Photo Courtesy: Cal Athletics
By David Rieder.
One month after the 2016 Olympics, Cal men’s coach Dave Durden accepted the coach of the year award from the American Swim Coaches Association. He thanked his family, his swimmers and his assistant, Yuri Suguiyama.
Durden recalled how four years earlier, he had successfully convinced Sugiyama to come to Berkeley and leave behind the 15-year-old Olympic gold medalist he coached, Katie Ledecky.
“Bruce, you’re welcome,” Durden deadpanned, speaking to Ledecky’s next coach, Bruce Gemmell. The room broke out laughing.
In 2012, Suguiyama was one of swimming’s hot young coaches after leading Ledecky to a stunning Olympic upset in the 800 free over hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington. Over the next five and a half years at Cal, his profile grew even further as the Bears won an NCAA championship and finished second nationally five times and the program placed five men onto the U.S. Olympic team.
Now, Suguiyama will have the chance to lead his own team, the Wisconsin Badgers.
“I think I finally got to a point in my tenure at Cal—and this is largely to Dave Durden’s credit—to where I had seen every facet of a program,” Suguiyama said. “I can see how everything works and is put together, and I’m ready to tackle that.
“When I first got hired and I think any assistant that’s starting out, you kind of have a little bit of a narrow view of what it means to run a college program. My first year there, my focus was just basically trying to write good workouts and connect with the athletes. There’s so much more that goes into that.”
Suguiyama credited Durden for empowering him as a coach and helping him rise above workout-creator. Suguiyama saw the same growth in the swimmers they coached as Durden trusted them and gave them a chance to make their own imprint on the team.
“Dave does a lot of things really well, but Dave is a great leader because he creates leaders in his program,” Suguiyama said.
When those swimmers learned that Suguiyama was leaving for a new opportunity, the response from the team was anything but bitter. The swimmers, including those who would be losing their primary coach, were simply proud of the opportunity Suguiyama had earned.
“I was incredibly touched by their response,” Suguiyama said. “The guys, they were just happy for me. I don’t think there was any animosity. There were no hard feelings. To a man, I just heard, ‘We’re really happy for you, and we’re proud of you because you’ve earned this.’”
Ledecky, too, was excited for her former coach—and not just because, after years spent on opposite sides of the Cal-Stanford rivalry, Suguiyama would now join her in wearing red.
During a recent phone call with Swimming World, Suguiyama gave thoughtful, detailed answers about why he took the Wisconsin job, his vision for the Badgers, how he plans to deal with the challenges of coaching a combined program, his biggest takeaways from coaching a young Ledecky and his proudest moments as a coach.
This is your first collegiate head coaching job. What did you need to see and hear before you would decide to leave the position you had at Cal?
“I think the No. 1 thing I needed to see and hear was just the level of support for the program. That was something that stood out to me from my very first conversation with the administration when they reached out, not only with swimming and diving specifically and just with the athletic department as a whole, and it’s been something I’ve been blown away by, the passion that people have for athletics here in Madison, the unified front that everyone has.
“Just walking around, just the sense of camaraderie really stood out to me. As a coach, you want to make sure that you feel supported by the administration, and (athletic director Barry) Alvarez and Marija Pientka, one of the senior associate ADs, I felt that from day one—very opening and welcome, very transparent to the whole process. It’s the type of relationship that I think every head coach wants to have with their administrators.
“And then honestly, the facilities. I think all of us in the Olympic sports world, we’re very conscious of where we stand in regards to a department’s financial health, so the fact that this department is building a new facility that’s going to come online in the fall of 2019, that told me all I needed to know about the health of the program and the fact that the swimming and diving programs weren’t going to be going anywhere for a long, long time.”
Before Wisconsin, you had been rumored for some other jobs. How serious did those opportunities get before this one came to fruition?
“I interviewed for two positions last summer, and I had good experiences with both. I really did. I think in a lot of ways, those experiences prepared me to be better prepared for Wisconsin. You have to go through it and see it, and I’m someone who usually does better the second time around. I was able to better anticipate some of the questions and better anticipate some of the ways to deliver the message.”
What’s your initial analysis for what’s already there at Wisconsin?
