John Urbanchek is one of the greatest swim coaches ever to grace a pool deck.

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Urbanchek has taken 44 swimmers to represent their country in six Olympic Games, from Barcelona in 1992 to London in 2012.  His pupils have set a dozen world records and brought home more than 20 Olympic medals, including 11 golds.  The legendary Urbanchek was the primary coach of at least one Olympic gold medalist at every Games from 1996 to 2012.  He has worked with Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Tom Dolan.


Long considered one of swimming’s most innovative coaches, Urbanchek has been at the forefront of his sport for parts of six decades.  He was the first coach to use a digital timing system [converting a water polo shot clock into a workout timer], invented the swim parka, and pioneered the use of water bottles on deck to keep swimmers hydrated during workouts.  His coaching tree has spawned many of today’s top American coaches, including Bruce Gemmell, Dave Salo and Bob Bowman.  “Jon Urbanchek is my role model, mentor and dear friend,” said Bowman, who has guided Phelps to a record 23 Olympic gold medals.  “He is one of the best coaches and people this sport has ever seen.”

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A native of Hungary, Urbanchek fled his homeland during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, escaping by train in the middle of the night without even telling his parents he was leaving.  He defected to the U.S., arriving broke and speaking almost no English with the promise of a swim scholarship to the University of Michigan.  Urbanchek earned All-American honors and helped the Wolverines to three NCAA titles from 1958 to 1962.

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After graduating Michigan with a degree in Physical Education, Urbanchek drove to California in a ’61 Austin-Healy convertible.  He landed at the Sammy Lee Swim School in Anaheim, where be started his coaching career.  A 1953 Sullivan Award winner and two-time Olympic gold medal diver, Lee later coached Greg Louganis to five Olympic diving medals.  Urbanchek helped Orange County become a hotbed for swimming talent.  His first training camp included 12-year-old Gary Hall, a future three-time Olympian and father of gold medal sprinter Gary Hall Jr.  He also mentored Steve and Bruce Furniss, who would go on to set ten world records and win a pair of Olympic golds.

Urbanchek coached swimming and water polo for 14 years at Anaheim High School.  He co-founded the Fullerton Aquatic Sports Team [FAST] – which produced Olympians Shirley Babashoff and Janet Evans — then spent four years at Long Beach State.  In 1982, Urbanchek returned to Michigan.

Possessing great passion, Urbanchek has the ability to inspire and connect with talented athletes.  His enthusiasm is contagious, and he is superb at getting swimmers to believe in themselves.  Urbanchek helmed the UM men’s team from 1982 to 2004.  He led the Wolverines to their first NCAA title since he was an undergrad, and guided Michigan to 13 Big Ten titles, including the Decade of Dominance that saw UM win ten straight from 1986 to 1995.  He became close friends with football coach Bo Schembechler.  “I enjoy hanging around with winners,” said Urbanchek. “Hoping something would rub off on me.”  Urbanchek was named Big Ten Coach of the Year a record nine times, and Michigan went 100-4 in conference meets under his tutelage.

After stepping down as head coach at Michigan, Urbanchek assisted Bowman and Mike Bottom with the Wolverines men’s program.  In 2010, he returned to southern California to run the Olympic training center at the Janet Evans Swim Complex in Fullerton.  A dozen of his swimmers made the 2012 Olympic team, and seven came home from the London Games with medals.

Urbanchek, who will turn 82 this year, has helped swimmers develop both in and out of the pool.  He is highly respected within the swimming world, and, in 2017, was presented the IOC Lifetime Achievement Award.  A member of the International Swimming and Michigan Sports halls of fame, Mr. Urbanchek currently serves as a volunteer coach for Dave Salo at USC.

On this date in 2004, the swimming competition concluded at the Athens Olympics.  Coached by John Urbanchek, U.S. swimmers claimed 28 medals in Athens, a dozen of which were gold.

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Comments

  1. Jim, Great article on a good friend. John and I worked at Michigan for 10 years in the 80’s and 90’s. He was around our program frequently due to the fact that as he said “I like to be around winners”. Well, what John may not know is that Bo felt the same way. Two legands in thier respective sports! Great, Great article. A must read!!

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