Home again in Mission Viejo

Legends coaching legends: Mark Schubert (USA, swimming)

By Greg Eggert

Editor from the Americas, FINA Aquatics World Magazine (USA)

Just a few months after the 2016 Rio Olympic Games Mark Schubert returned to the pool deck of the Marguerite Aquatic Complex, 46 years after he first arrived as the head coach of the Mission Viejo Nadadores. His title was associate head coach. Author Tom Wolfe’s book “You Can’t Go Home Again” came to one commentator’s mind when the news broke about Schubert’s return to Mission Viejo for a second act. The premise is that “old ties and associations cannot remain the same, unchanged. Old ways must be set aside as part of a past which cannot easily again be recaptured”. Coach Schubert, a bit older and a bit wiser, would surely have something to say on the topic, debunking those words.


The City of Mission Viejo’s motto is “Making Living Your Mission”. Schubert was preparing, a second time, to make Swimming his Mission, in Mission Viejo. Schubert had done this exceptionally well during his tenure at the Marguerite Aquatic Complex, and achieved similar success at the collegiate, world championship and Olympic levels.

Mission Viejo was in the market for a new head coach for the first time in decades after long-serving head coach Bill Rose announced his retirement earlier in 2016. Rose was 73 years old, highly regarded as one of nation’s best distance swimming coaches, and the coach of several Olympians. Rose had been with the club since 1992 and planned to coach through December of 2017 before enjoying his retirement from coaching.

The agreement was that Rose and Schubert would coach together for the 2017 calendar year. Schubert would assume responsibility for day-to-day operations immediately and in 2018 he would take the head coach title for a second time.

“This is a great opportunity. I get to work with Coach Rose for a year. Bill and I have a great relationship, and I will enjoy working with him, I’m going to be associate head coach working with him and I’m looking forward to that,” Schubert told Swimming World. “To be able to go back and coach at a club I started is like a dream come true for me.”

It was a homecoming for Schubert, who was full of pride to be returning to the internationally renowned Mission Viejo Nadadores swim team that he built from scratch in the early 1970s.

In 1972 the Nadadores were a summer swim team of 55 young kids of varying ages and abilities. In 1978 Sports Illustrated described the team that Schubert inherited: “In those early days, the Nadadores were so bad that other clubs in Orange County refused to swim dual meets with them.”

Schubert’s 2018 Mission is to return the programme to the past glory days which were chock-full of Olympic dreams and medals, like those he first inspired and ignited within weeks of his arrival as a 23-year-old summer league swim coach.

“You’re not going to fail for lack of training”

As a young man, Schubert dreamed of becoming a swim coach. He swam breaststroke on his championship swim team in Akron, Ohio, and played trombone in the high school band. Schubert often wondered what it would take to become a coach and he worked diligently towards that objective. He swam for two years at the University of Kentucky on a swimming scholarship and served as an assistant coach for his final two years while mapping out the next step in his career. Schubert’s dream came to fruition when in 1971 he was hired as the swim coach at Cuyahoga Falls High School in Ohio. Cuyahoga Falls was the little town that was made famous when legendary James Edward “Doc” Counsilman was in residence. Counsilman was the head swimming coach at Indiana University from 1957 to 1990 and a US Olympic coach from 1964 to 1976.

As a young man Schubert loved owning and driving fast cars and coaching kids to become fast swimmers. Schubert wasn’t prepared to lose at anything, but he failed to persuade the Cuyahoga Falls Parks and Recreation Department to purchase a bubble to cover the city’s outdoor pool so that he could train his swimmers all year round.

Schubert recalled his disappointment but long remembered the words he heard that were intended to soften the “No” he received. “Mark, you’re probably going to be a great coach some day, but it’s never going to be in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.”

In 1972, at the age of 23, he applied for and was offered the co-head coaching position with Mission Viejo Nadadores in California, a swimming team with 55 members. Schubert accepted the Nadadores job on condition that the Mission Viejo Company, the owner of the planned community and the recreation centre, would cover the travel expenses for any swimmers who qualified for the US national championships. Schubert knew that no Mission Viejo swimmer had ever done that, but he saw something in the future of his new team that wasn’t obvious to anyone else.

“With the new pool and the corporate backing, I could see the possibilities even then,” Schubert says.

Under Schubert the team quickly grew to over 500 swimmers and became a club swimming powerhouse like none before it. Schubert was a tough taskmaster who often told his swimmers: “You’re not going to fail for lack of training.”

