By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Chris Plumb has coached his Carmel Swim Club to incredible heights. But that’s only half the story, as he has taken the Carmel High School team to the top. It’s a win-win situation for the student-athletes and club swimmers who get the best of both worlds. Speaking of worlds, Plumb also helped the U.S. Junior Team to an incredible performance at the FINA World Junior Championships last summer in Indianapolis as an assistant coach on a staff that seemed perfectly matched to the incredible challenge. He talks about that, and what he’s learned along the way, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Do you ever look back on the accomplishments or are you always looking forward?
Chris: I do a lot of both. I certainly had the opportunity to reflect on where we started -- that was with zero national qualifiers, to today where we earned third in club excellence, and that made us feel really good because a lot of people did a lot of hard work.
2. So it’s an inspiration, but also motivation?
Chris: I will tell you in the same breath, we’re still thinking, “How do we get better? How do we improve? While we look at far we’ve come, how far can we take it?”
3. You have National teamers and junior teamers, but also a lot of great swimmers on college scholarship -- the numbers are getting to be mind-blowing, aren’t they?
Chris: Certainly we have our top notch swimmers but we also have a lot of good athletes who have not gone on national team trips but are quality Division I swimmers whose time is still coming. And our elite swimmers are pulling up the younger ones to their level. We always instill in them part of their jobs in being one of the best is taking what they learn from those trips and sharing it with their teammates.
4. You went to college at Indiana but not with the goal of being a coach, correct?
Chris: I majored in Biology and my goal was to be a doctor like my father. So I was planning to go to medical school. But I ended up helping out at the university, coaching. I think, always in the back of my mind, coaching was there. Somehow, I fell in love with it, and decided to see where I could take it. And it’s led me to where I am today.
5. Were you one of those who sort of coached when you were still a swimmer?
Chris: When I did swim, I helped those around me. I really enjoyed helping people on their turns or techniques. But the fact that I’ve turned it into career, and to be a CEO, is not something I ever dreamed of, really.
6. The dual roles with the club and high school, how rewarding has that been?
Chris: I’m still the coach of Carmel High School and it is such a great relationship with the high school and the club. Our girls are going for their 32nd state championship -- the record they broke had been set by Barack Obama’s school in Hawaii. So it was quite a feet for our team, and something special to be a part of. They had a parade for our team when they broke the record.
7. How does it work having the two teams under one program?
Chris: It works really well. We’re both Carmel, so basically the same team but with a different uniform. The only thing that changes for us is we wear blue and gold instead of the red, white and blue of our club. We have tremendous support from our athletic department. Now our AD follows all the swim websites on Twitter, so it’s really part of the community. Our kids walk about the community and Carmel knows who they are -- they have a deep respect for what our young people are working toward and accomplishing.
8. How cool is it to see your swimmers reach their goals?
Chris: Our goal is always to help our athletes become great people, not just great swimmers. We have a holistic approach. So great swimmers are great students as well. From that work in the pool, they know what hard work is, and that transfers to school. So these student-athletes who go to swim in college, it’s not just about about the scholarship -- which is nice -- but it gives them some opportunities to reach for goals they might not have had without swimming. The clubs send a lot of swimmers to Ivy League schools, which is always fun to see.
9. It’s amazing to see the Ivy League swimmers coming from the club programs, isn’t it?
Chris: It is, and some of those are recruited for swimming and they get in, in part, because of their swimming accomplishments, though of course their academics are at a high level. But you see them at Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and you know that in some cases swimming helped them get into an Ivy league school where they are set to pursue their dreams the rest of their lives. So you know you are impacting lives when you read those stories.
10. I still can’t wrap my mind around 32 years of state titles in a row, how is that even possible?
Chris: A lot of great people and a lot of hard work. One of the neat things is when our girls broke the record, which had been 31, the school invited the alumni back. We had an excellent brunch and had a speaker from the 80s, the 90s, and the 2000s, and they talked about where they have been and what they are doing now. One who is a college athletic director talked about her time swimming and how it taught her so much and impacts her job to this day. Swimming teaches you to take on challenges and not be afraid. So those messages were very inspiring, and all the alums talked with our current team about how they’d always be connected for the rest of their lives. It was pretty special.
11. The other coaches I talked to from the World Junior Champs staff were so impressed with you, I imagine that was a great time for you?
Chris: The coaches there were amazing. I am honored that they included me in their comments. It takes me back to our first select camp at Indiana University. That’s where I hired Ian Murray -- I met him at that camp for the first time. So those camps and National Team events and training sessions serve to build lifelong friendships as well as a great opportunity for us as coaches to share what we have learned and what we are thinking. There’s a tremendous value in that connectedness in the coaching community.
12. Was it like that right after U.S. Junior Team Director Mitch Dalton brought you all together as a staff or did it take some time?
Chris: I think we knew right when we went to camp together. There was so much we all wanted to do together to help the team. And it wasn’t just the coaches who were so special but the group of athletes who were there. We all had the ability to learn from each other. I love any opportunity to learn in an environment like that. And to get to represent the USA is just incredible.
