Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Q&A with USA swim director Frank Busch
By Bonnie D. Ford
Veteran college coach Frank Busch took over in early May as USA Swimming national team director at a critical time for the organization, two months before the World Championships in China and 14 months out from the London 2012 Olympic Games. Busch, best known as head coach at the University of Arizona (1989-2011) and the University of Cincinnati (1980-89), has served on U.S. Olympic and world team coaching staffs and helped produce 10 Olympic medalists. Busch succeeds Mark Schubert, who was controversially fired by USA Swimming last fall for still-unspecified reasons. Busch inherits a program loaded with talent, but also must deal with the continuing fallout and reform prompted by Fran Crippen's death in an open water event last year and a sexual misconduct scandal on the youth/club team level. Busch sat down with ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford last month in Fort Lauderdale. The following are excerpts from that conversation:
Ford: In a world where there's a lot more parity in international sport, U.S. swimming has been able to maintain its stature in terms of results and prestige. How much more difficult is it to stay at the top now?
Busch: We have to focus on our national youth team, and on new coaches. If you look back over the last three Olympics, the coaching staffs are very similar, and they're not getting any younger. Nothing against our coaches, it's just a fact. The bricks are in place for London, but I'm looking down the way at young coaches getting the experience, having the athletes have more international experience so we can begin to fill the ranks ... The swim coaches in this country are some of the most competitive people you'll ever come across. They're all about putting their athletes on the Olympic team, winning medals, setting world and Olympic records. Not a lot needs to be said by me to stir up competitive juices in the American coaching community. Probably my biggest job is to make sure that I give them the avenues they need to be as successful as possible with their athletes.
Ford: The coaches have always operated in a sort of free market system where they established themselves at a club or a college level and got athletes onto the national team and got noticed. Does there need to be more structured talent scouting or mentoring?
Busch: I'm going to implement a coaching mentoring program where anyone who has an athlete on the national junior team can request and apply to spend time with one of the national coaches. That's going to go into effect quickly, because it's really important. We'll take care of the expenses and that coach will spend the time with you that's necessary ... We just had the national coaches' association meeting, and if you had a member on the national junior team or the national team, they were all together. I think there were 96 coaches. First time it's ever been open to the youth coaches. It changed the whole atmosphere of things. Those young coaches and club coaches got to mesh with the coaches who have been around for some time and developed some great athletes.
Ford: It's possible now for a swimmer to excel and make a living through three or four Olympic cycles. That's great for continuity in the program, but there's more of a bottleneck at the top now, and it's harder for young athletes to make their first Olympic team.
Busch: There's give and take, prolonging someone's career, particularly if they're very, very good. There are only two spots (in each individual world or Olympic event). But as things evolve that way, people understand that. There are still some incredible young athletes coming up right now who are challenging and beating the post-grad athletes and the collegiate athletes, for that matter. Every time you set the bar high, people chase it. You're not seeing a lot of world records right now because of the (ban on non-textile) suits, but boy, we're getting a lot closer.
Ford: The first couple of swimmers who break those records, what a huge psychological boost that's going to be. Are we going to see that before or during the next Olympics?
Busch: You'll have to earn it. It won't be like it was for that two-year period. It will be very, very difficult to break a record of any kind, in your own country, let alone a world record. But it will happen.
Ford: Michael Phelps talked to me about the necessity of being "cleaner," as in more efficient, in the water. It's forced people to drill deeper into that, hasn't it?
Busch: Everyone has their little clichés: Be a human spear in the water, less drag. How are you going to get faster? How are you going to get more miles per gallon? You have to get more aerodynamic, you have to change the way air flows through the grill of your car. We have smart people, computers, analysis systems ... I never get in the water, but I wouldn't want them telling me what I look like.
Ford: You never get in the water?
Busch: No. I'm a runner.
Busch: You kind of find that when you reach a certain age there's something about weight-bearing exercise that helps keep weight off.
Ford: Obviously Mark [Schubert]'s departure was difficult. Are you on a footing and is the federation on a footing with him where if you thought he had something to contribute, is it a comfortable thing, are you going to be able to talk to him or is there a distance and a space now that has to be there?
Busch: I've known Mark a long time, and we're good friends. If I ever had a question where I felt I needed some experience, insight, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up the phone.
Ford: Since Fran Crippen's death, the open water constituency is asking for more time, attention, resources and respect from USA Swimming. There have been a lot of developments in the last couple months, a lot of groups and committees working on the same thing. Who is going to be your main conduit of information?
Busch: Unfortunately, a tragedy had to bring us to this. We had a tremendous loss and hopefully we learned something from that. Someone needs to be watching every stroke of the way. I believe that's the mentality of FINA. I know it's the mentality of USA Swimming. When we host an event, it will be an event that meets the rules and regulations of all the different committees that have come out. We feel that FINA's parameters for water and air temperature could be more conservative than they are, just to be safer.
Ford: You have finite resources. Athletes on the national open water team are competing all over the world, and ideally each of them would have their own [coach] with them. But that's a big delegation. That's a lot of money. You're just stepping into your new boots here, but can you ramp up support for these athletes in the 14 months leading up to the Olympics?
Busch: We have to. It's not a question of 'Can we?' Would this tragedy have happened if eyes were on [Crippen]? Maybe. But I'd like to think that Fran would have had a heckuva lot better chance if eyes had been on him. We're going to be very sensitive to what's going on, and we're not going to let a race go off if we don't have the personnel to do it right. I haven't seen my first open water race yet. I've been educated in a hurry by [assistant national open water coach] Paul Asmuth, and we have a new coordinator for open water, we just hired that position. It's been a crash course.
Ford: The crisis around inappropriate coach-athlete relationships at the youth level isn't a national team issue per se, but it could affect kids that are future national team swimmers. Is there a role for you in continuing to make sure that ethical standards are being met?
Busch: I think it's everyone's responsibility. It's a huge responsibility. I just came from Tucson where the shooting happened with [Congresswoman] Gabby Gifford. As things have unfolded, the emphasis has been put on mental health. Is there a way in which you can identify it at an earlier time and keep an individual from doing what they did? And the answer to that right now is, I'm not sure. I don't want to say no, but the probability is pretty slim, because there's a lot of people who struggle with life out there. I'm sure there are unstable coaches. We're doing background checks and doing [training in] coaches' ethics and making sure we follow that up. I don't know if anyone is ever going to be as tight on this as USA Swimming.
Ford: Anonymous, confidential reporting has to be an element of that system, right?