Master stroke

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

Everyone had questions. But no one had a job.
So he created his own, and in the mid-1970s, Heidenreich opened Aquatic Academy; he also coached a swim team with his brother-in-law. The only problem was that he hated the parents. "They were so meddling," he recalls now, laughing. "And I said, 'I'm getting out of swimming. I'm gonna do something respectable.'" He eventually began selling insurance. The job lasted a year and a day.

For the next decade, he bounced from job to job. For a while, he worked for Gordon McLendon's long-defunct KNUS-FM. Then he sold exploding bank dye. In 1980, he moved to California to sell computer software, then came back to Dallas three years later to work for Bill Clements.

But he was restless, tired of moving between jobs like some sort of nomad. He thought about what he wanted to do more than anything else. The answer was obvious. He wanted to be around swimmers.

"Once you get older," Heidenreich says, "you start looking inside yourself more: Who am I? What am I all about? Why am I here?"

When he was young, perhaps Heidenreich was no different from most swimmers--boys and girls lost in their own worlds, kids who spend so much time under water, they begin to think nothing exists on dry land. Competitive swimmers are the freaks of the sporting world, surrounded by nothing but the empty cold and the perpetual thoughts floating inside their waterlogged heads. No one feels more absolutely alone than the swimmer.

A swimmer can't hear the roar of the crowd. A swimmer can't see the entirety of the pool, can't ever be sure who leads the pack or who lags behind. Swimming is not just a sport. It's more like a religion built upon what one Olympic coach once called "common suffering." And for what?

"I have a saying I try to get all my swimmers to understand," Heidenreich says. "It's 'Be one with the water...If you know how to feel it, sense it, and be one with it--in other words, you don't fight against the water--it's a really cool feeling. I like spending more time under water than on top."

As a child, Heidenreich didn't intend to spend his entire life in the pool. Like most his age, he swam during the summer, killing the hot, dead days doing laps in the neighborhood pool in North Dallas. But even as a 6-year-old, he showed natural ability in the pool. Don Woodward--a two-time All-American at SMU in 1958 and '59--was Heidenreich's coach back then and recalls that "Jerry was pretty much a free spirit at that age. He liked to do things his way."

In October 1963, Heidenreich was asked to compete in a meet in Mexico City and discovered that swimming was more than just a summertime whimsy. He liked working out all year long, liked the traveling--really liked missing school. Till that point, he had been only a "middle-of-the-pack swimmer." But when he was 16, he found he loved being in the water more than being out of it. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest in 1968, he was an All-American in backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle--and missed making the Olympic team by one-tenth of a second in the 100-meter butterfly.

"It was the best thing that happened to me," he says now. "If I had made it, I probably wouldn't have been as hungry for the next Olympics."

At SMU, Heidenreich set the American record in the 200-meter free--besting Mark Spitz's mark by a full second. He will forever hold the record for most Southwest Conference titles. And then, there are those Olympic medals: the two golds in the relays, the silver in the 100-meter freestyle (Spitz beat him by a fraction of a fraction of a second), the bronze in the 100-meter butterfly. They remain permanent proof of his splendor.

"Jerry Heidenreich was the only guy Mark Spitz was scared of," says Don Woodward. "It could have been Heidenreich instead of Spitz. Spitz just happened to do it at that time. It might have been the fear of Heidenreich that drove Spitz to do just a little bit better."

But Heidenreich is not so concerned with what might have been. After years of schlepping around his trophies, he long ago discarded the cumbersome bases and now keeps only the tops in a cardboard box in his garage. And unlike Spitz, who stores his medals in a bank vault, Heidenreich keeps his Olympic medals in a bag "somewhere," he says with a shrug, accessible to anyone who would like to see them.

"One thing I learned later on was that it wasn't so much about what do I get after the race," Heidenreich says. "It's the actual race. If you talk to a gambler who's addicted to gambling, it's not the thrill of winning or losing--it's the thrill of the action. They get the same rush whether they win or lose."

Yet the man who wouldn't be coach says he now can't imagine doing anything else with his life. He hands over an e-mail from one of the high school students in his ATAC class. A year ago, the kid couldn't even swim; now, he is competing in swim meets, setting personal bests with each race. He even has a medal to show for all his work.

"Your patience with me and your pushing me have brought me to goals that were pie-in-the-sky dreams six months ago," the boy writes in his e-mail. "I'm not sure that I've ever been this happy, so THANK YOU soooo much."

"That," Heidenreich says, "should explain everything.

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