When it’s not safe to travel abroad…

With reports of children from California trapped in Afghanistan during the fall of the government, it reminded me of 1973. The United States sent a group of teen swimmers to Santiago, Chile where they found themselves trapped during the Pinochet Coup.

Here’s an article I wrote for the Spring 2021 Issue of SwimSwam Magazine about the Chilean Coup Crew of 1973. I had never heard of this event until a swim coach mentioned it to me and said I should talk to legendary swim coach Jim Montrella. After speaking to Montrella, he referred me to one of the teen swimmers at the time, Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno, who is now a swim coach.

US Swimmers with Ambassador from Chile 1973
The US Ambassador to Chile (center) with Jim Montrella and Jill Griese (seated) and swimmers (standing.)

“We saw people’s heads blown off, were shot at, and saw bombs planted on bridges.” Part of a group of young swimmers representing the United States, Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno travelled to Chile in September 1973. Of her travel trip, Kirkpatrick-Reno said, “We all came home with PTSD.”

  The swimmers were led by a young coach from Lakewood Aquatics in Southern California named Jim Montrella. They found themselves in the thick of the coup led by Augusto Pinochet that ousted Chilean President Salvador Allende. 

“The trip to Peru and then Chile during a coup was a stand-alone event 47 years ago,” Montrella said. “The team was selected from the National Swimming Championships held in Louisville, Ky. Three teams were selected to travel to South America while the first and second-place finishers went on to the World Championships in Belgrade.”

Montrella’s group included eight swimmers, plus chaperone and assistant coach Jill Griese from Ohio. The swimmers were Nancy Kirkpatrick, Michelle Mercer, Anne Brodell, Sandi Johnson, Tom Szuba, Tim McDonnell, Steve Tallman and future Olympic gold medalist Mike Bruner.

birthday party for a swimmer
A birthday celebration for one of the swimmers prior to the Chilean coup d’état .

Kirkpatrick-Reno was a promising 16-year-old swimmer from the Santa Clara Swim Club who trained with George Haines. “It was a post-Olympic year and a lot of us were hopefuls for the 1976 Olympic Team,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said. “We were coming in third and fourth places and moving up to the top of the ladder. It was before Title IX and we were a lot younger then.” 

 “The trip was sponsored by the United States Information Services; it went through the State Department,” Montrella said. “It was a People to People-type program to expose U.S. swimmers and athletes to different areas in Latin America.” Other sponsors were the Amateur Athletic Union and Phillips 66. 

The trip began without incident in Lima, Peru. Over the first few days, the coaches and swimmers were treated like royalty. Prelims were held in the morning with the Peruvian swimmers. Then Montrella gave coaches’ clinics with his swimmers demonstrating. In the evenings they held finals.

“During the time in Lima, we had someone from the State Department taking us from the hotel to the pool. There was a female TV reporter who was with us and acted as an interpreter,” explained Montrella. “When we told the people in Lima we were headed to Santiago, they encouraged us not to go to because in their own words, they knew there was going to be a coup d’etat and we’d be at risk.”  

Montrella said he talked to the ambassador or an assistant to the ambassador in Lima. He was told that it would be fine and that it was under control.

swimmers relaxing in Peru
Swimmers relaxing in Peru. The fun part of the trip.

“From Lima we went to Santiago. There was a gentleman there from Washington D.C. who was in the Peace Corps and was coaching the Chilean National Team, Mark Lautman. We were supposed to do the same thing we did in Peru, competition and clinics.”

Kirkpatrick-Reno recalled her first days in Santiago: 

“When we first arrived, we had a formal dinner with the Ambassador to Chile. We were told, ‘We’ve been having strikes, unrest and protests. We don’t want you to stay in the Presidential Hotel in downtown Santiago [which was next to La Moneda, the presidential palace.] We’re going to put you with families instead. Don’t wear USA sweats or uniforms because you would make good political prisoners.’”

swimmers arriving at the airport
Arriving at the airport in Santiago. Jim Montrella, far left, and and Nancy Kirkpatrick, third from left.

Kirkpatrick-Reno stayed with the president of the Chilean Swimming Federation. She said the family was welcoming but poor. The mother had to wait in line for hours for food. Kirkpatrick-Reno needed to get to the pool and the family didn’t have a car. Since the kids in the family were swimmers, she rode on the public bus with them and arrived late at the pool. “Jim was upset I was on the bus,” she said.