Schubert placed six swimmers on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, more than any other club or college coach.

Schubert was named Coach of the Year for 1975, 1976 and 1981 by the American Swimming Coaches Association. In 1981, for the first and only time in the history of American swimming, his team captured all six national team titles in one year: men’s, women’s and combine titled in short and long-course competition. In that year Mission Viejo swimmers won 15 individual national titles and set 9 American records.

By 1985 his Mission Viejo team claimed a record number of 44 AAU and USS Club National Championship titles, eclipsing Hall of Fame Coach George Haines’s Santa Clara Swim Club record of 43 national team championships. Mission Viejo’s championship titles including 18 women’s team championships, 8 men’s team championships and 18 combined team championships.

Schubert-coached Nadadores achieved 124 individual US national championship titles. A total of 17 Olympic medals – 10 gold, 6 silver and 1 bronze – were earned by Schubert-trained swimmers. His athletes won five individual world championship titles and set 21 world and 88 American records, all during his 13-year tenure.

“Mark’s probably done more for a man his age than anybody else”

In 1985, Schubert said his new “Mission” would be to replicate those achievements on the east coast. Schubert was named coach of the Mission Bay Makos Swim Team in Boca Raton, Florida. During his three years there, his club team won a further nine national team titles and placed three swimmers on the 1988 US Olympic Team, one winning a silver medal.

Schubert was a featured author in the Sports Illustrated Winners Series of books on competitive swimming: Techniques for Champions.

Schubert’s first foray into collegiate swimming was as University of Texas women’s team coach, succeeding Richard Quick, who had led the Longhorns to five straight NCAA team titles and six in seven years at the helm. Schubert’s Longhorns won two NCAA Championships during his four-year tenure from 1989 to 1992. The Longhorn women won 12 NCAA individual and eight relay titles, and Schubert was named 1990 NCAA Coach of the Year. Adding to his reputation as the most successful club coach in history, he and University of Texas men’s coach Eddie Reese won a further 10 USA Swimming national team titles with Texas Aquatics Team.

Schubert return to Southern California to follow retired Hall of Fame coach Peter Daland as the head coach of the University of Southern California’s men’s team. Daland coached USC from 1958 until his retirement in 1992: he coached 70 Olympians and 392 All-Americans, and his USC teams won nine NCAA championships and placed second 11 times, leaving huge shoes for Schubert to fill. As the men’s swim coach for 14 seasons and the women’s coach for 13 seasons, Schubert established an impressive .822 winning percentage and his teams regularly placed in the NCAA top ten. At the University of Southern California, the Trojan women took home the 1997 NCAA team title. Under Schubert’s leadership, USC swimmers won 49 NCAA individual titles and his swimmers qualified for the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams.

After a 25-year coaching career Schubert was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honour Coach in 1997. “Mark’s probably done more for a man his age than anybody else ever involved in the sport,” said Don Gambrill, who served as the USA’s Head Olympic Coach for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Schubert was appointed to the U.S. Olympic coaching staff for the first time in 1980 as an assistant coach of the combined men’s and women’s team. However, the USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year.

At the 1984 Olympics, swum in the newly constructed University of Southern California pool, Schubert served as an assistant coach for the US team. Nadadores swimmers won 13 medals, 10 of them gold. Only five countries won more gold medals in all sports combined in Los Angeles than the swimmers from Mission Viejo won in the pool.

Schubert had a streak of eight consecutive Olympics, serving in one capacity or another on the USA’s Olympic staff.

Schubert coached 38 swimmers on U.S. Olympic teams. He was an assistant for the combined men’s and women’s teams in 1988, women’s team head coach in 1992 and 2004 and men’s team head coach in 2000. He was also a women’s team assistant coach in 1996. He has been a coach at eight World Championships, serving as head men’s and women’s coach in 1982.

Schubert was selected for the newly created role of USA Swimming National Team Head Coach and General Manager in March 2006 and led them to their most dominant performance ever in his first World Championships. The Americans ran away with the medal count in Melbourne 2007, winning an incredible 36 medals, 20 of them gold, and setting 11 world records. Schubert led the US team that earned 31 medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with Michael Phelps winning a record eight golds.

Schubert went on to serve as head coach and CEO of Golden West Swim Club and as head coach of the Golden West College, both teams based in Huntington Beach, California. He led both the women’s and men’s teams to the California State Community College Championships title in his first season. The men’s team also won the state title in 2014 and 2015.

