David Marsh Is Making a Splash
David Marsh trained three Beijing Olympic gold medal winners, and he has even bigger visions for Charlotte's SwimMAC
David Marsh left his position as head coach of Auburn University's men's and women's swim teams to become coaching director and CEO of SwimMAC. Since his arrival, SwimMAC has quickly become one of the most competitive swimming programs in the country.
Music fills the stadium, momentarily silencing the crowd. Dum, dum, dum-dum, dum go the drums; the horns begin to blare. It's the theme song made famous by NBC's broadcast of the Olympic Games. A sense of patriotism thickens the air. Swimmers Mark Gangloff (photo) and Ricky Berens take the stage wearing their gold medals. Fans cheer loudly -- almost as loudly as they will when the Carolina Panthers' game against the New Orleans Saints starts in a few minutes. Gangloff, Berens, and Cullen Jones -- each with Charlotte ties -- are being honored during this pregame ceremony (a previous engagement kept Jones from attending).
Months after swimming -- and Michael Phelps -- captured the world's attention, Gangloff, Berens, and Jones, ages twenty-six, twenty, and twenty-four, respectively, are still riding the wave. But the cameras have gradually gone away and the lights have begun to dim. As 2009 comes in, the swimmers are getting back to the training that took them to the world's largest stage. Berens, who grew up in Charlotte, is back at the University of Texas, where he's a junior on the swim team. Gangloff and Jones are returning to SwimMAC Carolina.
Charlotte's homegrown swim club rather quietly trained those Olympic athletes. SwimMAC, originally known as Mecklenburg Aquatic Club (MAC), has a rich and accomplished history that dates back more than thirty years. It's produced numerous top swimmers and won dozens of awards, including state team of the year every year since 1983. But now SwimMAC's impact is extending beyond the state and region. USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, designated the club a Center of Excellence, an experimental concept never before tried at any swimming program. The idea is that SwimMAC will become a training destination for top post collegiate swimmers from around the country. The link bringing this all together is David Marsh.
Marsh became coaching director and CEO of SwimMAC in 2007 after seventeen years as head coach of the Auburn University men's and women's swim teams. He led Auburn to a combined twelve national championships. Marsh running SwimMAC is like Coach K leaving Duke to take over an AAU basketball program. With a strong foundation already in place, Marsh is elevating SwimMAC to the kind of swim club he always envisioned. And with the popularity of -- and interest in -- swimming at an all-time high, it couldn't come at a better time.
For Marsh to leave behind the storied college program he built is evidence of his belief in what he could bring and his confidence in what SwimMAC had to offer. But it took a little while for the two to realize that they were a perfect match. Jeff Gaeckle, the former director of SwimMAC and now the president of its board of directors, began a search in 2006 to find his replacement. He sought out Marsh for advice.
"I told Jeff, ‘You're a big club, but you're a big club that hasn't really produced on the consistent level you can,' " Marsh says. " ‘And the element you're missing is that in a town like Charlotte, there's no university role model.' " So Gaeckle decided he needed to hire a major college coach. After consulting with USA Swimming and the USOC, he offered Marsh the job.
Marsh surprised many in the sport by accepting the post at SwimMAC. He had, after all, just won another college national championship. But he was drawn by the appeal of working with swimmers at a young age, influenced by seeing his own children who had started in the sport and how he thought they could be taught much better -- "bring them through a program where technique is valued more than how many laps you can do." That, coupled with the opportunity to train swimmers after college and the allure of a new challenge, ultimately led to his decision. And SwimMAC took its most important step to achieving its goal of becoming one of the top swim clubs in the nation.
On a dreary November evening, Marsh is guiding his senior team through practice at Johnson C. Smith University. SwimMAC operates four pools in Mecklenburg County—including an impressive facility it owns on the campus of Charlotte Latin that's about to undergo an expansion—and it's recently begun using this pool at JCSU. The central location is convenient for the group of high school boys and girls who come from all over Charlotte for this twice-a-week practice. Before they jump into the pool, coach Charlie Dragon has them run the steps at the football stadium and wind sprints around the track.
Outside it's about 50 degrees. Inside the gymnasium where the pool is, it's a steamy 90 degrees, the result of the room being closed all day and humidity from the water. Marsh and Dragon prop open the doors to allow in some cool air. After changing into their swim suits, about twenty kids dive into the pool.
"In the freestyle now, let's rotate and kick here, rotate and kick here," Marsh instructs. "Use snorkels on the free[style]."
Pacing around the pool, Marsh appears to be in great shape. At forty-nine, he's tall, slim, and built like a cyclist or long-distance runner. His hair is brown and curly, and he says his skin and hair isn't as green as it used to be because water treatment chemicals are more advanced now. He is part coach: "That lap looked better than anything I saw on Saturday," he says to one of the girls. "Let the meets bring out the best in you." And part proud parent: "He's got a scholarship to Notre Dame," he says, pointing to kids in the pool. "He's got a scholarship to Stanford. He's deciding between Berkeley and Stanford. He's probably going to go to Florida. That's Ricky Berens's little brother right there."
SwimMAC led the nation's swim clubs last year with twenty-nine USA Swimming Scholastic All-Americans, which meant each of the students competed in an individual event that met Junior National Bonus Time Standards and have maintained at least a 3.5 grade point average. The club has about 750 swimmers on the various levels of its competitive team, making it one of the largest in the country (the club also teaches swimming to 2,500 people each year through its noncompetitive programs). Almost all of these kids swim for their high school teams in addition to competing for SwimMAC, which Marsh says makes their schools' teams better.