“My family didn’t have food and I felt really bad for them. They gave me a small loaf of bread, a couple cold cuts and a hard boiled egg. They had nothing to eat. They took me to my room and there was a portable heater. They didn’t have heat in the rest of the house. I tried to dry my wet towel with it. September in Chile is freezing cold.”

Kirkpatrick-Reno said that another swimmer on the trip, Tom Szuba, lived with a family whose parents worked as dentists. Unlike the family she stayed with, they had plenty of money and food. Szuba told her that he and the swimmer he was staying with would be able to use an extra family car to drive her to and from the pool. “They gave me a bag of food without letting my family know,” she said.

She explained that after a couple days of competition, the team was supposed to leave their host families and gather together and travel to a seaside resort town.

Kirkpatrick's host family
The Chilean swimmers and hosts. The swimmer Tom Szuba stayed with is on the far left.

“The Chilean coach Lautman picked up me and I think Tom, Tim, Michelle and Jim. We were heading to meet the rest of the team, but on the way there, military trucks were coming toward us. We watched as people opened their car doors and ran for cover. The coach told us to get down. I fell on the floor in the second seat. Tom fell on top of me to protect me. We heard bullets and saw charges being planted on a bridge. Lautman was driving like crazy against the traffic. Swimmers were all lying on the floor of the car. Lautman was trying to get us out of the area. He didn’t know where to go so he took us back to his apartment.

“On our way to meet up with everyone, the revolution had begun. Lautman had packed to go on the trip with us so he had almost no food in his apartment. He filled up bathtubs and sinks in his apartment with water so at least we’d have that. He had a bowl of fruit that we shared. We were stuck in his apartment for around three days.”

Montrella remembers that time, “We were staying in an apartment building on the 6th or 7th floor and we heard tanks in the street. Next door was the headquarters of a political faction. It was a two or three-story structure. I heard shooting.They absolutely shot up the political headquarters right next to us. It didn’t look like the same building after the tank got through with it.

“People in our building were shooting down at the tank. Right away I moved the kids into the interior of the apartment. We had a bullet come through one of our windows. It ricocheted off the ceiling and down into the interior. Then I got them out of the interior walls and I moved them closer to the windows and made sure all the blinds were closed. That way they didn’t get shot at through the walls or ricocheted off the stone ceilings to the interior.”

Kirkpatrick-Reno remembers them staying on the floor for most of the time and putting mattresses against the walls to protect from stray bullets. According to Montrella, she saved Mercer’s life by pulling her off a bunk bed where bullets came through moments later.

“We were in a 21-story apartment building. We watched them bomb the presidential palace. There were two bomber planes that swooped between the towers and dropped bombs on it. We saw 10 passes,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.

“The building shook every time a bomb was dropped. There was a a 24-hour curfew and we couldn’t go outside. Jim kept us in shape by having us run up and down the flights of stairs. But that made us hungry and we had hardly any food. It did get our mind off what was going on, though.” 

She said that she and Mercer had candy bars hidden in their swim bags and they’d sneak bites once in a while. Then the boys found out and ate them all. “All we talked about was eating steak,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.

After three days, the government lifted the curfew during the day to allow people to buy food and other essentials. At that time the State Department had the swimmers moved further out of town to stay with embassy employees. 

“It was kind of shocking once we moved outside of Santiago,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said. “It was a tale of two economies. The local people living there, like the family I stayed with, were poor and had nothing. They moved us to stay with an American woman in a big estate, who worked in the embassy. She had any kind of food you wanted in her freezers. It was sad to see the differences between the locals and Americans working for the State Department.”

Nancy Kirkpatrick and Tom Szubaa
Kirkpatrick and Szuba hanging with other swimmers out during the trip of a lifetime.

“We were told that Kissinger got us a flight out of Santiago,” Montrella said. “We thought the U.S. was going to supply a plane. What happened was we went to location A at the airport, dressed in our uniforms, and sat and sat and sat. Then we went to location B and we sat some more. Finally, we were walked out to a turbo prop plane.”

Montrella said he and Jill tried to stay positive for the swimmers, but when he saw the other passengers, he felt concerned. The plane was filled with passengers who were not Americans–perhaps Eastern Europeans or Soviets. Then the plane took off in the wrong direction.

