By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Greg Meehan knew during his time competing as a backstroker at Rider that he wanted to teach, and hopefully coach. He started at William & Mary, and then spent two years at Princeton before moving to the West coach as an assistant at UCLA and then head coach at Pacific. From there he worked for Dave Durden at Cal, before taking over the Stanford women’s swim team, which he guided to second place at NCAAs late last month. He talks about the incredible swims, and his own unique journey, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So how did the NCAA Women’s Championship go in relation to how you hoped?
Greg: The weekend went about as well as it possibly could have gone. As we went into the meet, people asked, “How do you think you’ll do?” I thought if we swim well, we’ll be fifth; if everything goes well we could be fourth; if everything that could possibly happen goes the way we need it to, we could be third; and I felt as a team, we were good enough to be second.
2. To be second ahead of some teams favored to beat you, you can’t count on what other teams do or don’t do though, right?
Greg: You can’t obviously control what other people do. You just have to stay focused on the task at hand.
3. You’ve had some career moments at great schools with great people – how much has that helped you be successful?
Greg: I have been at the right place at the right time, being at Princeton in the late 1990s early 2000, and carrying what I learned there to UCLA and the success we had there and winning a Pac 12 – PAC 10 at that time – title, and finishing seventh at NCAAs, then to have the opportunity to work (as the men’s assistant coach) with (Coach) Dave (Durden) at Cal. Everything has gone really well, and I have met the right people, at the right time. I remember coaching in the summer of 2000 with Jon Urbanchek (at Michigan), and that was a pretty big moment in the arc of my coaching career – I learned so much.
4. How did you end up with Jon?
Greg: I was with Jon in the summer to work a camp and with his club team, and I stayed on go to Olympic Trials with him. Those three months were a pretty big moment in my career, and he had two guys, Chris Thompson and Tom Malchow, make the Olympic team. I learned so much from him, and that was important to my development.
5. You go from great school to great school – Cal to Stanford – and that does help logistically with a young family, to be able to stay in the same area, doesn’t it?
Greg: Yes, you know, it’s hard to kind of quantify that, but I have been very fortunate to be in northern California and work with two great universities and not have to move. At some point we’ll move closer to campus, but now with our children being in the same school, it gives my wife peace of mind, and there is great value in that.
6. I used to love to visit Stanford, because everywhere we went someone had just won a prestigious award, had been advising a president, won an Olympic medal, been an ambassador, what’s it like to coach young people who have that academic and intellectual skill set, and the drive to be the best?
Greg: I joke often that it’s a challenge walking into the team meeting knowing that I am (laughs) the dumbest person in the room! I might know more about swimming but it sort of (laughs) ends there. Seriously, I appreciate who they are as student-athletes and the things they bring to the table. In a lot of ways that made this transition easier for me because they are so smart and they understand so much.
7. You were an undergrad math major. I always advise student to either minor in math or take as much math, at least Calculus and Linear Algebra, as possible, because that helps so much in understanding so much of the world – has that helped you in coaching?
Greg: It does in terms of the basic math understanding, but once I was out of school three years, a lot of those skills (laughed) passed me by! But yes, I do think there is a tremendous value in higher education and I have been fortunate to work at some incredible universities. Those experiences I had (as an undergraduate) at Rider were helpful, and those experiences I have had along the way at Princeton, William & Mary, and Cal have shaped who I am.
8. How much did coaching with Dave Durden and learning what it takes to build a title contending team help you?
Greg: There’s always the jump to doing it as a head coach. Dave and I stay in good contact. After the meet was over last week, I left Dave a message thanking him for helping me know how to turn the vision I had into the reality that happened here for us. I think that’s something that Dave does really well, and something I was able to learn firsthand over the four years I worked with him. Out of all the biggest things, learning how to know where you want the program to be, and knowing how to get it there, are so important. You have to have that learning experience, and understand the day-to-day details.
9. So it’s the science of coaching that makes sense?
Greg: I would say it’s the art of coaching that is something that our staff and we as a team and program excel at. When you are younger, it is more the science of it, but then you learn over time to take a step back and look at the program and see, “This is what this particular kid needs on this day.”
10. We talked about Stanford being a top school, but Cal has that same kind of student athlete doesn’t it?
Greg: They certainly are outstanding young people, and such great thinkers. Those experiences I had over that four-year period certainly helped me once I got to Stanford; just being in that academic culture where it’s so driven by wanting to be the best. And I am fortunate to have a perfect life partner in (wife) Tess, and she’s the reason I am able to do the things I want to do. She is so supportive and so talented in her craft and is a partner in her law firm. I am so grateful to have her in my life.
11. So when you go home, you can talk about your long day, and then hear about her courtroom battle or case she’s working on?
Greg: There’s no doubt about it (laughs), when I come home it’s a humbling experience to listen to her talk about what she’s dealing with in her career as I talk about trying to get the kids to swim faster, develop and have a good experience. It’s a balance for us in our home, and it works.