13. What was your first trip and team?
Chris: I think my first one was Junior Pan Pacs. I remember (Carmel swimmer) Amy Bilquist (now at Cal) and Claire Adams (now at Texas) had made the team. I was so elated for them, and they got the USA Swimming gear with the flag on everything. When we got to the meet, and they played the National Anthem the first night, I thought, “Man, this is the greatest thing in the world.” It was just so surreal, how hard everyone had worked to get there, all the great values that had shaped them, and all the ideas that had come together. I get goosebumps thinking about hearing the National Anthem on that trip every time I think about it. I came back and thought, “Now, how do I do more? How do I continue to improve? You take that first step, and it makes you hungry for more.
14. How do you ask your swimmers to ask of themselves to do what it takes to reach the potential you see in them?
Chris: We could spend hours on this topic. It’s so hard to really and truly understand. If you can teach them one thing, it is that your swimming career as a competitor is finite. There are only a certain number of swims, and times that you will have this opportunity, so you want to make the most of it. And that’s hard because as a swimmer, certainly you don’t think that way -- you just think it will go on forever, or as long as you want. I was that way too, I didn’t appreciate what I had in my career as a swimmer until it was over. So as a coach, I know there are opportunities where I can do more to help swimmers reach their potential -- their dreams and goals. Your competitive years are short in terms of your lifespan, so you want to give it all you can -- put everything you have into it and see where it takes you.
15. How fun is it coaching with Ray Looze nearby at Indiana University and the great things he is doing there, and as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team as well?
Chris: Absolutely, it is inspiring and I have the deepest respect for Ray and what he’s done with the program. He’s always willing to share ideas. The pulley system we used is (from Indiana). He’s done a great job returning that program to the high level it belongs at, and the whole country has been able to see and respect what he’s done along the way. My friends from college, who I swam with, get together every year, and we are always amazed at how good Indiana is and how fast they are now.
16. You have taken several swimmers to the highest level on U.S. teams, what is a key that maybe not everyone thinks of that goes into that?
Chris: The first one might be a little obvious, that it takes everyone -- everyone in the village of Carmel Swim Club, the parents, the people who administer the program, and all the teammates working with a great attitude. You get this really good athlete at age 12 or 13, and think, “OK, what is my plan and vision?” In the case of Claire Adams, I was able to learn from Todd Schmitz -- so I knew there was a model there with what he had done with Missy Franklin as a backstroker. You do a lot of smart work with dryland, and see what works best. It’s a constant process and you always want to do what’s best for the athlete also a person and keep that balance..
17. Drew Kibler is such a pleasure to talk to -- the National Junior teamer is headed to Texas this fall -- how has he impacted you?
Chris: Drew, he always keeps it fun and unique. He’s got so many talents and abilities. It’s just so fun how he’s into a lot of different things. That’s what I can say about our best athletes -- that they have always made me better. So I need to stay ahead of that so they don’t outgrow me as a resource, so I have to work just as hard for my swimmers as they do for us as coaches. Drew counts his strokes every single lap, so he had really good questions and perspective. That challenges you as a coach when you have a swimmer who loves a challenge. It’s a wonderful back and forth with your top swimmers as they start to figure things out and have more input into their program.
18. Back to World Juniors for a second, it seemed unique how the coaching staff worked together and the overlap of boys and girls as one team training events together -- how did that work so well?
Chris: I loved being on the coaching staff. I thought what really worked well was that they were all great coaches in their own right, but everyone brought something different to the group, and we were all right realizing someone was better than us at something and excited to learn how they could make us better. You’d see something in a different group that you knew something about and you could jump in, or if you saw something you wanted to learn more about you could, again, go over and be part of it and soak it all in and ask questions. We loved helping athletes in different groups, and going around and picking each coach’s brain. I think what made it special was everyone’s willingness to share and get along. The walks to the pool and hanging out together were some of the best moments. I wanted to know what made their program better and they wanted to know about my program, so there was a lot of learning from each other. No one put themselves first so we were able to lead as a group. There were just so many great ideas and great people. Give credit to Mitch Dalton for leading the way he does -- an amazing job. His growth over the two years is incredible and it’s not like he started out bad or anything. He just knows how to handle things and with people. (Former Junior Team Director) Jack Roach was incredible and I know he mentored Mitch especially at first, but I think Jack’s probably the most happy of all to see how Mitch has taken this role and done such great work shaping it into something even more amazing.
19. Who is upcoming in the world in terms of countries?
Chris: I think you have to look at Team Canada because their girls are swimming really fast right now and their relays are so strong. I also think Russia and Hungary are two teams to watch. The relays are just so tight at the top now, everything is so close. We shared a hotel with the Germans, and everyone on the team, boys and girls, were 6-feet tall, just really impressive -- and they could not have been nicer people. All the countries there were so impressive to meet. But competitively, we as a country need to keep getting better if we are going to remain a powerful team.
20. How have you grown from this past year or 18 months or so?
Chris: I always try to pause and reflect. The deeper I get into this, the more I realize that I have to be in the right state of mind every time I get onto the pool deck. Every relationship, every interaction, I have to be in the best place I can be mentally and physically. That’s what I’ve challenged myself with. Because your relationship with your athletes is so important that you need to always be your best. You can’t, as a coach, carry an emotion from a phone call or an event with you out to that deck and let it creep into the works. So I’ve tried to be more of a leader in our program and challenge everyone when I need to, but let go when I need to. You have to get your mind in the right place so you can be the coach they need and deserve every single time.