with her Stanford teammates -- I still get goosebumps from that race, and seeing your emotion after it -- still feel that?
Greg: Oh man, I (laughs) cried for three or four days after that. You never expect it. She was on such a roll at the meet. With silver on the first day and bronze in the 200 IM, and then unexpectedly on the free relay final and had a great split. We had done a lot of work on her backstroke leading into the Games. For (Maya in the 200 back), we had been making the third 50 a priority, because she had always come back on the last leg. That time, she made that move on the third leg, and when they flipped she was still 3 or 4 tenths back, which is still as close as anyone had been to Katinka in that event.
6. So you saw Maya catching her?
Greg: I didn’t realize it in the moment because I was sitting in the stands up behind the blocks. Being the coach (laughs) of course I look down to write down her split, and then I look up again. Katrina really rocked that last underwater and still had a full body lead with 35 meters left. And then with about 20 meters left when Maya got to her, that was such a cool moment.
7. I call that the “Stanford finish” because she steps outside herself like any good Stanford student, wins more medals than she thought she could, and goes out into the real world with a great job ready -- how was that to see as her coach?
Greg: Knowing how I feel about this extraordinary young person and to see it come together, knowing it was her last swim, what a magical moment it was for Team USA. And to be able to comfortably walk away from the sport on the very top when you knew you were going on into something else -- that is so rare.
8. I can’t imagine anyone being better prepared or reacting more powerfully or more articulate than Simone Manuel when she made history winning that 100 free gold, the first African-American individual gold -- what impressed you most?
Greg: How she captured the moment. Obviously, it has historical purposes, or significance. The response after that was just amazing, as has been the impact she has had on the sport and in the community. At the end of the day, none of that was her goal going into the race -- she just tried to put together a great swim.
9. What’s Simone’s deal -- how does she seize those moments, even at Worlds right after her record was broken, she stepped up and ripped it back, what’s that like?
Greg: She did do it again this summer when she won Worlds. At Worlds, it was a situation where capturing the opportunity meant getting her hand on the wall first. I think that also allowed the historical significance of her achievement from Rio to sink in, because she inspired so many people from that singular moment. And that is what I love about our sport. So, in effect, she did it again this summer, inspiring people on her journey, and she just continues marching along. She is a spectacular role model not just for African Americans, but for swimmers and young people everywhere because she knows how to capture that moment. And her success is so balanced because she’s able to shift her priorities to school or swimming depending on where she’s at in the calendar for each.
10. Elizabeth Beisel and maybe six or seven other people near you in the stands when Maya and Simone won were so moved by your reaction to your swimmers’ success -- how does that effect you?
Greg: That means a lot to hear that. Ultimately though, I think it’s more representative of what the athlete/coach relationship is. As much as they were happy to see that moment for Maya, and SImone, and to be happy for Simone and Maya, I think most of all it reminded them of how much their coach means to them. So, it wasn’t as much about myself. Beisel had a great comment on one of the videos where she said that reaction reminded her of how much the coaches all care for the swimmers, and how much Chuck (Batchelor) and Coach (Gregg) Troy have meant to her journey. So, I’m glad it resonated with so many people, but I think it was personal appreciation for each other and their coaches.
11. The history Lia Neal made -- becoming the first African American woman to win medals in two Olympics -- and to do it the way she did, what does that say about her?
Greg: When Lia decided to come to Stanford we were obviously very excited from a swimming perspective. But from a personal perspective, it meant so much more because she’s such an amazing young person. People gravitate toward her because of her leadership ability, her dignity and class -- just how she carries herself and expresses herself. She enjoys life and is successful at everything she does.
12. You told the team before NCAAs how Lia Neal, in her senior year, had been that important first commitment -- it set a tone and gave you some bedrock around which to build your foundation, didn’t it?
Greg: As the years go on and you take the time to reflect, she was the first one, She set that tone that Stanford is a place to go if you’re an elite athlete and you prioritize academics and swimming. Janet Hu, Simone Manuel, Ella Eastin, and of course Katie Ledecky and all of these other outstanding young people who saw Lia come here used that and saw this was a good place. I think seeing Lia being successful just reinforced that, as did having Maya stay here to train (as a post-grad). That had meant so much, to get people like that into this program, and the others who came in have continued to have that huge impact.
13. I knew Simone as a teenager and was so impressed at how she researched African American women in swimming, and then I remember talking to Katie Ledecky when she was in high school and it turned out that day she was collecting bicycles for young people who couldn’t afford them -- what does that say about the character of these history makers?
Greg: It’s pretty amazing when you know them, and how they came from these important, cultural backgrounds with such values and then go on to be Olympic champions and study at one of the great universities in the world. And both are such great ambassadors for women’s swimming. That’s the key thing: Once you get to know them, you are so impressed with who they are, how they carry themselves and how intelligent they are, that you don’t really think about the swimming aspect and how impressive that is. But it all fits in together.
