Eddie Reese Seeks to Reestablish U.S. Dominance

Eddie Reese, the long-time UT Men’s Swimming coach, has built a tremendous legacy at Texas, and is leading what may be the strongest U.S. Men’s Swimming Team in Olympic history. Here’s a look inside Texas Men's Swimming, the tough coaching decisions Reese faces in Athens, and the prospects for next years Horns.

Reese’s Legacy — "Texas Tough"

Consider for a moment the astounding legacy that coach Eddie Reese has built at Texas. He assumed the reigns at Texas for the 1978-1979 season, when his team finished 21st at the NCAA championships. The following year his team finished 2nd, and his third team won Texas’ first NCAA title in 1981. Since that second season, Texas has completed 26 consecutive top five NCAA finishes. His worst finish at the NCAA championships was 5th in 1987, and, of the 13 swimmers who competed in that meet, nine were freshmen! That group would go on to win the next four NCAA titles. Overall, his Texas teams have produced an incredible nine NCAA titles, 150 All-Americans, 25 Olympians, and 21 gold medals.

If you are a high school swimmer, you go to Texas for two reasons — to see how fast a swimmer you can be, and to win national titles. Believe it or not, expectations are higher for Texas Swimming than for Texas Football. At Texas, it’s considered a bad year if you didn’t swim your best times or you lost the national title — especially to arch-rivals Stanford or Auburn. Within a week you’re ready to start training harder than you ever have before in order to do better next year.

But Coach Reese makes it clear to his disciples that winning national titles is the end result of swimming fast, not the other way around. And swimming hard starts with training hard. Most other Texas athletes refer to swimmers as "crazy", and it’s not just because they shave their bodies or have a tendency to cut loose every once in awhile. It’s because swimmers work harder than most athletes can even imagine.

Take the daily routine of a Texas swimmer. Start the day with a 6 a.m. pool session of 3 to 4 miles, attend classes, do dry lands or weights for 90 minutes, then start another pool session of 4 to 6 miles. And those pool sessions aren’t just lazy swimming back and forth — they’re the equivalent of timed wind sprints designed to mimic race pace, often leaving you puking in the gutter.

It gets better. Have you ever had nose bleed seats on the west side of Royal Memorial? If so, you probably know about the long ramps that slowly wind their way to the top. If you’ve walked those ramps, you’ve probably gotten winded. In an Eddie Reese dry land session, his swimmers don’t walk or even run those ramps — they traverse the ramps using a wheelbarrow walk on their hands with their knees resting on a two-by-four supported by lawnmower wheels. Up to the top of the stadium, then walk down. Twice, sometimes three times.

If you’re a Texas swimmer — you’re tough and maybe a little bit crazy.

So how does Coach Reese — just "Eddie" or "Ed" to his swimmers — get his athletes to train at such a high level year after year? Swim practice can be incredibly boring. Back and forth in the pool, following that narrow black line on the pool bottom. You can’t talk to anyone because your face is underwater, and when you stop at the wall, you’re panting and have 10 seconds before you have to start the next interval. Some coaches take this rather dull environment and make it insanely monotonous, such as doing the exact same work out every Tuesday afternoon or a set like a hundred 100s on the 1:20. It’s coaches like these that drive swimmers to an early retirement.

But not Eddie Reese. Josh Davis, the two-time Olympian who has trained with Eddie since 1990 says, "Eddie is very creative -- I love his philosophy. I don’t think I’ve ever done the same workout in 13 years of training with Eddie."

Reese’s Olympic Challenges

Athens will be Reese’s fifth Olympic games as a coach, having also been the head coach in 1992 and an assistant coach for the 1988, 1996, and 2000 games. In an exclusive Inside Texas interview, I asked Eddie what to expect from this year’s men’s team. "This may be one of the best teams in U.S. Olympic history. But the best and the worst thing in the world is expectations. I just tell the guys to race hard and everything else will take care of itself." This is vintage Eddie. I half expected to hear a "grasshopper" speech lauding the journey as its own reward.

One of Reese’s top objectives as Olympic coach is to reclaim world leadership in the relays. "When I took this job, I wanted to do everything I could to get the relays back," he said.

The United States used to be considered a lock for gold in each of the three relay events. But the rest of the world has caught up in recent years. At the 2000 Sydney games, the Aussies won the 400 and 800 free relays, relegating the Americans to two silvers and a gold (in the 400 medley). It was the only time the Americans have ever lost the 400 free relay, though it took a world record by the Aussies to do it, and even then the U.S. team, with Longhorns Neil Walker and Gary Hall swimming, lost by only 19 hundredths of a second.