“I didn’t know if it was by plan or chance, but we were literally flying through the Andes down deep mountain ravines and canyons. We weren’t flying over the Andes. Mountains were on either side of us,” Montrella said. “We landed in Buenos Aires. They offloaded everybody and we were in the furthest concourse away from everyone. All the Eastern Europeans walked away and they kept us at the end of the concourse.”

When the team was at the airport, Montrella spotted men in uniform 30 yards away. He told Jill to stay with the swimmers and he’d try to find out what was happening. The uniformed men told him, “You know why you were going through the Andes? Fighter pilots out of Argentina wanted to kill the Russians.” To this day, Montrella doesn’t know if this was fact or rumor.

“Theoretically we could have been shot out of the sky. So we were hiding in the mountains rather than going over them,” Montrella said. 

Montrella, Jill and the swimmers were eventually flown to Miami where everyone went their separate ways. Montrella said he remembers being debriefed before heading to an ASCA clinic in Chicago. It wasn’t until the team landed in the U.S. that the kids were able to call their parents.

Kirkpatrick-Reno said her parents had gone to the San Francisco airport on the day she was supposed to return. That was the first time they learned something was wrong. They were told by the airline employees that no planes were leaving Chile, that the airport had been bombed along with the communication towers.

Her dad called the State Department, congressmen, assemblymen as well as the press. When she arrived home after 50 hours of travel, she was met by a crowd of press. She said she was surprised that nobody from the government or AAU ever reached out to them with a letter or phone call.

“I don’t remember who told us to stay with families, rather than the hotel by the Presidential Palace, and not to wear our uniforms. But they must have known something was going on. In hindsight they must have thought it would look funny if we didn’t come,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.

Montrella wasn’t sure if the U.S. government thought they’d be okay, or if they were considered expendable. He was very upset and angry at having been put in the middle of a coup if the government was aware. “My total concern was for the kids’ safety. I felt responsible for the kids and also I knew their coaches personally and professionally,” he added. 

In a lighter tone Montrella said, “We had t-shirts made up later and mailed them to the swimmers that said Chilean Coup Crew 1973. I still have my shirt.”

Nancy Kirkpatrick with newspapers
Nancy Kirkpatrick back home with newspapers she smuggled out of Chile.
Time Magazine cover of Coup in Chile
1973 Time Magazine cover of the Coup
Newsweek cover from 1973 coup
A Newsweek cover from 1973.

A version of this story first appeared in SwimSwam Magazine’s Spring 2021 Issue. To subscribe to SwimSwam, order back issues or access them digitally, click HERE.

Jim Montrella’s legendary coaching career includes becoming an NCAA-winning Ohio State Women’s Swimming and US Olympic coach. Montrella also produced the first commercially sold hand paddles.

Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno was one of the first female swimmers to be awarded a college scholarship under Title IX. She is the head coach of Conejo Valley Multisport Masters and was USMS Coach of the Year in 2009.

Photos courtesy of Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno.

Abbey Weitzeil cover of Spring 2021 SwimSwam magazine.
The cover of the Spring 2021 issue.
layout from SwimSwam magazine.
Layout of article in SwimSwam Magazine.

Will Caeleb Dressel be a household name?

My son and swim team friend winning the high school Physics cardboard boat race in the city pool. She competed in Beijing and London Olympics in distance freestyle races.

I wrote a an article called Why Isn’t Caeleb Dressel a Household Name? for SwimSwam in 2018. Dressel had competed in NCAA championships and had broken barriers like the 40-second mark in the 100-yard freestyle. But at the time, only swim nerds knew his name.

After this past week, I’m sure he will be better known, but after the Olympic’s fades away will his name fade, too?

Swimming like gymnastics are collegiate sports and there’s not much attention to them until Olympic years. It all comes down to money in my opinion. Football and basketball are money makers for schools. Swimming loses revenue. No fans are buying tickets, the meets are free and sparsely attended. The pool costs money to maintain.

During my years as a swim parent, I wondered how to get swimming to be more popular. In 2019 the International Swimming League began holding competitions. Have you heard about it? There are teams in the US and abroad filled with the world’s swimming stars. The teams compete against each other and it gives swimmers a chance to earn money, race and hopefully get more fans to appreciate swimming. But it isn’t televised, at least I haven’t seen it. I think it’s livestreamed.

Here’s the article I wrote that mentions Caeleb Dressel and wonders how to get more people into swimming:

Why isn’t caeleb dressel a household name?