14. How awesome was Ella Eastin’s reaction to a controversial DQ this summer that, rather than pout or whatever, to say, it is what it is, and make the most of WUGs and show everyone how to handle adversity?
Greg: That’s about as difficult a moment in sport as you can have. The elation for about four seconds and then feeling like everything crumbled underneath you. She rebounded so well. That was supportive. And to have someone like Elizabeth Beisel (who made the team) next to her (in the lane) to handle it with the support and class she did. That was a hard moment, but it showed a lot of what’s great about swimming and those two young women.
15. It just seemed like Ella, even though she couldn’t do her best event for WUGs once she made that team, decided that her summer was still going to rock, right?
Greg: Yes, and that that impacted her teammates. Her teammates also picked her up on their shoulders. But her initial reaction is what allowed her to move on. She focused on what was in front of her. A lot of people could have packed it in at the meet -- not just during but after, and had enough of swimming.
16. And that does happen sometimes, where folks might just say, “Time for a timeout” to get away from the sport and re-evaluate, but Ella stayed completely plugged in, didn’t she?
Greg: Yes. And they can take a break from the sport or let it affect their performance in other events. In Ella’s case, she just got better and better and made the most of it. WUGs was all the way at the end of August, after Worlds had been done for something like three weeks. And she goes and gets silver in the IM and gold in the 200 fly and a best time (and a silver anchoring the 4x200 free in one of the great races of the meet). That confirms the kind of person she is.
17. I interviewed for a job in March and got it and one of the reasons was I stole something from you -- I went in with a “plan” of how I fit in, what I wanted to do, how the organization would probably change, and so on -- where did that come from in your managerial philosophy?
Greg: Plan. There’s a couple of reasons for that. Coming off working for Dave Durden (as assistant at Cal) for four years, he taught me a lot on how to have a big-picture perspective without losing focus on the day-to-day details. I think that really set me up for success. As or (even) more important is when you get the job to surround yourself with great people who also understand the plan and how things fit together.
18. That’s funny because whenever I interview a Stanford swimmer and mention you, they say what a great team you and (associate head coach) Tracy (Slusser) make, how did that work?
Greg: Right, well, what I was looking for was someone who would support the plan and make the important things a priority, and someone who could improve the plan and look at it from a different perspective to help me continue to grow. That’s what Tracy has been. On a personal and professional level, she just gets it. She understands me, she understands the program and our young women absolutely love her. She’s amazing. The consistency, having been together since Day One, and growing and learning together, has helped the program evolve and improve. We’ve had great success but we both still want to get better. And she always knows how much I appreciate everything she does for the program and our girls.
19. Then you come back and win an NCAA Championship in 2017 -- and Katie Ledecky joined the program last fall. In a way, things only continued to pick up, didn’t they?
Greg: Each quad is really a chance to hit the reset button. I think we celebrated our success appropriately at Rio and allowed ourselves to move on. Maya had retired. We had a new freshman class, which included Katie Ledecky, and it’s so important to all of us to help the freshmen settle into the program and school. For Katie, the most important thing was just to let Katie be Katie -- and what’s great about Stanford is that it’s the perfect place for that. She doesn’t have to be Katie the superstar, just Katie the incredibly talented thinker and great person. She just wants to be herself. It was an opportunity for us to learn about her as a swimmer and how she trains. How she trains absolutely impacts our groups. You see it in our middle distance and distance results last season. On a personal level, she is even more amazing. The team loves her. Katie doesn’t draw attention to herself -- she is just who she is. That allows her and everyone to focus on what is in front of us, to have a purpose and this spring it was to win an NCAA Championship. That’s the beauty of our sport, the opportunity to improve and do something even better never stops.
20. I love your family, and seeing that you now have a teen son in Salvatore, James is growing up so fast, and one of Lia’s stories was about how your wife Tess, was so supportive to her from the first day -- isn’t one of the best things about you, your family?
Greg: It is, and I appreciate you sharing all that. Family time is important. We’re going to go back east and visit family in Philadelphia. Tess is really good at making sure myself and the boys take time to appreciate and give back. The boys (last Saturday) were going to a shelter to make breakfast for the families that live there, and the club team James swims on is putting together meal baskets for families who are at another shelter. I love that they understand that at a young age, and it means so much to Tessa, and to me, that we care about everyone in our community and show it. It’s also a good reminder this time of year how beyond blessed we are -- I work on an incredible campus year ‘round with the most amazing people I could ever hope to meet. So, it’s a good reminder that, no matter the time of year, there’s always an opportunity to give back and make a difference in someone’s life.