By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Dave Durden had a great Olympics, as his Cal men starred, including Ryan Murphy’s dominating three golds and Nathan Adrian’s remarkable run of Olympic medals and anchoring relays. Sandwiched between those were head coaching gigs for the U.S. Worlds team in Kazan in 2015, and in Budapest in 2017. The engineer turned coach explains the formula to his journey, and brings some holiday perspective, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What a great Worlds for the men’s team you lead, would you agree?
Dave: It was good. To say that it was great...we get geared up around an Olympic cycle. The performances were really great in Rio. I think it’s really good for USA Swimming to start the quad the way we did in Hungary.
2. So, you look at it in the context of the Quad?
Dave: We really want to be great in 2020. That has to look a certain way in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and subsequently into 2020. It’s a really good start.
3. Some really great performances though in Budapest?
Dave: Yes, I mean on the men’s side, seeing a guy like Matt Grevers get back into the fold and how he swam and all he brings. A younger swimmer like Caeleb Dressel swims fast and really feels comfortable. Good to see our breaststroke crew come back from Rio and swim well. I think we saw that up and down the line with our athletes.
4. A bounce back year for some key players?
Dave: I think guys who might not have had the 2016 they wanted had a really good 2017 and I think that brings them back into the mix for 2020.
5. Yet you saw Olympians who did bring it in 2016, bring it back in 2017 again, right?
Dave: Subsequently, I think the guys who had a good 2016 got exactly what they needed from 2017 to bring that into the mix, and that’s really what you want, to have so many key athletes be in a position in the first year of the quad to move forward.
6. Your Cal alum Nathan Adrian at Worlds, after another great Olympics, you could just set your watch by him, couldn’t you?
Dave: Yes, and you know with Nathan he is a continual student of the sport, pressing himself to learn a little more about himself to learn something different. That’s hard to do in any occupation. He’s been doing it a certain way. Swimming as a career has a such a short life span, and here’s a guy who’s been doing it a certain way for a long time. So, he paused and tried it different.
7. You’re talking about how you guys decided instead of doing the 100 fast the whole way, saving a bit on the front end and finishing stronger, right?
Dave: Yes. That takes a lot of courage, that’s the best way to say that. “I’m going to try to swim this a different way to learn a little bit about myself -- about myself as an athlete to see what limits I can push.: I thought that was very good for him to do that. That’s probably what I appreciated the most, to completely flip it on and see what he could get out of it.
8. A vintage Durden-Adrian kind of thinking, isn’t it?
Dave: Well, I don’t know if (laughs) you’d call it that. At a certain point you step back and appreciate that every race is a little different, and you can make it unique in your own way.
9. You coached Worlds in both 2015 and 2017 -- along with being an assistant coach on staff in Rio for the U.S. -- do you think maybe looking back 2015 was a bit more successful than the panic button pushers realized at the time?
Dave: I think every experience that you have with a group of athletes or with an athlete individually, it is about figuring things out, and testing some limits. We really kind of geared 2015 around what we wanted to do in an Olympic year, no matter how successful we were in Kazan. Then we step back and lean from that. It’s part of a continuous process.
10. So you left Kazan realizing the progress and how it could help the team?
Dave: It’s hard in the moment sometimes, really hard in the moment when something doesn’t work. But as you grow and mature as a coach and an athlete, you appreciate the times and the meets and experiences that don’t go exactly your way. So, you tweak this, change this, move this forward -- and you don’t necessarily like it at that time. But when you come out of it and have successes after those experiences -- hindsight is always 20/20 -- but it tells you, “I needed to try that, it taught me something.” And then we had a great Olympics, so certainly we learned from Worlds and the other meets.
11. What did you learn from Rio with the U.S. being so dominant?
Dave: I think with Rio, I think it’s really understated how our support staff for USA Swimming -- and even the bigger Umbrella of the USOC -- how they took care of our athletes to put them in the best position to be successful. I don’t want to compare federations, but I feel like our swimmers were taken care of in such a way that success was inevitable for them at that meet.
12. And didn’t the successes in Rio seem to snowball?
Dave: When you get on a roll like that, a lot of things go right, but a lot of things are being done by people who don’t get the recognition they deserve. We get it as coaches. But a lot of the folks who are never written about, who are never interviewed, have these tremendously important roles to put our people in a position to be successful.
13. Your Cal standout Ryan Murphy winning three golds in Rio, and finishing it with the last thing he wanted -- the lead-off relay swim to claim the 100 back world record?
Dave: I mean, kind of the day before his world record, we were just hoping to get a good swim in, or I was hoping for him to get a good swim in. It wasn’t looking like it was going to be his best performance. He knew he had to be prepared to swim the 100 back in 400 medley relay, and though he was doing his best -- and he had two golds by then -- his swims and preparation before the relay weren’t going very well at all in terms of performance level; the times on the watch did not look good.
14. I’m so confused, how does he come out with the record?
Dave: The great thing about Murph is he stayed on his plan. We massaged a few things. But at the end of the day, he had taken a lot of confidence away from how he approached his races. And how he approached the 400 medley in Rio was how he always approached it. He stayed on his process, which resulted in a world record.