The U.S. has never lost the 400 medley relay and is once again considered a virtual lock. They have the top times this year in all four strokes. Longhorns could be swimming the first three legs, with Aaron Piersol leading off backstroke, Brendan Hansen following with the breaststroke, and Ian Crocker swimming the fly. But that could change if Michael Phelps upsets Crocker in the fly or if Crocker upsets Jason Lezak in the 100 free.

The 400 free relay will be a dogfight. The U.S. looks faster than it was in 2000, but will be severely tested by the Aussies, Russia, and even France. Coach Reese has some tough, and potentially controversial, choices to make regarding who will swim this relay.

Typically, the top six swimmers from the 100 free at trials make the team, with finishers 3-6 swimming the relay in prelims and finishers 1-4 swimming in the finals. But this year, many will be lobbying for Phelps to swim on the relay. He holds the second fastest time in the U.S. this year, but didn’t swim the 100 free at trials, so technically he hasn’t qualified.

Two swimmers who did qualify for the relay at trials, Longhorn Gary Hall and Jason Lezak, have publicly stated they think you have to earn your spot at trials. If Reese inserts Phelps into the relay, he may bump two other Longhorns from the medal stand — Neil Walker or Nate Dusing, who also earned their spots at trials. It’s a tough call, and ultimately, it’s Eddie’s call. Eddie says the team "has talked about the relay situation," implying that everyone has bought into doing whatever is best for the team.

Over the past two days, Reese has changed his mind at least twice. On Monday he was quoted as saying that it would be tough to put Phelps on the relay if the qualified swimmers swam fast enough, which was taken to mean sub 48.5 (with relay starts). But by Tuesday afternoon, headlines were indicating that Reese would be putting Phelps on the relay. So who knows? I don’t think a final decision will be made until Reese has seen how each swimmer is performing in Athens.

In the 800 free relay, Reese says, "the Australians think they own it," having beaten the Americans by more than five seconds in 2000, when the Americans had three Longhorns swimming it (Scott Goldblatt, Josh Davis, Jamie Rauch). On paper, the American’s look to be at least four seconds faster than they were in Sydney, so any slippage by the Aussies could yield an upset. And Phelps will be anchoring for the Americans, so anything is possible.

Besides the relays, Coach Reese’s biggest challenge may be how to handle Phelps, the 19 year-old who will be trying to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals set during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Phelps owns the world record in the 200 butterfly and 200 and 400 individual medleys, and he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in an unprecedented six individual events.

So how does Coach Reese approach coaching Phelps at the Olympics, given that Phelps lifetime coach, Bob Bowman, is on staff? Says Reese, "Bob does most of the coaching. Brendan Hansen and I have been working on his breaststroke, and I’ve been helping him with his turns."

Phelps was quoted at trials as saying, "Those Texas guys keep killing me on turns," referring to Crocker and Piersol. Eddie feels Phelps brings astounding maturity to his swimming, despite being the youngest swimmer on the men’s team. "As soon as he realizes he needs to address something, he fixes it immediately," Reese said. "Most swimmers take years to correct problems in their strokes."

Next Year’s Horns

Frustrated that Texas has been the runner-up to Auburn at the last two NCAA championships, I asked Eddie whether the Longhorns' Olympic success might translate to recruiting victories. "It seems to have little to no effect on recruiting," he claims. "It may even put us at a disadvantage because both Kris (Kubik — Reese’s longtime assistant) and I will be in Athens, while other programs will be recruiting hard."

Auburn will be extremely tough to beat next year, but Reese signed a strong class of blue-chip athletes this past fall that he hopes can make an immediate impact. They have some enormous shoes to fill, given the loss of world-record holders Crocker, Hansen, and Piersol, who won five individual NCAA titles last year. And speaking of legacies, among the new Longhorns will be Austin Spann, who happens to be the son of Scott Spann, a captain of Eddie’s first national title team in 1981.

Reese will eagerly look forward to his return to Austin. He’ll want to catch up with his grandkids and take his two black labs — Blue and Belle — duck hunting. Undoubtedly, his swimmers will be swimming hard and walking stadium ramps soon after his return. They’ll also look forward to Eddie’s latest stories, life lessons, and frequently painful jokes.

David McClellan is a former UT swimmer (1986-1989) who was part of several national championship teams at Texas. He is, of course, a rabid UT Football fan, which goes over real well in Chicago, where he lives.

To get an even more in-depth glimpse into the mind of Coach Reese, take a look at his personal journal, which he has been posting to since the start of Olympic Trials. Reese UnEDDItEd

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