BY SWIMSWAM 

March 27th, 2018 Lifestyle

Courtesy of Elizabeth Wickham

We witnessed amazing things this past weekend watching the 2018 Men’s D1 NCAA meet. Who can believe that a human being broke 40 seconds in the 100 free, or 18 seconds in the 50 free—not to mention 43 seconds in the 100 fly? Caeleb Dressel should be a household name this week after breaking through these barriers at his final meet as a senior swimming for the University of Florida.

We watched from home on the computer, something that wasn’t possible years ago. The livestream was clear, the narration entertaining and professional. I remember trying to watch one of our friend’s kids at Trials in 2008 and the production quality wasn’t great and the livestream paused repeatedly. Swim coverage has improved significantly through the years, but I wonder if the audience has increased?

Of course, Olympic sports don’t get the attention at the collegiate level as the big money sports, like football and basketball. In addition, we hear heartbreaking news of universities canceling swim programs regardless of high GPAs or how many times the teams win conference meets, like the recent news of Eastern Michigan University. We have to wait every four years for the Olympics to come around to show the nation how great our swimmers are. Is there anything we can do as swim enthusiasts to change this? In all reality, probably not much. I personally don’t have the power to change TV schedules or viewing habits, but I can work on several little things.

Here are a few ideas about how we can help the popularity of swimming:

ONE

Scorekeeping. We’ve had friends come to meets and they don’t know what’s going on because there’s never a score posted. In other sports, you know which team is winning. Is it possible to post scores often and prominently at meets where they are keeping team scores?

TWO

Bring a friend to the pool. Whether your team has a “bring a friend day” or you ask one of your child’s friends to visit practice, we can reach out to more kids and introduce them to swimming.

THREE

Keep swimming fun. One reason why kids quit swimming is it’s “not fun anymore.” By allowing our kids time to goof off with their friends around the pool deck, either before or after practice, and keeping our attitudes light, we may keep our kids in the pool for more years.

FOUR

Invite friends and family to a meet. We can share our excitement and enthusiasm with our friends and family. Maybe not ask them to sit on the deck with us for two or three days, but have them stop by for an hour or two. Explain what’s going on so they can follow along and maybe they’ll catch the swimming bug.

FIVE

Be an ambassador. Talk about swimming with your non-swimming friends and share how much the sport has helped your kids. Encourage friends at any age to get into the pool and enjoy the great feeling of floating in the water. It’s never too late to join a Masters team.

My daughter has her foot still on the blocks as they dive in for the 200 free. The swimmer in the lead is Olympic medalist Abbey Weitzeil. This was the summer of 2013, while they were still in high school.

Are you watching the Olympics? What are your favorite sports to watch? Do you keep track of those sports on off Olympic years? Also, what do you think of this year’s Olympics with all the ups, downs, and drama?

Is it genetics or performance pressure ?

swimmer with JO medal
My daughter with a Junior Olympic medal as a young teen.

Yesterday I wrote about Amy Osaka and her withdrawal from the French Open due to her taking care of her mental health. You can read that post here.

Immediately after I posted that story, I ran across a SwimSwam article about a swimmer retiring because of her mental health. I remember this swimmer because she was at the big meets in Southern California as one of the youngest, if not the youngest swimmer entered — and she was from Virginia! She was very fast, too. She held the national age group record for 11-12 years olds in the mile.

“Isabella Rongione announced the end of her competitive swimming career, opening up about her personal struggles and the need to put her mental health first.”

PAC-12 STANDOUT ISABELLA RONGIONE RETIRES, OPENS UP ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
by Jared Anderson SWIMSWAM

Rongione shared the news in an Instagram post this week. Her last swim came in December of 2018, the month before Rongione says he was admitted to treatment following a suicide attempt.

“My mental health had to be the priority over the past couple years and I never was able to fully commit to getting back into the pool,” Rongione writes.

“To all those athletes dealing with mental health issues — make sure to take the time you need in order to heal yourself properly.”

There are many famous athletes who suffer from depression including Michael Phelps, Amy Osaka, Allison Schmitt (Olympic swimmer) and Serena Williams. You can read about 10 of these athletes here. I wonder if it’s genetics or the pressure with being an athlete at such a young age?

My daughter who was a swimmer at a high level (college scholarship athlete and high school All American) suffered from anxiety and then depression while swimming in college. She swam competitively from age five through 22 — when her shoulder gave up on her.