“Shirley was the only one with the guts”

Throughout his career of coaching countless national, world and Olympic champions Schubert may regard Shirley Babashoff as one of the finest swimmers he ever coached. In paying tribute to Babashoff at an American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) Banquet in her honour back in 2016, Schubert recalled something that Olympic coach Don Gambrill once said: “What makes a great swimming coach is a great swimmer, and the person that made people think that I could coach swimming is (Shirley Babashoff).”

“(She) came to me when we built a 50m pool in Mission Viejo (after)her coach had quit. She had to drive 30 miles one way to come to practice. She came twice a day every day. The only day she missed was the day that she thought she had quit swimming, until I showed up in her living room and told her she hadn’t quit yet,” Schubert told the audience at the banquet.

“Olympic year in 1976 our team trained 2-1/2 hours in the morning, every morning, and 2-1/2 hours in the afternoon, every afternoon. They trained with the dream of succeeding at the Montreal Olympic Games. Shirley Babashoff, who had won nationally every event during her career, 100, 200, 400 and 800, as well as held American records in all of those events, at the Olympic Trials 1976 won the 100, the 200, the 400, the 800, as well as the 400 IM, truly a magnificent swimming meet.”

Babashoff had great expectations at the 1976 Olympics. Entered in seven events, she won three silvers and a relay gold but not the individual gold she wanted. Showing her disappointment, Babashoff complained about the physique and the deep voices of her East German competitors and refused to congratulate them. U.S. swimming officials said that they sent GDR star Kornelia Ender a dozen roses in apology.

Schubert, looking back to the build-up to the Montreal Games in his banquet tribute, said: “The press obviously, after that kind of Olympic Trials, built her up as she deserved to be built up… You were one of the few people in the 70s to stand up against doping… Nothing had been proven… but it was obvious, everybody was talking about it, but Shirley was the only one with the guts to say something to the press. She got ridiculed for that, she left the sport disappointed and bitter. And I can’t tell you how happy I am that 40 years later she’s getting the recognition that she has deserved for so many years… Shirley, we are so proud of you for the courage that you have shown and continue to show.”

Babashoff, in reply, recognised that Schubert was partly if not equally responsible for her success. “I want to thank Mark. You go up on the podium at the Olympics and I always felt like I wanted to take him with me and show everyone ‘this is the guy that got me here’ (but) that’s never possible.”

As appreciative as she was of her swim coach, she thoroughly enjoyed poking fun at her taskmaster. “It is true that to be a good coach you don’t have to know how to swim very well. There were occasions when, I don’t know if we made it look easy, but Mark felt like he could do it. A couple of times he wanted to swim just a 25-metre breaststroke… He would dive in and we’d watch him swim and kind of chuckle. But when he stopped, we’d all like be serious, like ‘we weren’t laughing at you’.

Sharing her admiration for all swim coaches, she said: “It really takes a special person to be a coach and I just want each and every one of you to know you are bettering a lot of children’s lives and a lot of people’s lives and they are going to remember that forever. What you learn through swimming, the discipline and the respect and the hard work just stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Upon his return Schubert was instrumental in the renovation of the Mission Viejo facility, on which the city spent more than $11 million.

As 1976 Olympic champion Brian Goodell put it at the time: “It’s incredibly poetic. Mark will be able to complete his career where he made his name. It’s a wonderful thing for the club, the parents and the community. The facility that has been such a special place has new life with Mark and following this investment in massive pool renovations. Mark has the drive, the knowledge, the experience and the passion to further enhance Mission Viejo’s reputation as a swimming mecca.”

Goodell was 9 years old when Schubert became the Mission Viejo head coach. He was the only swimmer on the original Nadadores swim team who knew how to swim butterfly. Schubert first coached him when he was 13 years old. Goodell’s two gold medals in the 400m and 1500m freestyle at the 1976 Montreal Olympics were the only victories by a high school boy in the 13-event men’s Olympic programme.

“When Mark came here nobody in the club liked him,” Goodell said. “He was always yelling. But he kind of grew on you. Besides, he got the best out of us. Mark ran the toughest programme in the country and sometimes I would ask myself if it’s worth it. But I like to win and that’s what it takes. Everything I learned from him, I carried over into my everyday life.”

“I mean, they really work hard”

In August Schubert was on the pool deck at the Asian Games, serving as a part-time adviser for the team from China. “It’s feels strange, very strange, but it’s nice to be involved at this level.” said Schubert.