“There’s good swimmers here in this program. I think one thing that has always stood out about Wisconsin, not just the swimming and diving program but in the department in general is this feeling of hard work and this blue-collar atmosphere. I think that’s a great thing because, as a coach, you always want to work with athletes that are hard workers.”
The most impressive Wisconsin swimmer last year was Beata Nelson—three finals at the NCAA championships. What do you see as her role in this program going forward?
“I want to get to know Beata. It’s the job of any coach to put their athletes in a position to be successful. Obviously, Beata is somebody who is a leader on the team by nature of her performance—she scored the most points on the women’s team this year—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she would be expected to be a leader outside the pool.
“I’m going to have to get to know Beata, find out what her strengths are, find out what she’s comfortable with, because maybe she is someone who would rather lead by example and lead a lane every day and obviously perform really well at dual meets and at conference meets. Sometimes your best leaders are not only your fastest leaders or your best divers. Sometimes it’s the people who are most consistent in that behavior day in and day out.”
You’ve been coaching men for the past six years. What are the challenges of coaching a bigger program and having women and men alongside each other?
“The biggest thing that comes to mind is making sure each team has its own identity but making sure that they also understand that we’re all in this together and everyone’s actions in the pool and in the weight room and on the boards are going to be impacting one another.
“By nature of the schedule, there are times in every combined program where the teams are going to be swimming together, and I think that’s awesome. There are a lot of positives to that. But I think as a head coach and staff, you have to work to create situations where maybe a handful of times a week the men’s team is training together and then the women’s team is training together.
“I think the challenge for me is making sure that each of the teams has its own identity so when it comes time for conference or NCAAs, there’s not that, ‘Oh, well, the guys usually lead the cheers,’ or ‘The girls are usually the ones standing down the pool cheering.’ Ideally, you want to get to a point where the teams are self-sufficient but also understand that, ‘We’re all in this together. We’re all going to be working towards a common goal.’”
What did you learn from coaching Katie Ledecky?
“There’s three things. One, I learned the value of having a plan. On one hand, it was like, what do we want to accomplish this year and what’s the progression to get to that point? And the second thing was, what’s best for her long-term down the road? I learned the value of a training progression and a plan through the career.
“The second thing was the idea of always reminding an athlete that no matter where you are and what you’ve accomplished, you belong there. Katie might not have needed to hear that because she has some innate things that make her great that didn’t come from me or Carolyn Kaucher before me or Bruce after me or Greg (Meehan) after him. There are just some things Katie has that make her great. For me, it was just reminding her that she belonged at every level and never to get too high or too low.
“I talked to Gregg Troy and Teri McKeever in the spring of 2012 at the Charlotte UltraSwim a couple months before Trials. I just remember talking to them both, and Gregg in particular just said, ‘Olympic Trials is the most overcoached meet in the world. Don’t overcoach her.’ I always tried to be aware of that. The athletes know when a big moment is coming up, and they’re already going to be anxious enough. For me, the last thing I wanted to do as a young coach was to portray any anxieties I had onto her. I definitely did, but I think it was just trying to keep a level head, acknowledge each step of the process and always keep an eye to the future.
“The last thing I learned was how important it is to create a culture. I always felt like I could never control the type of athlete that walked onto the pool deck, but I could control what they walked into. When I look back on my time with Katie, I think that the thing that I’m most proud about was I had done enough research, I had been to enough clinics, I had talked to enough coaches that when I did have someone like Katie, with her skillset, come into the program, I had prepared myself to be able to handle that.”
What’s been your proudest moment as a coach?
“I think the easiest thing is to look back and remember performances, but I think a lot of my proudest moments are the growth, when you look back and see the changes in someone over the course of their career or their time with you and you see that they’ve grown up.
“I’m always amazed at when the guys come in as 18, they’re sharp, they do a good job, but to watch them seniors, to look at them and say, ‘You are a very capable human being now.’ A lot of that had to do with the culture that Dave set up and the way that we ran the team. I think a lot of my proudest moments come from when the kids reach back out to you or you hear about them having success.
“In terms of races, my most memorable races that stand out in my mind—you know what, I don’t want to go down that road because I’m probably going to miss a couple.”