By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, October 3, 2019
Once upon a time, Jeff Kubiak was an unlikely champion.
A self-described "nobody” coming out of high school, he didn’t swim at the Division I level. In fact, he competed for Division II California State Northridge, but didn’t allow that to stop him from fulfilling a destiny he always knew was his.
He not only excelled at the Division II level, but he finished his career with seven NCAA titles between 1985-87 and was the first Division II swimmer to compete at Division I NCAAs.
Today, he’s regarded as the greatest swimmer in Cal State Northridge history and was inducted into the Matador Hall of Fame earlier this year.
But in his mind, he was always just a guy who loved swimming and believed in himself no matter what anyone else thought
“I don't really think I was that good (in high school),” said, Kubiak, the 1985 and 1986 NCAA Swimmer of the Year and a member of the U.S. National team from 1987-90. “I was always small, only about 5'10 and 155 at my peak. I worked hard but had coaches who really believed in me and helped me to improve and find ways to become faster.
“I think swimming was somewhat natural for me. Even as a crawler/baby, I kind of breaststroke-kicked. Competing was what fired me up. I hated to lose and wanted to always find a way to win.”
Kubiak’s parents took advantage of that natural water inclination and enrolled him in the Davis (Ca.) Aquadarts when he was 4. He followed his sister to the pool – channeling his “hyper” nature into an active venture.
While he continued to swim, he also played many other sports growing up, so he never tired of swimming. If anything, because of the friendships and success he experienced, even as a part-time swimmer, he remained engaged and excited about the sports.
“Swimming was fun, and I had a bunch of friends,” he said. “I found that with working hard, I improved quite rapidly. I never swam year-round until I was in college, so I wasn't really burned out.
“The real sacrifice was in the mid to late '80's when I was training at Concord Pleasant Hill, University of Texas and then Stanford. That was the year-round, doubles, lifting, dry land and sacrifice.”
Despite his “humble” beginnings, Kubiak went on to carve out quite a successful swimming career – both collegiate and beyond.
In addition to his NCAA titles, he won several U.S. National Titles in the 200 breaststroke and also won a gold medal in the 200 breast at 1987 Pan American Games.
At 1988 Olympic Trials, he overcame a poor swim in morning prelims to make the 200 breast event finals. He finished third and just missed making the team by .12.
He said that was by far his biggest swimming disappointment – but that is the “magic of Trials.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “I had a terrible morning swim and was 7th going into finals. I had finished 4th in the 100 a few days before and was not satisfied at all with my swim. (in the 200) I was in lane 1 at the Texas Swim Center and just didn't hit my rhythm.
“I looked up, saw my time and ‘3’ next to it...devastation, and, of course being told I had to go drug test. I was like ‘are you freaking kidding?’ After missing the team, I have to go hang out and wait to pee? That’s what makes Trials so exciting and heartbreaking at the same time. You had to be "on" at the right time, and I wasn't.”
Kubiak swam two more seasons before an injury forced him to retire in 1990 following World Championship Trials.
He said prior to tearing the meniscus in his left knee kicking with power racks at Stanford, he was planning to continue swimming for another shot at the 1992 Games.
He continued to do some open water and masters, and then did some coaching. His love for the sport remained strong, as he always made time to get in the pool, too.
Today, he’s living in Davis with wife, Piper, daughter Keeley (14) and son Braden (10) and working as an elementary school principal in Fairfield, Calif.
He just wrote his first picture book, One Drop of Kindness (available on Amazon.com), and approaches teaching by pushing back against the old model of “industrialized education” and fighting compliance.
Being a former world class swimmer and coach, Jeff looks at education from perspectives that others don’t. He knows what it takes to fail, struggle, win and go through the daily challenges that we all face.
“Kindness is missing from our world, and in every school,” he said. “There are many kids who are under the radar and broken, and as educators it is our job to develop relationships and learn each child’s story.
“I believe when kindness is instilled and embedded at an early age, it can change the way the world functions, thus, allowing us to be better as people.”
One thing Kubiak said he also knows is that swimming set a very strong foundation for most of the things he holds as important in his daily life.
“Swimming gave me great discipline, amazing friendships all over the world, a great work ethic and a lifetime activity,” he said. “I got to train with amazing Olympians and compete in a time where our suits were tiny little lycras and our technology was minimal. What a blast!
“Swimming taught me many things: time management, strong work ethic, listening, being malleable, putting laughter in at the right moment of pain and hard work, focus, not giving up, and having the ability to fail, iterate, change and improve. Those are things I try to pay back every day with my kids and students.”
Kubiak encapsulates his swimming experience in terms of relationships and the tremendous long-term opportunities it provides at all stages of our lives.
It’s not just for the young, but it’s an activity that people can do their entire lives.
“The magic of our sport is that it is lifelong,” he said. “Regardless of what level you reach, you can always swim – for fun, fitness, highest level, para-swimming, open water, etc. There is always a venue or body of water to fill your soul.
“Swimming gave me much of who I am, and as a coach, I loved giving back. It is so much more than practicing laps and holding a streamline. It is an artistic passion that provides lessons for life, friendships forever and memories that never end.”