The pool deck of the boys swimming state meet is a nice place to see a circle get completed.
In roundabout fashion, that happened for me this weekend at New Trier as I watched Libertyville’s young team excel.
I count the Wildcats’ coach, Bob Groseth, as a good friend. He’s far from your typical high school coach, having first excelled at Fenwick before embarking on a collegiate career that included short stints at Cincinnati and Tulane before long, successful runs at Iowa State and Northwestern.
How I met Bob? Well, that’s kind of a story unto itself, and I hope it helps explain why he’s so special.
As a high school senior in the fall of 1983, I was trying to figure out how far swimming might end up taking me.
Initially the answer seemed to be, not very far. My first recruiting trip took me from St. Charles to Ames, Iowa, a place recommended to me by one of our high school assistant coaches, Tom Heidkamp. Others I trusted said Groseth’s Cyclone program was worth checking out. He’d already made a name for himself by getting some of Illinois’ top swimmers to excel at a national level, so it seemed like a natural place to investigate.
Sinces Ames didn’t have its own major airport, I flew into Des Moines, where I was told I’d be greeted by someone from the team who would drive me the 40 or so minutes to campus.
The person saying hello at the gate was wearing too-short jeans, an untucked, rumpled buttoned shirt and a knit winter cap, with wavy brown curls poking out all over the place. I remember thinking, ‘Iowa State’s recruiting guy is Randle McMurphy. Interesting.’
For those who aren’t familiar with Randle McMurphy, he’s the main character, played by Jack Nicholson, in the classic 1975 film portrayal of Ken Kesey’s great novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The movie ended up sweeping the Academy Awards that year, and if you haven’t seen it, well, you owe it to yourself.
Of course, the driver was actually Groseth himself. I think I’d somehow assumed that college swim coaches would dress more like their basketball counterparts, suits and ties, or at least slacks and bad sweaters.
It turned out that was not my only shattered illusion of the trip. My weekend in Ames was, how shall I say ... instructional. I froze my tail off watching Nebraska stomp the Cyclones in football, too proud to admit the windbreaker I’d brought was completely inadequate. To their credit, the Iowa State swimmers seemed only mildly interested in the outcome of a game that was to them, simply a game. In other words, they took their own sport pretty seriously.
I met the Barron brothers of Fenwick swimming fame and befriended the youngest two, Timmy and Tommy. I was witness to my first college dorm party, of which I shall omit any incriminating details except to say it was a great deal of juvenile fun.
And of course, I got to meet a fantastic swimming coach in Groseth. I realized later that coaches typically don’t take the time or effort to pick up their recruits at the airport; they have team captains and recruiting coordinators for that stuff. But we had a great conversation in his car both in and around campus, and I came away thinking, ‘What the heck is this guy doing in Ames’?
In a happy coincidence, I later got to see much more of Groseth, and really got to know him as a person, during my own college swimming days in Madison, Wis. I’d ended up swimming for Wisconsin and coach Jack Pettinger; he and Groseth were (and remain) best of friends.
In the mid 1980s, Groseth and many of his Iowa State swimmers were spending their summers in Madison, where a new 50-meter training pool had been built. Included on those Badger Dolphin summer teams were a great haphazard collection of athletes. It was a mix of swimmers from places like Stanford, Michigan, South Carolina, Purdue. Madison was a summer training spot for some world-class athletes, including Iowa State standouts Scott McAdam and Eric Hansen (who went on to national acclaim and later became Wisconsin’s women’s and men’s coach).
We all shared the same pool and functioned as a kind of summer all-star team. It was challenging on many levels, and I like to think it helped everybody improve. I got to train with Groseth in Madison for four consecutive summers, with one Olympic Trials and three senior national meet trips shared.
As he was making his mark in the sport and developing a reputation for groundbreaking training techniques, I was always struck by how fun it was just to hang out with him. A crucial and often overlooked asset for any successful high-level swimming coach is the ability to talk about something other than swimming.
In those Madison days, Groseth also extended a level of trust that was usual. Since he’s out of college coaching now, I’m hoping it’s OK to reveal that on occasion, he would let athletes borrow his station wagon so they could make a run to the biggest, cheapest food store available so they could stock up on bulk quantities of foods with the highest possible calorie-to-cost ratio. This was a crucial step to our collective survival, as most of us were scrimping by on whatever money our parents could afford to send us.
On rare occasions, Bob would assign his own car to someone especially responsible, and he’d allow that person to keep the vehicle overnight. As fate would have it, sometimes those overnight car loans coincided with entertainment opportunities at places such as, oh, Alpine Valley.
Confession: One time, a half-dozen of us took the wagon for an especially long grocery run and saw, if memory serves, a performance by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. All I can recall is being tired from the preceding workout and generally having fun. But we were all good boys, Bob. Honest.
Groseth’s ability to connect with his swimmers eventually led him to great success at Northwestern, where he changed the program from a Big Ten doormat into a consistent winner. His highest-profile athlete was eventual Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers, but there were dozens more who excelled nationally.
His decision to get out of college coaching was Libertyville’s gain. And it sure looks like the Wildcats will be a force in high school swimming in the coming years.
In addition to individual state final swims from junior Alex Snarski (100 fly, 100 back) and sophomore Matt Harrington (50 free, 100 fly), the Wildcats scored points in two relays on their way to a fourth-place finish. With Atticus Rush and Justin Fu joining Snarski and Harrington, Libertyville placed fifth in the medley relay and seventh in the 400 free relay. None of them are seniors.
Some might consider Libertyville’s fourth-place team finish a surprise, but not this reporter. Experience does count for a lot in coaching swimming, and Groseth has enough of it that it makes a difference.
At one point in Friday’s prelim session, Groseth was explaining to me that the last time he’d been on deck for a state meet at New Trier it was as Hinsdale Central’s team manager — in 1961.
We talked a bit about various former swim coaches, and the sundry reasons they were no longer in the game.
And then I asked Groseth why he was still doing it.
Reverting to Nicholson, he gestured to the pool palms up, tilted his head and cracked that familar, wide grin.
Nice to have you back, Bob.
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