Shoulberg has left a truly worldwide imprint

WHITEMARSH — Dick Shoulberg’s office long ago conceded the battle of containing his memories.

Pictures and mementos plaster every nook and cranny of the corner of the deck at Germantown Academy. Every inch of wall space, even the row of cinder blocks above the picture windows that overlook the pool Shoulberg has called home for 46 years, is festooned with accomplishments.

There are collages from memorable meets, team pictures so faded that the only discernable characteristics are dark polygons vaguely recognizable as swimsuits. There are plaques commemorating national-record breaking relays and titles from Swimming World Magazine’s mythical national high school meet.

Stacked near the floor are certificates recognizing world records of David Wharton. A 5×7 from one of American swimming’s most luminous days — Aug. 20, 1989, when Wharton was one of four Americans to set world records in Tokyo — sits in a spartan wooden frame, perched on an electrical outlet. From the opposite wall, portraits of two American presidents standing with Shoulberg smile back. Wooden plaques and glass trophies are banished to cases lining a long hallway. Commemoration of GA’s 16 Olympians snake out of the office like ivy, adorning the top of the doorway as you enter.

From the myriad images of a half-century living a coach’s dream, the selection of Shoulberg’s favorite takes an instant. He ambles over to the wall of team pictures, stacked eight high and six across, and taps on the glass guarding a black-and-white snapshot in a nondescript frame.

There are no Olympians pictured, no All-Americans. Just a girl about to jump into a pool populated by several peers. The caption reads, “1969 Learn to Swim. Lower School: Grades 1-3.’

“That’s what this is all about,’ Shoulberg said.

Since that class, Shoulberg proudly proclaims, he’s never had a job interview, never had the inclination to be anywhere but at GA, 72 hours a week, rain or shine. And while the accomplishments of his swimmers and, by extension, him (he’ll never let you forget that is the proper order) are cemented in American swimming lore, his legacy as he approaches his 46th and final Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships this weekend is far less certain.

The announcement of Shoulberg’s retirement from GA and Germantown Academy Aquatic Club came earlier this month, the culmination of 18 tumultuous months that have featured a suspension, a leave of absence, the transitional elevation of Shoulberg to “coach emeritus’ and the hiring of a successor.

Through it all, Shoulberg has maintained his innocence in the face of accusations of improperly handling a hazing incident, allegations he prefers not to talk about. “The only thing I’ve done is look people in the eye and tell them they’re wrong,’ is all he’ll say on the matter.

Shoulberg, 75, vows that he’ll coach “until the undertaker comes.’ But for a man so adept at charting the futures of countless athletes, what lies ahead for Shoulberg remains uncomfortably uncertain.

• • •

Attempting to condense the enormity of Shoulberg’s accomplishments is a herculean task, as his office testifies. He’s served as an American coach at three Olympics and been the head man at numerous international meets, from Pan-American Games to Pan Pacific Championships. Shoulberg has trained 16 Olympians at GAAC for five countries. His tiny outpost flies the flags of 37 nations represented in his teams, all seeking some small share of the magic he’s conjured in legions of swimmers.

The cornerstone of his approach, though, has nothing to do with swimming, per se. While a handful of athletes have earned him international acclaim, Shoulberg’s satisfaction seems equally derived from helping kids find their “Olympic moment’ in any discipline. As often as he mentions Olympians like Wharton, Trina Radke and Maddie Crippen, he also invokes countless elementary school swimmers he’s cured of fear of the pool. He fondly remembers when Joe Frazier’s daughter, as an eighth-grader with no aquatic experience, swam a length of the pool while her legendary father, big hat and all, watched.

His coaching ideology is as simple as his beginnings in the sport, a Norristown High grad who started at Mermaid Swim Club in the early-60s after leaving the military. Shoulberg’s goal was to help kids reach their maximum; for those who aspired to greatness in the pool, his primary motivation was to buck the trend of few competing beyond high school. That fact that his methods included the gospel of mega-yardage and dryland training was tangential to the core emphasis. While the delivery was occasionally brusque and always demanding, the rewards were usually commensurate with the work put in.

“My thinking was, overwork them,’ he said. “And I’ve never had an athlete come back to me, from a Texas, from a Stanford, from a Southern Cal, from a Michigan and say, ‘ I was so unprepared; I couldn’t do the work.’ Every athlete who comes back, I ask them two questions: ‘ Academically are you prepared for your university? Yes. Athletically, are you prepared for your team? Yes.”

The anchor rooting him at GA, through overtures from colleges and national teams, wasn’t the elite. It was rotted in getting kids acquainted with the water. Shoulberg has long been a water-safety advocate and for decades taught four to five swim classes per day, including personalized lessons for older students. He’s urged the administration to make water safety, a leading cause of death among adolescents, a priority. One of his passions is a lifeguarding course he instituted four decades ago, working with USA Swimming and the American Red Cross on a variety of initiatives.

Where Shoulberg has garnered the most attention, though, is in the elite ranks, which blossomed in the mid-1970s. By 1980, he had his first Olympian in Karin LaBerge on the team that boycotted the Moscow Games.

That drew the attention of the eccentric John du Pont, then collecting the greatest sporting minds at his Newtown Square estate. After persistent requests for years, Shoulberg finally relented to being his “weekend warrior,’ fitting in time with du Pont’s wrestlers and modern pentahletes around his GA schedule. Eventually, GAAC and du Pont’s Foxcatcher team folded into one, the squads practicing separately but competing in tandem at the senior level.

So fruitful was the arrangement that Shoulberg, out of respect for a man he often visited in prison and served as a pallbearer for, retained the Foxcatcher name through 2000, four years after du Pont’s infamous killing of wrestler Dave Schultz.

