John Trembley

Although it was almost 30 years ago, John Trembley remembers the moment vividly.

Trembley was playing intramural football on the University of Tennessee campus. He was a wide receiver who had no fear. He was a pole vaulter in high school. He had been sky diving 66 times. He was a world-class swimmer.

You want a guy who will catch the ball over the middle, you want John Trembley.

``I had wheels, I had hands, but no awareness of where the defense was,'' Trembley said.

Going for the football, Trembley collided with a defender.

In an instant, his aspirations of swimming in the Olympic Games were gone.

Trembley suffered a trauma induced aneurysm. He was partially paralyzed. He still has cramping on his right side. His right hand curls up, making it difficult to execute a firm hand shake.

``You never completely recover from a stroke like that,'' Trembley said.

No, you don't. But Trembley doesn't share a trace of bitterness. Maybe those feelings have subsided. Maybe they never existed.

``I was in the wrong sport in the wrong place at the wrong time,'' Trembley said. ``I should have been in the pool.''

Instead, he found himself in a Cincinnati hospital, where he was flown to see a vascular brain surgeon who was preparing for emergency surgery. It wasn't necessary. The aneurysm resided naturally in about six weeks.

``It was not a great experience, but a learning experience,'' Trembley said.

Trembley was in a hospital bed for six weeks. He lost 20 pounds. He lost muscle mass. He lost strength. He lost his dream.

But he didn't lose his perspective. Rather than brood, Trembley reflects on the positive.

``Instead of going to the Olympic Trials that summer (1976), on June 19, I went down the aisle with my wife (Joanne),'' said Trembley, who recently celebrated his 29th anniversary. ``So, some good things did come out of it.''

Still, you wonder what might have been. It was only three years earlier that Trembley made a national name for himself at the 1973 NCAA Swimming Championships held in Knoxville. Trembley won five gold medals. He won three individual events and two relays.

``That was a good time for me,'' said Trembley.

He ranked with the nation's best swimmers. He ranked with the world's best swimmers. He was clearly one of the best swimmers in UT history. He was a 20-time All-American. He was flirting with matching the brilliant career of David Edgar, a two-time SEC swimmer of the year and an Olympian who won a gold medal in 1972 on a world-record setting relay team.

Trembley was destined to be another Edgar.

Instead, he became another Ray Buzzard.

Buzzard was the highly successful Tennessee swim coach who won a national title in 1978.

It was Buzzard who recruited Trembley out of New York to swim for the Vols.

It was Buzzard who first informed Trembley about his destiny. Buzzard saw at an early age that Trembley could make a bigger mark out of the pool – not in it.

Trembley remembers late one night as the bus drove the swim team back from a meet at North Carolina, Buzzard approached an impressible freshmen with a startling message.

``He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder and said, `Trembley, why don't you forget this stuff about going to dental college and do what you're supposed to do,''' Trembley recalled. ``I looked up. I was irritated at him, and said, `Oh, what's that?'

``He said, `coach,' then he walked up to the front of the bus. From an early age, he saw in me that I'd probably be a coach. He cultivated that.''

Trembley said he wasn't all that disappointed at not swimming in the Olympics ``because I was fortunate to have a coach like Ray Buzzard. The principle joy of being here was having a chance to learn under him. What a masterful coach. He was the best.''

Trembley is making his mark as one of the best. His coaching resume includes 12 top 10 finishes in the NCAA Championships, with a high of fourth, and two SEC Championships. He was disturbed by a 17th place finish last season, a result he vows to correct.

``Our team members returning are very hungry and training incredibly hard,'' he said. ``We've taken some steps.''

Some of those steps include a stellar recruiting class that numbers 16 and includes, according to Trembley, three potential Olympians.

Trembley will also have his biggest roster, 31, and a full complement of scholarships for the first time in three years. UT was penalized three scholarships over two years for exceeding the 9.9 scholarship limit.

Trembley called it ``an accounting error. … The last two years we've paid that penalty.''

Next spring, UT will host the SEC swimming and diving championship at the Ray Buzzard pool. League coaches voted against the Knoxville venue because the pool is only 4 to 6 feet deep, meaning times will be slower, meaning fewer swimmers could get qualifying times for the NCAA meet.

One SEC coach did an elaborate study revealing UT's pool as the slowest in the SEC, Trembley said.

Trembley likes the apprehensiveness of his rival coaches.

``We're not in the business of making our opponents happy,'' Trembley said.


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