Looking back, we were such enthusiastic parents cheerleading her swim career along the way. It was exciting and took over a lot of our family’s life. Did we create an unsustainable path for her? What happens when the swim career, the center of her world and identity ends? Or in the case of someone like Amy Osaka or Isabella Rongione, is the pressure to perform too much?

Here’s a study published online from Cambridge University by Lynette Hughes and Gerard Leavey called Setting the bar: athletes and vulnerability to mental illness.

Risk factors for athletes

“Although moderate or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity is important in the prevention of and recovery from mental and physical health problems, when performed more intensely at ‘professional/elite’ levels, physical activity can compromise health. 1,5 Beyond the national prestige, fame and glory of Olympic success lies the darker side of overexposure to elite sport such as overtraining, injury, burnout, increased risk for sudden cardiac death and other non-cardiovascular conditions such as respiratory symptoms, iron deficiency, increased incidence of allergies, immunological suppression and infection, gastrointestinal symptoms, diabetes mellitus and eating disorders. 6

“Athletes may also be vulnerable to mental illness for several reasons. First, the social world of many organised elite sports is one that requires investments of time and energy, often resulting in a loss of personal autonomy and disempowerment for athletes. 7 The elite-sport environment can result in ‘identity-foreclosure’ leaving athletes few other avenues through which to shape and reflect personality. 7 High athletic identity has been linked to psychological distress when this function of identity is removed, and to overtraining and athlete burnout. 7 The latter conditions strongly correlate with affective disorders such as major depressive disorder.”

I also read that 30% of NCAA athletes report having depression. It could have only gotten worse this past year.

young swimmer getting medals from coach.
My daughter, age 5, receiving medals, ribbons and applause from her coach after a swim meet.

What are your thoughts about athletes and depression? Do you think it’s genetics? Performance pressure? Or both?

10 and unders relay team with medals at JOs
My daughter’s relay team after winning third place at Junior Olympics in Southern California.

How do you handle stress?

Did you know that 85% of Americans view stress as negative and something to be avoided? I know I do. I’m anti stress. And I get stressed out easily.

freestyle swimmer breathing to the side
My daughter racing.

I listened to a webinar called “Helping Children Handle Stress in Sports” by David Benzel of Growing Champions for Life. I’m not through the entire webinar, but I learned a few things I wanted to share.

Benzel explained that there are three main types of stress: developmental, environmental and accidental. Developmental stress refers to the changes we go through during different periods of life like going to school, graduating high school, moving away for college, graduating and getting a job, etc. His talk focused on environmental stress for sports parents. Is the team culture stressful? Do your kids get stressed out to perform? Personally, one of my major stresses is driving on freeways. That environment gets me freaked out.

The third type of stress is accidental as in accidents. I know my daughter spirals out of control when she’s faced with something unexpected like her first day of work on Monday and she discovered someone smashed her car window. Or when she’s gotten in car accidents.

We all handle stress differently and have different symptoms. Personally, I feel stress in my neck and shoulders. When my shoulders are touching my ears chances are I’m feeling stress. I also get an upset stomach, start sweating profusely and shake. Ugh. My body takes over and I feel out of control.

Benzel made the point that our bodies memorize stress after our brains calm down. A healthy reaction to stress is a spike up with the fight or flight response followed by a dip or valley before going back to a normal range. Some people have three or four spikes and don’t get back to normal right away. That’s because they (or me) tend to play the stressful situation over and over in their minds. Stress is a physical reaction going off in our bodies, Benzel said. So, if you “hash and rehash” as my daughter pointed out I have a tendency to do, our body is going to refresh the blasts of cortisol — the stress hormone — over and over.

What I’ve learned so far listening to this webinar is to take a new approach to stress and realize that it is normal and neutral. Benzel said we need to look at our mindset about stress. 15% of Americans view stress as enhancing. They think it adds to their performance and production. Stress can improve health and vitality, learning and growth. In other words, accept there is stress in our lives and look at how it can helps us.

cardboard boat races for physics class
My son and teammate racing their cardboard boat in a high school Physics competition.

What gets you stressed out? And how do you feel stress in your body?

Parenting tip: When to keep your mouth shut

freestyle stroke in pool
My daughter swimming on her own during vacation.

