By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
If Bruce Gemmell had stayed true to the advice he received years ago from coaching legend Jon Urbanchek, he’d still be an engineer instead of coaching current and future swimming superstars at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club (NCAP) in the Washington, D.C. area.
It was Urbie – who took over the University of Michigan program the season after Gemmell’s senior year as a Wolverine – who encouraged him to pursue a professional career outside of coaching swimming.
And even though he gave it a shot – he worked as an engineer for several years after earning his master’s degree while serving as a graduate assistant under Urbancheck – the idea of working with youth in the sport that gave him so much was just too alluring.
“He told me to go into engineering – my bachelor’s degree is in engineering – and forget about coaching, and I tried,” Gemmell said. “I worked in engineering for many years but always stayed active in coaching on a part-time basis. It was something that always called me back. It’s what I’m meant to do.”
Engineering’s loss has definitely proven to be swimming’s gain. After coaching for many years in his home state, Gemmell is approaching the first anniversary of his move from the Delaware Swim Club to NCAP last October.
He said he sees great opportunity now that he’s had some time to adjust and learn more about the program following what he calls a “whirlwind year.”
“It’s great to get to up to speed and be able to really do some planning for the team this year,” said Gemmell, who commuted two hours from Delaware for the first 90 days before relocating. “It’s been challenging getting used to being responsible for 8-and-under, learn-to-swim kids as well as a 16-year-old Olympic champion.”
That Olympic champion he’s referring to just happens to be one of the best distance freestyle swimmers in the world – Katie Ledecky. Gemmell inherited the opportunity to work with her when he took over the program, and despite her success last summer in London, saw an opportunity to help her become an even more accomplished – and well-rounded – swimmer.
Known as a distance coach – having coached his son, Andrew, to a spot on the 2012 Olympic team in the 1500 freestyle – Gemmell sat down with Ledecky shortly after arriving at the club and helped her plan by approaching her events with a more explosive attitude.
“She and her family were so welcoming to me, and although she was initially apprehensive about changing up her training, she quickly realized the changes I proposed would make her a faster distance swimmer,” Gemmell said.
And it worked. At World Championships a couple of weeks ago, Ledecky won four gold medals – including her first relay gold – and set two world records and an American record in the 400 freestyle.
“It became pretty obvious she isn’t a classic miler, so we focused on training for the 400 down to the 200 and up to the 800, making her more explosive. She has turned the 400 into a sprint event.”
Gemmell’s own swimming story began like most as a typical suburban kid who started summer league at age 6, followed by winter swimming at 8 and competitive doubles at 14. He swam four years at Michigan, earning All-American honors and qualified for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Trials.
Along the way, he watched and learned some of the best coaches in the business, and when he decided to take the leap into full-time coaching, he mirrored his own style and philosophy after those he respected.
It’s a practice he continues today, picking up tips and practices that work for other coaches and administering them with his own swimmers – and it’s worked. He has placed swimmers on USA Swimming's National "A" Team for five consecutive years and USA Swimming's Junior/Youth "A" Team seven of the last eight years.
“This is a very collaborative sport, where you talk to and learn from each other all with the intent of making stronger, smarter, faster swimmers,” said Gemmell, who has been coaching for more than 20 years and directs 140 swimmers at NCAP’s Georgetown Prep’s site. “That’s my coaching philosophy – steal from everyone in order to develop well-rounded athletes by their mid-teens. That’s when their opportunities to specialize expands and opens new doors to swim in college.”
And despite having detoured from his original path for several years as an engineer, Gemmell said he knows he doing his dream these days, and doesn’t intend to stray again.
“Urbie still gives me a hard time – and I him – whenever he sees me, but I know he knows I made the right choice,” said Gemmell. “I’m very happy coaching at the club level and helping mold young swimmers. It took me 20 years, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Bruce Gemmell’s Five Pillars of Coaching:
- Hard work works
- Patience is a necessity
- Beauty of knowing more gets great results
- Be in it for the athlete
- Always be prepared to learn