15. I love Nathan out on the blocks saying, “Ok Murph, last chance, get the world record” -- who does that? It’s like chatting up a pitcher with a no hitter going, it’s just not done, is it?
Dave: That’s (laughs) exactly what I mean about Nathan, and it speaks to the relationship that Nathan develops and has with a lot of his teammates, not just with Cal but on the National Team. There are so many moments where his maturity or wisdom boosts his teammates -- there are plenty of other moments and stories where Nathan helped our guys move through the process, not just making the Olympic team but being successful in Rio. Without Nathan on (Cal Olympians) Josh (Prenot) Jacob (Pebley) and Tom (Shields), they would not have had the performances they had. He’s just a great person to administer wisdom to people around him. It’s great for Team USA and we all benefit from it.
16. Especially at such a great school like Cal, isn’t finals just an incredibly busy time for the swimmers?
Dave: We just went through finals this week. On our last day, I was walking out of the building and saw Nick Silverthorn, who had a final at 7 p.m. He’d really been grinding away, getting ready for his final. As I saw him bike off to get ready for his final, I sent an email out to our team. Finals are always a difficult time because everyone has a different schedule -- different finals times, office hours, study groups, things just pop up. I sent out an email to our guys about what we needed to do, and I really wished I could have done it in person because the tone or how you write the message doesn’t come off as well as it does face to face. I just wish I could have talked to the guys rather than given them the message in email.
17. So you really miss them when they’re gone it sounds like?
Dave: Yes! We see them 12 days after they leave, and yes, that will be great -- that’ll be awesome. We still stay in touch with them via text and phone calls during the time they are away. I miss the ethos of our program at the times they aren’t here. The guys make that up, the 32 guys on our team and pro athletes make up the lifeblood of our program. Without that, it’s (laughs) kind of boring. I go through my day and don’t get to do the very thing I love to do and that’s to coach my guys who are just such good young men. I miss that daily encounter experience with our athletes. There’s not a better group of people anywhere. And hearing about their days or just listening to their conversations is something that really means a lot to me.
18. I had some people ask me about Ryan Murphy after Worlds, and I remembered his academic schedule this year -- how he backloaded so many hard classes so he could focus on Rio, and when he came back his commitment was to school for 2016 Fall and 2017 Spring semesters -- he still swam fine in Hungary, didn’t he?
Dave: I think it’s hard because the competitor in every athlete wants to be good, and good now in that moment. The ebb and flow of our sport is that you have to have natural break periods. Every year is an important year, or at least everyone can characterize it that way for different reasons. We come off an Olympic year, then Worlds, Pan Pac teams and all the selection meets. You have to be given a breather, a break, to prepare physically and mentally for the run-up in an Olympic cycle. If I was a truly courageous coach, we wouldn’t focus on it like that and we’d go to U.S. Open and (laughs) swim off events and relays. It’s just really hard in that year after the Olympics to step up and say, “This is as important.” But they also have other commitments and other interests that they have commitments to, to follow through on. So there has to be a trade-off. They don’t feel that way once they get to a meet, and it’s hard to put the reins on them when they want to charge like that. It’s a constant balance they fight like that. I’m so proud of Ryan. He worked so hard academically -- and in training. This was the perfect time to do that and focus on his degree though, a good point in the cycle
19. You spend a lot of time with your family and friends, is it even more so over the holiday season?
Dave: I really am in a position with how things are set up where I get to spend a lot of time with everyone I care about. And that is awesome and amazing. The reason I was late calling you today is I was sitting with (assistant coach) Yuri and some staff members talking. I was thinking about something (daughter) Mia said the other day with (wife) Cathy and my Mom in the room, and how she’s 7 going on 17 already! To be around for these moments that don’t happen all the time, maybe I reflect more during the holidays how thankful I am for that. I’m coaching my son’s basketball game, just as a sub, and if I get that win I can retire (laughs) undefeated. So, I do feel fortunate and really enjoy the time with my family and friends here.
20. You are such a thinker and people really enjoy dealing with you -- where does that come from or has that developed over time?
Dave: That’s a big question. I do think...man, that’s (laughs) a big question. As a swimmer, I was not as good as the athletes I coach now, but I always wanted to find a way, whether it was technically or through strength or rest and recovery, to improve. My life is about finding ways to help people reach their goals, to get better. But that goes back to when I was an athlete, that quest and desire was always the same. And I am still trying to figure it out, how to make my guys better. So, I don’t know how much I have changed, though certainly I continue to evolve. I am constantly learning. I still feel like I am a kid in some ways, in this sport, because I still enjoy it as much as ever. And when I lose that, it’ll probably be time for me to be done. So, there’s probably not a lot (laughs) different about me at 41 than at 21. I’ve got great people around me, people I respect and enjoy and who I enjoy working with. That’s a big thing that I appreciate, and I think it makes me better at what I do, too.
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