Marsh's practices are very active, and he isn't afraid to mix things up. His training plans run for eighteen to twenty-four weeks, with the first six weeks primarily focusing on technique. The swimmers get a break in the spring and another in the fall. "A lot of physiologists will say we're overdoing it," Marsh says. "But every time the teams have tried to do less and less, the results eventually were less also."
At this practice, the swimmers spend several minutes sculling, an exercise in which the swimmer does a figure-eight motion with his hands in a method that Marsh says helps them develop a great feel for the water. The technique is common among synchronized swimmers. Marsh says he wants "the power of a weightlifter with the feel of a synchronized swimmer to make up the ideal competitive swimmer."
"If you don't have a swimming background, it could be hard to understand, but this is so unconventional," Dragon says. He says he's learning a lot from Marsh's methods, which also include using training tools in the water to create resistance. "David can create Olympic swimmers doing stuff like that."
Through all the organized chaos in the pool, something stands out—one of these things is not like the others. Among the sea of SwimMAC caps, one cap is emblazoned "Olympic USA." Gold medalist Mark Gangloff is in the pool training, too.
"I think it's important," Gangloff says. "When younger kids see an Olympic athlete on TV and the [meet] times they [swim], it almost puts the Olympic athlete out of reach. They might not be able to conceptualize being that fast. But at MAC, when they can swim alongside me, they're seeing me as being a lot more personable."
Gangloff won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics when he was still a student at Auburn. When it came time to train for the 2008 Olympics, he knew exactly where he wanted to be. "I followed David here from Auburn because I believe in his vision, but also the support staff with the other coaches." Gangloff and his wife, Ashley, live in north Charlotte.
Marsh is not only attracting top post collegiate athletes, but coaches are coming here to be a part of his program as well. After coaching a swim club in New Jersey, Dragon traveled the country -- from Baltimore to Seattle -- searching for a coaching home. He came here in October and immediately fell in love with the program. "There's maybe fewer than five teams like this in the country," he says. "Just the level of organization at MAC—it's run like a business. A lot of athletic teams are kind of haphazard, people are in and out, and it's not very professional. But at MAC it's very professional, and that's what drew me to it. I wanted to be around a bunch of people who took what they're doing seriously."
Marsh's push to elevate SwimMAC to an elite level is coming at a time when swimming is as popular as ever. Traditionally the sport has been known for athletes who quit competing in their mid twenties due to burnout and a lack of opportunities to swim professionally. "Our sport can be a lonely sport in a lot of ways," Marsh says. "And you have to put in a lot of hard work." But swimmers are now staying in the sport longer, as was evident at the Beijing Olympics. But these athletes need more opportunities than the one that comes around every four years.
"We're starting programs where athletes can go after their college careers are over—the average age is getting older and older," says Mark Schubert, national team head coach and general manager for USA Swimming. "More opportunities for swimmers, like the opportunity to swim with the caliber of a coach of David Marsh, like for Cullen Jones."
Jones, who swam on the world-record-setting four-by-100-meter freestyle relay team with Michael Phelps at the Olympics, credits Marsh's training for helping him compete at his top level. Leading up to the Olympics, Jones, who swam for N.C. State, felt like he wasn't in peak condition. Schubert suggested he go to Charlotte and train with Marsh. So he did, moving here in April from Raleigh.
"I've always respected David," Jones says. "He would always give me advice, even when he was the coach at Auburn. I came to Charlotte and we instantly clicked. I noticed my times getting better, my body getting stronger, and my confidence rising."
After the Olympics, Jones embarked on a worldwide tour of sorts, holding speaking engagements and appearing on shows like Oprah and BET's 106 & Park. He settled back into Charlotte in November to start training again with Marsh. He has his sights set on 2012 in London.
Jones, along with Gangloff and many other top swimmers, is preparing for the World Aquatics Championships in Rome this summer. But before that will be SwimMAC's signature event. The annual Charlotte Ultra Swim, part of the USA Swimming Grand Prix series, is being held May 14-17. The competition has attracted top swimmers from around the country over the past few years, including Phelps, Katie Hoff, and several other Olympians.
Even as SwimMAC attracts top post collegiate swimmers like Gangloff and Jones, Marsh still feels that Charlotte needs a strong university-level program. And he's working on it.
If UNC-Charlotte starts a football team, it would also have to add three women's sports teams to comply with NCAA gender-equity rules, says Judy Rose, UNCC's athletic director. One of those sports would likely be women's swimming. Rose discussed the possibility with Marsh in November. She was concerned about only adding women's swimming and not men's, but Marsh assured her it would be a great step.
"He would want to enhance the opportunity and sees it as an avenue for him [to train swimmers]," she says. "And he said it could actually improve our recruiting overall. I was really excited after I met him."
But not nearly as excited as the kids who got to meet Gangloff and Berens at that Panthers game. A group swarmed the two, asking for autographs and pictures. One woman came over with her three kids, all of whom are on SwimMAC's twelve-and-under squads. "They wanted to come over and meet you," she told them.
If Marsh has his way, there will be a lot of meetings like this in Charlotte.
Jarvis Holliday is a freelance writer in Charlotte. In the December issue, he wrote about the efforts to redevelop the Double Oaks neighborhood. E-mail: email@example.com.