12. I think my favorite moment besides seeing the student-athletes I know at Georgia celebrate was Felicia Lee standing on the podium, and knowing what went into all that – how great was the leadership you had on this year’s team?
Greg: They are very special. Between Felicia and Maya DiRado, just being able to stand back and watch them have this experience as seniors was so rewarding – they are the reason we have been so good this year. There is no other way to say it except that they are the best people, best workers, best competitors, and everything about them just exudes excellence. I am so grateful to be able to have both of them in this program.
13. And such different routes for each right?
Greg: Felicia was a superstar at 13 and Maya has always been the kind of unassuming swimmer who becomes great by staying with it. To watch both of them win individually and then the 400 relay that broke the record was so rewarding – even as I sit here now, that feeling means so much to me.
14. So Cal and Stanford have this rivalry, but for as badly as it is sometimes portrayed, it’s really a healthy respect more than anything isn’t it?
Greg: It is. And I think because of the academic culture – two schools so focused on academics – there is a mutual level of respect, because these are young people who know what it takes to be successful. It’s hard to do what they do. I am fortunate that I met so many great people at my time at Cal. I want to see them do well, and at the same time now I want Stanford to be even more successful.
15. You walk out on that pool deck, are you aware immediately of all the history at Stanford?
Greg: You know, I think it’s inspiring because I got into coaching in the late 1990s when Stanford was just rocking and rolling with their program. To be here now is so humbling to know I am the steward of the program that has been more successful than any program in the NCAA. I don’t think that adds any pressure, no more than I put on myself, but it is a good balance to have those expectations.
16. I follow Stanford alum Kelsey Ditto and stay in touch with Dr. Ben Wildman-Tobriner, and I just see these people I knew as age-groupers now taking on the world and doing such amazing things – what’s that like from the inside?
Greg: It’s the personal relationships and seeing them develop through the course of their career, and knowing the success and lessons they learn in the pool will have a positive impact on their professional fields, in marriage and in family life – they will be able to draw on the experiences they had here to help them the rest of their lives. Felicia and Maya aren’t going to experience anything where they think, “I can’t handle this,” because they can look back on what they did here and know they can do anything. That’s a pretty rewarding part of our job, watching these young people grow, and seeing how those experiences translate as they move onto excel in life.
17. You have another of the really neat young people in Lia Neal, what’s she like to coach?
Greg: Lia’s very mature. She’s just a very happy young woman. A lot of that comes from her Club Coach Rachel Stratton-Mills back (at Asphalt Green) in New York and the environment in which Lia grew up. Once you meet her parents and older brothers, it is no wonder Lia became this amazing person. We adore Lia and are so grateful she came to Stanford to continue to grow and develop as a swimmer, person and thinker.
18. You mentioned learning from so many coaches along the way, what’s that been like?
Greg: I am very grateful, that’s certainly the best way to describe it. Those people, the positions I had, and what I learned, helped me go from here to there, and to here. So Cyndi Gallagher (UCLA head coach), Susan Teeter (Princeton), Dave Durden and Teri McKeever at Cal, and you have to include Ned Skinner at Virginia Tech, as people who helped me get there. Ned was the first guy to give me a job directly out of college, offering me an assistant job at William & Mary. He ended up leaving before I got there, and that ended up being an ever greater opportunity for me. Ned and I have stayed very close, and I value my relationship with him. Would I even be here at Stanford now if Ned hadn’t offered me that job? Everything happens for a reason, including him going to Virginia Tech.
19. What a time to be a head women’s coach with the changing of the guard so to speak and so much incredible young talent, isn’t it?
Greg: Yes, it really is. Women’s swimming has really changed internationally over the last two Olympic Games, and I think it’s going to change even more in Rio in 2016 and then in Tokyo in 2020. That’s been pretty interesting, how the landscape has shifted.
20. You mention coaches, family, swimmers, even their parents, as reasons you’ve been able to develop and be successful – a lot goes into personal and professional develop in this, doesn’t it?
Greg: You know, I think at the end of the day, it just reminds you that there are so many moving pieces that go into success, whether it’s success in the business world, with athletes, or in your personal life. That phrase, “It takes two to tango” is true, and it usually takes a lot more than that. I surrounded myself with great people, and now as a head coach, I am doing that myself with my assistant coach Tracy Duchac, who is just awesome – you will not meet someone more impressive in this country. And then, of course, with my wife and boys, we are just so fortunate. What I love here is the culture at Stanford, and I am so grateful to be one of (Stanford Athletic Director) Bernard Muir’s first hires. I am grateful he took a chance on me. Stanford is a phenomenal place, a place that embraces excellence. We want people to develop and be the best they can be. To do that, you have to be at your best and improve at a high level, so I am just trying to do my part.