Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Saying Farewell to The Empire

As I write this, I still don't know if it's over. Such is the anxious instability of the end of a college season. This past weekend was my final ACC Championship (for now). I have a swimmer sitting at 24th entering today, which is just high enough to give hope and to subsequently crush it. Regardless, the men's meet was the last ride for the greater part of The Empire. What is The Empire, you ask? It's the half serious, half silly name that my swimmers gave to the training group I've run for the last three years. This weekend and last was a series of emotional gut punches, as I watched swimmers race and realized one by one that I wouldn't be there for their next.

The first blow came the weekend before, at the women's meet. I was walking back with two of my swimmers after they had finished the 200 breaststroke. It was their last race of the meet, and I started to say something like "I know you have such and such a swim in you for next time". As I was saying it, I realized that I had reached the end of the road with both. I hadn't prepared for it at all. I felt a boulder sized lump in my throat. In a panic I walked away quickly to the warmup pool, trying to compose myself by staring out into nothing. There was still one swimmer left to swim.

Afterwards I told them what had happened and we had a good cry. I managed to box it in for the men's meet until I decided to give you a few words at our post meet dinner. Days later, I can see that the outbursts were inevitable. I had postponed too many emotions coaching these swimmers; I was too focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other.

The genesis of The Empire came out of my first season at Georgia Tech. I was very young (25) by any coaching standard when I started there. As such, we had a structure where other assistant coaches had autonomy over their own training groups (sprint and distance) while I assisted my head coach in coaching a middle distance group that was nearly half of the team. I got a couple days a week to coach "breaststroke" on my own.

By the end of the season, I felt like I had outgrown that role. I wanted a chance to set up my own group and run a season. I got that chance and never looked back.

Back to the name: let me explain which part is serious and which is silly. The silly part is the obvious arrogance of calling a group "The Empire", as it implies something far more grandiose then a bunch of people in suits doing laps. The serious part was that the group was not defined by what events the swimmers in it specialized in. It was not a sprint, distance or middle distance group. It was simply a collection of swimmers. The other serious part was that it was full of swimmers from countries other than the US: this year's group featured South Africa, Canada, Italy, Malta (via Dubai), Switzerland and Sweden.

The multicultural aspect of the group was done entirely on purpose. When I arrived at Georgia Tech, we had international swimmers on the squad, but they were all from Israel. They were great swimmers and great people, but having a core of swimmers from the same country also made them their own clique. I decided to fan out in recruiting and bring people in from all over, knowing that each would have to integrate fully with their teammates without anyone else to speak their home language.

The unifying philosophy for the group was simple. I had brought it from what might have been a throwaway quote in a workout video that Garrett McCaffrey had made for floswimming five years ago. He was on deck at USC and chatting with Jon Urbanchek. Urbanchek quoted many time NCAA winning coach Matt Mann:

"If you want to swim fast, you have to swim fast"

It clicked with me and it clicked with swimmers. We built training around the idea that if you wanted to go fast at the end of the year, you had to do something in practice that would provide real evidence that you were going to go fast at the end. The pressure was on every day: swim fast now. It worked. I saw things in practice these last few years that I wouldn't have thought possible before that. Standards were raised (for instance, one sprinter would be annoyed when he went slower than 20.6 for a sprint 50 in practice). I had a standing offer that any swimmer who recorded a lifetime best in one of their taper events could immediately warm down and leave after they did it, and every year someone collected.

So, I am sad to leave it. I comfort myself by thinking of all the fast swimming, but also recalling a particular bus ride. We were on training trip in Miami. On a 20 minute ride, I heard a dozen languages being spoken, being learned. I realized I had actually changed something, that we had long since bulldozed over a tipping point without even noticing. Even now I can close my eyes and hear the chatter. It feels really good.


  1. Ahhh, swimming gives SO much & takes SO focus that when you leave or transition to something new it really rips your heart out...the good news is, I believe, that with time you can build the next stage in to something even better...unfortunately, in the coaching aspect, it takes more time than a couple macro-cycles!

    Good luck Chris!

  2. Thank you Chris, for being such a great coach. Best of luck in Denmark!

  3. Viva la empire. Best of luck Emperor Rich Boy, glad for the change you brought to the team!