By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Lindsay (Benko) Mintenko had a title-winning career at USC and then won gold in 2000 (4x200 relay) and 2004 (4x100, 4x200). The National Team Managing Director of USA Swimming. She’s thrilled to see the USA Swimming women dominating individual events and relays, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. When you were at Worlds in Spain, was it a familiar feeling?
Lindsay: You know, it was really fun to be back in Barcelona. That was a place of fond memories, from 2003, so it was fun to be there – though things (laughs) look a little different when you are not an athlete anymore!
2. How about those USA Swimming women?
Lindsay: It was so fun to see the women do well. Winning all three relays was a big step for our women’s program. It’s definitely moving in the right direction.
3. You must’ve been extra proud also as a National Team key person still now, right?
Lindsay: You know, it was a great sense of pride, but I don’t take any credit for the way the athletes swim; they did that themselves with their coaches and the great support staff we have. My job is to make sure they stay happy and relaxed, and get to where they are going and where they are coming from. But I do enjoy seeing smiles.
4. What is that feeling like, after seeing them do so well at Worlds?
Lindsay: You know, it makes you feel like you’ve done a good job, and that does always make you feel good. That goes with any job, whether it’s the job I am in now or any career path I could have chosen. You always want to do a good job. I think the most important thing for me is to make sure the athletes feel comfortable around me. Me, having been there, I understand things quite a bit, and I will always keep their best interest at heart. And I take a lot of pride in that, doing what is best for all the athletes.
5. How about Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky becoming the best two swimmers in the world?
Lindsay: Two teens. Who knows the last time there were two teens who were that good? It just bodes really well that our coaches are doing the right things for our athletes, and we are promoting and getting a lot of younger athletes into our sport.
6. And yet the chemistry on these teams is unheard of, isn’t it?
Lindsay: You know what? Everybody always asks, what do I take away from these competitions? And it was really interesting to see the team dynamic in 2011, 2012 and 2013, with so many rookies on those ‘12 and ‘13 teams. Now you have so many people who are enjoying this and proud to be on the team. The veterans are having more fun and enjoying it more. Having the rookies on the team brings a breath of fresh air.
7. Did you see this coming from Katie Ledecky this soon?
Lindsay: Katie is amazing. It’s great to see. I remember watching her at camp (pre-Olympics) in Knoxville and just being blown away by the things she was doing in practice – as a former 400 swimmer myself, it was jaw-dropping. One of the first questions I asked the coaches when I saw them was “What’s happening with Katie? They said, “She is going to light it up.” It was fun to see it. To see someone go 3:59 is just so inspiring.
8. How does she stay so grounded and away from the kind of hype and mistakes we see from young standouts in other sports?
Lindsay: I think it has a lot to do with her family putting her in the right situations, and her coaches, with Bruce and Yuri, her past and current coaches, putting her in situations that make her happy. I think you see that with Missy as well, and a lot of these young athletes. A lot of being successful is not just what you do in the pool, but what makes you happy in life.
9. You couldn’t make Missy Franklin any better publicly if you tried, could you – isn’t she just as amazing outside the water?
Lindsay: She really is. And no, I wouldn’t change a thing, because she handles herself very well. That’s also a great credit to her parents – and she’d be the first person to tell you that. She knows her parents have made a lot of sacrifices for her to do what she loves. That’s a definite tribute to the people she has surrounded herself with.
10. Yet after those two incredible swimmers, there are breaststrokers, IMers, and all kinds of talent on the women’s team, correct?
Lindsay: You know, it really is deep. We have a lot of great swimmers, and a lot of great athletes. It’s definitely a blessing. I think we even saw that on the men’s side, a lot of first timers but a lot of rookies who swam well. When you have someone as dominant as Michael leave the sport you’re going to have a little bit of a dip, and that’s okay. We had a great team at Worlds and Juniors who are doing well and on the cusp of just blowing us away with what they can do.
11. We’d love to see Michael come back, and yet the men’s team has stars and depth that can pick up the slack – is that how it seems to you as well?
Lindsay: Exactly, and I think that’s something we need to keep in mind, that our men’s team is still really good and they are not going away. A lot of people expected them to fall by the wayside so to speak, but they were wrong. They’re awesome, they are fun to be around, and they are really smart swimmers. Even the “rookies” really get it and what they need to do to make themselves better. They are pretty awesome and fun to work with as well.
12. I remember a few people making the team who came from nowhere – and that always has and will happen – but can you remember a time where making the women’s National team was this competitive in recent memory?
Lindsay: It’s always been hard to make the women’s team and any international team. I don’t think it will change a lot coming from the athletes’ side of it. It’s a hard thing to do, to make an international team trip, because there is so much talent.