As US national team head coach at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Schubert was extremely outspoken about issues of doping involving Chinese swimmers dating back to the early 1990s.

“That’s when they got the really bad reputation. Chinese swimmers won almost every event in 1994 (at the FINA World Championships),” Schubert told the Associated Press (AP) news agency. “I think they’ve really made an effort to clean up. From what I’ve seen, most of the problems are out in the provinces with local coaches and kind of renegade athletes.

“At the highest level, particularly at their training centre, they won’t even let swimmers off the campus to eat because they are afraid of food contamination.”

Schubert has hosted several camps in southern California with Chinese swimmers, who periodically train alongside his US swimmers. “It’s good for my team because they can see how really good athletes train, and believe me I point it out to them,” Schubert said.

Ironically Schubert’s experience and expertise is helping Chinese swimmers who may one day stand on the Olympic podium ahead of swimmers from the USA. Schubert recognises several areas where they can improve.

“It’s the little things,” he told AP. “The starts, turns, finishes, and the relay take-offs. I think it cost them some races here. As for training, they work hard. I mean, they really work hard.”

Coaching the son after the mother

As so many things are coming around “full circle” in Schubert’s career, perhaps the best and most recent example is 19-year-old Michael Brinegar, who represented the USA in Tokyo as a member of the 2018 Pan Pacific team just weeks after his high school graduation in June.

“I am particularly proud of Michael who qualified for the US National team in Open Water and the 1500m freestyle and was a member of the 2018 Pan Pacific Championship team. Currently he is a freshman at Indiana University,” Schubert told FINA Aquatics World Magazine in an email.

Brinegar trained with Schubert at Golden West Swim Club and won the 800m freestyle at the 2016 junior championships. When Schubert returned to the Mission Viejo Nadadores, Brinegar followed his coach. He was silver medallist in the 7.5km at the 2016 FINA Junior World Open Water Championships and raced in the 800m and 1500m freestyle at the FINA Junior World Championships in 2017.

In the late 70s Schubert trained Brinegar’s mother, Jennifer Hooker, when she too was at high school, swimming for the Nadadores. Like mother, like son, Brinegar committed to attend his mother’s alma mater and become an Indiana Hoosier. Hooker graduated with a degree in business in 1984, earned a master’s degree in sports management in 1996 and currently works as an assistant athletic director at Indiana University.

As a member of the Bloomington Swim Club in the 1970s, Hooker met and was mentored by Doc Counsilman, coach of the IU men’s swimming team. Counsilman took Hooker under his wing and saw something in Hooker she didn’t see. When she was 12 years old, Counsilman told her that she would make the 1976 Olympic Team. He invited her to train during the summer with the IU swim team and to sit on the bench during college meets – this was during the era of Mark Spitz, Gary Hall and IU’s six consecutive NCAA championships – and taught her about the sport of competitive swimming.

Hooker had just turned 15 when she placed third in the 200m freestyle at the 1976 US Olympic Trials, earning a spot in the team for the Montreal Games. She finished 6th in the 200m free and swam in the heats of the 4x100m freestyle relay, the event in which Babashoff and her team-mates were finally able to break the East German stranglehold. There was no gold medal for Hooker, however, there were medals only for finalists under the rules the in force. “Watching that relay win the Olympic gold medal that night was amazing; it was incredible. It showed that we weren’t complete failures,” recalled Hooker.

After the Olympics Hooker trained with Schubert before enrolling at IU. Swimming at Indiana, Hooker won seven Big 10 championships and twice won national titles, in the 500 yards and 1,650 yards freestyle.

In 2017 Brinegar announced that he would join the class of 2022 at Indiana University and credited his Mission Viejo swim coach: “I am happy to announce my commitment to become an Indiana Hoosier beginning in the 2018-19 academic year. I am excited to have the opportunity to train alongside and learn from 2016 Olympic gold medallists Blake Pieroni, Cody Miller and Lilly King as well as current USA World Championship team member Zane Grothe. The atmosphere of championship expectations is one I look forward to joining at Indiana, and I cannot thank Mark Schubert enough for preparing me for this next step.”

Schubert, once an upstart, like the Mission Viejo community itself, is 46 years removed from near obscurity as a high school swim coach in Ohio. He isn’t as blond, as lean or as beach-boyish as he was in his first act as a pied piper of the Nadadores. He still likes to drive fast cars, including his Porsche 911 Turbo S, and he still enjoys coaching athletes to swim faster and faster.