I read a great article, “The first rule of sports (and all) parenting: Don’t speak,” in the Washington Post by Nancy Star:

Your child doesn’t have to play in the Super Bowl for you to know the feeling. Their team was supposed to win and then they didn’t. What do you do? Being the mother of two girls who played soccer and ran track, I thought I knew the answer: Talk it through. Tell them you love them. Say it’s just a game. Remind them there’s always a next time. Isn’t that what good parenting is all about? Keeping channels of communication open even in tough moments?

Turns out the answer is no. I learned this when I had a “don’t speak” moment.

I understand this all too well. After my kids would have a disappointing swim, I’d try to reassure them. I wanted to take away their hurt and make them feel better. Most often after I’d say, “That wasn’t so bad,” or “You have another swim ahead.” I’d be met with negativity and a statement like “I sucked!”

I’d get a barrage of negativity that would take me by surprise. I never figured out that by trying to protect them from their upset feelings, I wasn’t making it better for my kids, but was making them feel worse. They weren’t ready to talk about a bad swim with me and “hash and rehash,” as my daughter would say. I read in a David Benzel sports parenting book, “From Chump to Champ,” that we should wait for our kids to talk to us. We need to be there and listen. But, if we start the conversation first, even with the best intentions, they’ll probably pull away and stay quiet. They want to please us so much and may take any little thing we say personally, as though they’ve let us down. It’s best to be quiet and listen. They may surprise us and open up more than ever if we let them take the lead.

Here’s more from the Washington Post article with the mom watching her daughter’s varsity soccer team lose their final meet. She received advice from a dad, Peter, who had more experience with soccer parenting and she followed it.

“Their lead slipped to a tie toward the end of the second half. In the last minute of play there was a stumble, scrambling and a goal for the other team.

Parents supplied transportation for home games, so we waited while our daughters gave sullen high-fives to the winners and then huddled with their coach, listening as he shared his disappointment. When he was done they separated and, backpacks slung over shoulders, trudged across the field toward where we stood.

Watching their grim faces approach I wished a meteorologist were present to confirm my suspicion that 22 high school girls who’ve just lost a chance at a state title can change the atmosphere, collectively sucking the light out of the sky. Their fury was frightening.

But Peter had been through this before. “Don’t speak,” he said. As I started to turn my head he added, “Don’t look. Just walk. Go to your car. She’ll find you.”

I tried not to move my lips as I objected. “All I want to say is I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” he advised. “Don’t speak. Not until she talks to you.”

Because he had been through this before, I listened and walked to my car alone. I felt her before I saw her, walking silently beside me. Reassuring phrases immediately formed in my brain but, channeling Peter, I said nothing.

A moment later I noticed her teammates walking with their parents, mothers mostly, who offered words of consolation. “Are you okay?” and “You played well,” and “There’s always next time.” To me the words sounded gentle and kind.

The girls did not agree. “No,” they snapped, and “I sucked,” and “There won’t be a next time.”

By the time we reached the car, every daughter except mine was crying and the moms were, understandably, annoyed and lashing back. “Why are you yelling at me?” and “Being upset is no excuse for being rude.”

We were silent on the ride home, silent as I turned on to our street. It was when I pulled into the driveway that my daughter finally spoke. “That was such a bad game.”

I nodded.”

How do you handle your children’s athletic or academic disappointment?

PAC 12 swimmers cheering on teammates
My daughter on the blocks cheering with teammates.

What’s the main role of parents?

swim coach with young swimmer

My daughter with her coach, who also was a mentor.

In my SwimSwam parenting articles I often stress that parents and coaches have different roles. There’s a saying that I learned from USA Swimming back when I wrote a monthly newsletter for our swim team: Swimmers swim, parents parent and coaches coach.

As a long-time swim parent, my role seemed to be filled with endless loads of washing towels and feeding super hungry kids.

Yesterday I listened to a webinar that took this topic head on. It was by David Benzel of Growing Champions for Life called How to discuss performance issues with your child — and remain friends. Benzel said that the word coach was first used in the days of the stagecoach. You know, that vehicle that helped people get from point A to point B. A teacher referred to himself as a “coach” back then and today we all use the word to describe the person who helps our athletes on their journey.

Another point he made was that parents main role is to be a mentor in life lessons, while a coach helps on the field of pool with improving their skills. All mentors are coaches, Benzel said, but not all coaches are mentors.

coach with young swimmers

Coach Dwight was an amazing mentor to our young swimmers.