The regional reach of Foxcatcher gave Shoulberg a vast imprint on the Philadelphia swim scene. So many of those he once coached are now his peers, and the influence is undeniable.

“When Shoulberg came in with his reputation, he demanded A) respect, and B) that you worked hard,’ said Haverford School coach Sean Hansen, who swam for Foxcatcher from ages 13-15. “It didn’t matter how you trained, you were going to get faster because you wanted to swim fast for him. He’d be barking, yelling, then you’d get out of the pool and it’s, ‘ hey Sean, how are you?’ like he’s your grandfather. … He’s the reason why we’ve had success, (brother) Brendan in swimming and me in coaching.’

“When you do something like a 16,000(-yard) IM, there are very few things in life that you feel like you can’t do,’ said Kevin Berkoff, the Penn Charter director of aquatics who swam for Shoulberg and served as his assistant for seven years. “If you put your mind to something, you can reach the stars.’

There’s no shortage of honorifics for Shoulberg’s impact. His GA program has long been the model to emulate, and many coaches are unashamed to say that they’ve coopted many of his techniques. More often than not, they’ve done so with Shoulberg’s blessing and support.

“When I started (in 2000), he said to me, ‘ I was there. I was where you are. The same way you trained as a swimmer, that’s how to do it. You have them work hard. Don’t shop around for all-star team. Work with your kids here and it will come,” Hansen said. “Every year, he’d come in and ask, genuinely wanting to know, ‘ how is it going?’ And then you’d go compete, and he’d be yelling and screaming out on the deck.’

“Single-handedly what he’s done is placed Pennsylvania swimming on the map,’ Malvern Prep coach Jay Schiller said. “GA has put our league on the map, with the mythical Swimming World titles and the kids going to Olympic Trials and the Olympics and such. To this day, I think our league is one of the most competitive leagues not just in this area, but across the nation. And that’s the foundation laid by Dick back in the day.’

• • •

Any discussion of Shoulberg’s tenure is incomplete without describing the departure that will be marked this week.

The school announced in early February that Shoulberg would be retiring after the 2014-15 academic year. The non-sequitur in the delivery — that Shoulberg’s retirement was announced not by the coach but by Maggie McVeigh, Germantown Academy’s Director of Professional Development, in a letter to students and parents — speaks volumes.

It’s the continuation of a theme of ambiguity and mystery that has marred the latter stages of his tenure. Shoulberg was placed on administrative leave in the fall of 2013 for a still unspecified incident (reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer as a hazing incident, the nature or scope of which was never elucidated by GA). The manner of that announcement, a letter to swimmers and parents that didn’t mention Shoulberg by name. but only stated that Claire Crippen and Chris Lear had been promoted to head the girls and boys teams, respectively, is indicative of the cryptic messaging surrounding the situation.

Shoulberg was reinstated in December 2013 and helped hire his successor, Jeff Thompson, in June. The agreement was that 2014-15 would be his last season, but Shoulberg told Swimming World in early February that he and GA Head of School Jim Connor had discussed a contract extension as recently as December.

In a conversation Monday, the issue remained unsettled, with Shoulberg saying that he wanted to stay at GA, but “that’s not my call or (Thompson’s); that’s the administration’s.’

Repeated attempts to reach Connor, who has led GA since 1990 and will retire in June 2016, for comment and clarification were not returned.

Thompson fully understood the enormity of the situation he inherited, but he said he and Shoulberg have co-existed well. He’s had to contend with hurt feelings from the community over the ordeal, and there’s been turnover in the coaching staff (Lear and two club coaches departed last fall), but Thompson remains laudatory about his relationship with Shoulberg.

“He has never once tried to impose his will on me and force me maybe to do something that’s not within my coaching philosophy or something that I’m comfortable with,’ said Thompson, who previously coached in Indiana. “… I specifically remember one of the first things I said to Coach Shoulberg when we spoke on the phone was that it’s always been said that it’s professional suicide to follow in the footsteps of a legend. And he quickly threw cold water on that and said that it doesn’t have to be that way here and that he would do anything he could to help me. And he’s done that.’

• • •

Dick Shoulberg will coach his final high school meet at Germantown Academy Saturday, a national event that Shoulberg was instrumental in landing for the Philadelphia area in 1985. At the end of February, he’ll travel to India to deliver a workshop on his renowned training methods. Over spring break — before he celebrates his 76th birthday and 57th wedding anniversary to his wife, Molly — he’ll travel to Trinidad and Tobago for another talk.

He’ll continue coaching, anticipating no shortage of offers, a statement that would sound like hubris from anyone else. Shoulberg won’t kid you into thinking he’s leaving Germantown Academy on his terms, but he’s also found some semblance of peace with it.

“It’s not what I wanted, but I’m OK with it,’ he said. “My wife’s OK with it. It’s OK, because people reach out to me to help kids in their environment. And as long as I know that I will have the opportunity, I’m fine. … I really feel as though I’ve given this school 100 percent of my energy, my passion, my time. I was working a 72-hour week until Oct. 13, 2013. And I loved it. It was never work. I never went to work.’

With peace comes perspective. Many of the photos will remain in the office after Shoulberg has vacated it. There are a few he’ll cherish — those of the late Fran Crippen, the presidential photos, a picture of him coaching in Kiev, Ukraine, in a dual meet with the Soviet Union in 1981, the first American competition with the Eastern bloc in any sport after the 1980 American Olympic boycott.

The memories are portable, as is Shoulberg’s zest for coaching, qualities no office can contain.

“I’m just a guy from Norristown that wants to help kids swim fast and learn how to swim,’ he said. “I have a very simple life. I’ve lived all my life in two-and- a-half square miles. I’ve been to every continent talking about swimming. But I have a simple life.’

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