13. Having Natalie Coughlin and others still around, isn’t that just an absolutely wonderful thing for the younger swimmers?
Lindsay: I think by having the older generation, the older girls on the team, it is only going to benefit the younger kids. It helps them in a way you can’t describe or put on paper – you can’t coach it, you can’t expect them to explain what it does, but what they bring just comes with international experience, the athletes being themselves and talking with the new members. It’s not something you can write down, it’s just the way the team dynamics work at USA Swimming.
14. Seeing Natalie at the ready room in London was so cool, because she had this great, important role outside of the relay, didn’t she?
Lindsay: To have Natalie’s presence at any competition is huge. She knows what to do, how to do it, and has been doing it for years. She appreciates what the sport has given her. She appreciates the people around her. She has put herself in good situations, and she appreciates everything that comes with being who she is. Having her presence, and the other veterans, really does make the team stronger, almost like the anchor, the glue that holds the team together. Having her in London and Barcelona makes a big difference. Depending on what Natalie decides, she could still be around for a long time if she chooses.
15. So what about you, with half a relay, are you and Mike going to add two more to have a top world relay in the household?
Lindsay: I’m done having kids! I have two, and they are awesome. I just love my kids. I am very happy with two, I don’t need to have any more! Being a mom is fun; it’s the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it any day of the week. It’s so eye-opening because you just want to do a good job – I want to do as well as my parents did for me. And my parents were awesome. My Mom always tells me, Just do the best you can for them every day. We are fortunate to have one of each gender, so I am learning about the challenges (laughs) that come with that. They make me smile.
16. You see Carol Capitani at Texas and more coaches on National teams that are women – does that make you optimistic for women’s coaching in the future?
Lindsay: It’s awesome to see so many strong women’s coaches. Not only in head coaching roles, but also in assistant coaching roles at universities all over the country. We are working hard at USA Swimming, putting together the women’s summit on a regular basis to get women involved, not only in the sport, but to understand the challenges that come with being a coach. We recognize that there are challenges that come with that job, what can we do as an NGB to help professional women have success.
17. The coaches in USA Swimming – coaching the greatest Americans, but also the greatest foreign swimmers – that bodes well for the entire worldly future of the sport, right?
Lindsay: There really is a good group right now. A lot of really strong coaches are young, and we are hoping they are in this sport for many years because they’re not just young, they are good. We want to keep them not just at the universities, but at the club level too, because there is no bigger influence on young swimmers than the club coach.
18. You returning to the sport in this amazing role years ago – who’d have thought it?
Lindsay: It’s a really fun sport to be a part of. It just makes you appreciate the Olympic movement, and what it stands for, and going back to school (for a masters in sports management) I am learning a lot more about it in general and it’s been eye opening.
19. How about NCAAs – good memories there?
Lindsay: It was so funny because I finally went to NCAAs (earlier this year) for the first time in a long time, and I took my daughter. I was so nervous – the intensity of the meet brought back so many memories. I was really excited to be there – and nervous all at the same time. It’s fun, exciting and a great competition. When you add someone at Cal like Missy Franklin, who is so focused on her teammates and being a good teammate, it shows why she wanted to put off going pro, and I’m a big proponent of that – going to college and swimming – it just makes the NCAAs future that much more exciting. Listen, winning the team title in 1997 (at USC) was one of my greatest accomplishments and something I still take great pride and joy in. Missy taking part in that, she’ll feel the same way; NCAA seasons are amazing, because you go through thick and thin with your teammates in college, make life-long friendships, work toward goals, and develop into a young adult, and build your network – all while getting a great education. That sets you up for the rest of your life.
20. I know USA Swimming’s people are top-notch throughout that organization from 15 years of interacting with all of you folks, but how much has it opened your eyes working there to the amount of hours people put in to make this the premier sports and swimming organization in the world?
Lindsay: The way I look at it, the coaches, athletes, volunteers – and of course our amazing staff – are really the glue of USA Swimming. We would not have that success at the national or international level without them. We take volunteers on all of these trips, and we have volunteers at Arena Grand Prix events, and at every meet you go to – there are so many officials and people involved in all different parts of USA Swimming. Coming from being an athlete and being on international trips and National teams, to working for the NGB now, I never really noticed that. So now part of my goal is to instill that knowledge and understanding in the athletes, because all of these people care so much about our athletes, and are very important to everyone, including the best athletes in the world on our National Teams. It takes pride and a commitment to excellence at every level, and that’s what USA Swimming is so proud of, and thankful for, especially right now.