Here are the words Benzel used to describe coaches: instructional, inspirational, analytical, authoritarian, organized and encouraging.

The mentor or parent is supportive, exemplary, compassionate, authoritative, empathetic and loving.

If you get your roles mixed up and tell your kids how to improve or what they did wrong they can get really confused and upset. They don’t know if you’re coaching or criticizing. If you’re inspiring or disciplining. So often our kids fear they are disappointing us. Coaching them will make them defensive and feel like they’re never good enough in our eyes.

Isn’t that amazing? We are only trying to help our kids be better and want them to succeed.

In order to help our kids Benzel said we need to tell them “I love to watch you play.” And then be silent. Don’t say anything more until you’re asked. He said if we as parents ask thought provoking questions like “why do you enjoy swimming?” or “What are you doing when you feel the best?” — then we aren’t being judgmental but may open up a conversation.

Here are the life lessons Benzel listed that we can help our kids learn in our role as a parent and mentor:

self-esteem, self-confidence, self-discipline, self-control, empathy, generosity, sacrifice, patience, personal responsibility, grit, optimism, handling emotions, humility, gratefulness, fairness and loyalty. 

Boy, that’s quite a list. Yes, I hope my kids learned these things through their years in the pool. I hope I helped them along the way. Because as Benzel said, If not you — WHO? If not now –WHEN?

college daughter and coach at the side of the pool

My daughter with her college coach at a big meet in Santa Clara. Another coach who was also a mentor.

If your kids are in sports, what do you see as your most critical role?

Youth Sports: If I Knew What I Know Now

swimming pool in Palm Springs

Our beautiful city pool where our team practices.

I made a major mistake as a swim mom. This is a true confession of how I blew it and how I wish I knew years ago what I know today. I’m talking about understanding the role of a swim parent. I listened to a webinar yesterday by Growing Champions for Life’s founder David Benzel. He said he started his not-for-profit because he made so many mistakes as a sports parents and wanted to help others from making the same mistakes.

That’s how I feel, too. That’s why I began writing parenting advice for SwimSwam, the world’s most read swimming site. What I heard yesterday from Benzel made me remember a lot of the mistakes we made — yes, I’m dragging my husband into this, too.

Picture a triangle. In the center of it all is the youth sports team, whether it’s club or school. Your child, the student-athlete, is at the top of the triangle. The left bottom corner is the coach and the remaining corner is the parent. We each have a different role to play. It’s crucial we understand what our role is and not get in the other person’s lane.

For athletes, their role is to have fun, learn new skills and develop character through sports.

For parents, we need to teach character lessons, build family unity and reinforce sports messages.

For coaches, their job is to teach sports skills, build team unity and to reinforce character lessons.

That simple equation of Swimmers swim, Coaches coach and Parents parent hit home. I realized that one big mistake in swim parenting started when the kids were very young. There was a much more experienced swim dad who worked at the same firm with my husband. He told us how great a sport swimming was. He suggested reading up on technique because of the fine details like how a swimmer holds their hand and enters the water could make a difference in how fast they swam. That sounded so fascinating to me and my husband.

That little bit of advice and information opened up a can or worms. We thought it meant IT WAS OKAY TO COACH OUR KIDS. It’s not. It’s very confusing for kids when we are yelling from the sidelines, or telling them to do something a certain way after practice, on the drive home. Their coach may be focusing on something altogether different.

Now that I became a swimmer with my own coach. I understand that he often gives me one or two things to work on. He doesn’t overwhelm me with everything that’s wrong with my stroke. He tries to correct head position, or rotation. Something basic and integral, before moving on to the next “fix.’

As parents, we often have no clue what the coach’s objective is. We don’t know what they are focused on. By inserting ourselves into the wrong lane — the coach’s lane — we can cause confusion for our kids, frustration for us and the coach. I talked to my daughter about how we tried to coach and how wrong that was. She said, “You did forever. You guys never stopped.”

Another reason why it’s bad to put on the coaching hat, when we aren’t the coach, is this: kids want to please their parents. Continual coaching and correcting can make our children believe they have failed us.

Best to focus on telling our kids, “I love to watch you swim.” Tell them how proud you are of their hard work and let them have fun.

my kids and me at PAC 12 swimming champs

At the PAC 12 swimming championships with my son and daughter.

What experiences did you have as a sports parent and did you ever catch yourself coaching when you shouldn’t?