Master stroke

Olympic gold medalist Jerry Heidenreich has become what he swore he never would -- one hell of a swimming coach

Jerry Heidenreich stood alone on the starter's block, waiting for his teammate to touch the wall. Heidenreich had done this thousands of times before, waited God knows how many times for his turn to dive into the pool and put away a relay race. He'd been doing it since he was a kid. He'd been a star at Hillcrest High School and Southern Methodist University. In the end, what was one more race?

But this time, he could feel it--and not just the usual butterflies, either. This was the grandest stage a young athlete could ever dream of--the 1972 Munich Olympics. And Heidenreich was about to be the final man in the pool in the last swimming event of the games. It was such a perfect moment that his teammate Mark Spitz wanted it for himself. For Spitz, who was taking home seven gold medals, it would have been the infallible ending to a hero's journey. But the relay was faster with Spitz swimming butterfly and Heidenreich following with freestyle.

The moment would be Heidenreich's alone.
Yet as he stood there, nearly naked in front of millions, the 22-year-old from Dallas wasn't even thinking of the race that he and his teammates would win easily, posting a world-record time. By then, Heidenreich was already beyond it.

"That last race, all I was thinking of, 'This is my last race. This is the last time I'm gonna race. This is it,'" Heidenreich recalls now as he sits in the den of his North Dallas home. A thin smile runs across the lips of a man who would win four medals in Munich, two of them gold.

"It was strange. It was kinda sad in a way. After that, you go, 'I just got outta college. I've been swimming all my life,' and it's kinda like, 'What do you do now?' It's like those astronauts who go to the moon. They come back, and it's like, 'What do I do now? What's left?'"

He had reached the inevitable dead end that greeted all swimmers back then. Now, swimmers can turn pro, tour the circuit, travel from meet to meet in luxurious locales, and make hundreds of thousands of dollars without ever drying off. But in 1972, Heidenreich knew it was time to get out of the pool.

He just didn't know what would happen next. He only knew what wouldn't happen. Jerry Heidenreich would not become a swimming coach. Ever.

It is now 27 years later, a blustery mid-February day, and a 49-year-old Jerry Heidenreich once more stands at the lip of a swimming pool. In the reflection of the sunlight bouncing off the outdoor pool at the Cooper Aerobics Center, Heidenreich doesn't look much older than he did in 1972. The yellow hair has turned several shades of gray; maybe a few more lines run across his face. But at 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, he is still racing-form thin.

Only now, Heidenreich--who ranks alongside Michael Johnson as the most gifted athlete ever to come from Dallas, though he no longer receives the attention--isn't waiting his turn in the pool. He is fully dressed, well protected against a cold front's bluster as he paces the concrete pond. Today, Heidenreich shouts encouragement and instruction to the half-dozen swimmers in the pool, men and women in their 40s and 50s who spend their lunch hours each day doing lap after numbing lap.

They are an odd assortment: former swimmers whose bodies have rounded with age, wives and mothers releasing their pent-up stress with each stroke, ex-runners whose bodies could no longer take the pavement's pounding. Some of these swimmers have been part of Heidenreich's team since 1988, when he founded Swim With America's Masters (SWAM).

This is only one of a handful of teams Heidenreich coaches, instructs, or consults. Indeed, it seems as though he spends every hour of every day beside a pool, teaching children and grown men and women how to do what he once did so effortlessly.

Since the mid-1970s, he has operated the Aquatic Academy, a summer-only swim school for children. When he opened the school at a borrowed pool in North Dallas, no more than 50 children passed through; now, more than 1,000 students take lessons each year. In 1989, Heidenreich began coaching the T Bar M Racquet Club's swim team. Four years later, he accepted the head coaching position at Hockaday. In 1993, he began Team Technique, offering pointers to local swimmers looking to improve their strokes. And in 1997, he founded the Academy of Texas Aquatic Champions (ATAC), a local racing club consisting of school-aged children from all over North Texas, some of whom dream of one day making the Olympic team.

All this from a man who vowed he would never teach swimming.
"Everything evolved the way it's supposed to," he says, grinning.
When Heidenreich returned from Munich, he had no trouble getting job interviews. Everyone wanted to know about the Olympics, about the bloodshed that occurred in Munich when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli team. Heidenreich had been more than just an Olympian. He had been a witness to one of sports' most ignoble moments.

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