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Cal Swim Coach Ready to Continue Run of Success

August 31, 2020

In his 13 seasons as Cal’s head men’s swimming coach, Dave Durden has built the Bears into a national power, with many of his athletes excelling on the international stage.

The 2020 season was setting up as another roaring success for the program and Durden himself. 

In early March the Bears easily won their third straight (fifth under Durden) conference championship and were favored to take a second straight (again fifth with Durden)  NCAA title. As head coach of Team USA Durden would be leading the US contingent into the Tokyo Olympics.

Then the coronavirus hit, the NCAA meet was canceled and the Olympics postponed until 2021. 

But there was no hand-wringing on Durden’s part. That is simply not his style. He and the Bears simply put what is now “spare time” to good use, preparing for the challenges of 2021. 

His Cal team, which has finished either first or second in the NCAAs ten straight years, returns a talented cast including five swimmers -- Ryan Hoffer, Trenton Julian, Reece Whitley, Hugo Gonzalez and Daniel Carr -- who won at least one conference title this year. In addition freestyle specialist Zach Yeadon, a transfer from Notre Dame who won two ACC titles, is now on the Cal roster.

And despite the disappointment of having to wait a year, Durden feels his national team, which includes three current and seven former Cal swimmers, will benefit from the additional time as it points toward the Tokyo Olympics.

Cal Athletics
Bears celebrate 2020 Pac=12 title

He paused in his busy schedule recently for a telephone interview with Bear Insider.

Some highlights: 

Bear Insider: What is the status of your Cal team’s training right now?

Durden: Almost all the swimmers are on campus now. We have another couple on their way, probably coming in the next week and a half. Then another couple who are staying at home, international guys. Just to get their training set up is good, it is not compromised at all. 

They made that decision about the middle of the summer when we were having trouble having consistency with some of the pool time and some of the lifting times, etc. That was a good decision for them and their families. 

BI: Are you going to be able to train as you do normally?

D: “It kind of falls between normally and as close to normal as possible. There are things we have to consider, Instead of having two or three guys in a lane we have each guy in his own lane. It also involves how we space them apart, how we come into the facility, how we leave the facility. That is going to be a new normal for us here. 

“I think the normal part of it is the number of water touches, the number of times we’re in the weight room. There are going to be some personal responsibilities we place on our guys.”e of their bodies right now is going to be at a premium. 

BI: Are you able to do any training or weight lifting indoors?

D: No. When I say weight room I mean outdoors. Luckily we’ve been through this before. I can’t remember what summer slash fall we had our weight room outside. It was up on the deck at Spieker Aquatic Complex. The whole Haas weight room was being redone. And it was kind of like a Venice Muscle Beach sort of vibe. There weren’t any palm trees but it had the feel and rhythm to it. It’s not the first time that we’ve had to adapt to get through this. It is certainly something our guys can handle.”

BI: What is your feeling about this group’s potential?

D: “It is kind of glass half full kind of optimism looking at the schedule and how it plays out for us, especially in the next four months. I’ve expressed to the guys that we’re unique as a college program and maybe not unique in terms of a top-level program. We have a group of our undergrads that are representing the university and then we have a group of postgrads that are continuing on with their swimming careers at a national, international, and professional level and they’re all Cal guys. That’s what makes that group unique is that they’re all former Berkeley swimmers.

“And so far this fall as we look at the next four months this is the first time that we’ve stayed pretty much together as a unit. Thirty-six guys in the water right now, undergrads and postgrads and we’ve never had that before. The fall has always been some moving parts. Managing our college team, where they are, where they’re headed,  and managing our postgrads, where they’re traveling nationally and internationally to compete. It’s not necessarily a challenge in previous falls, but it feels good going into this fall knowing that OK, we’re together, we’re going through this together and we can strengthen our unit together these next four months.”

Al Sermeno - KLC fotos
Durden has won four NCAA titles at Cal

BI: What impact does the schedule change have on the freshmen? 

D: “We have nine incoming freshmen swimmers and one incoming diver. Normally we stay in the six to eight range. Circumstances being what they are, we were able to get nine really quality swimmers and one quality diver.

“We we are asking our freshmen to get up to running speed before they get their feet underneath them. There are going to be some bumps along the way. We are asking them to integrate very quickly. Normally we are able to do some things within the team building, being away early in the season to have some early season meets, where they can really integrate into the program. We were a little bit more of a training focus.

“We are going to be thoughtful and creative how were bring that group in. We are going to have them move out of the dorms for the fall, just to have a little better option in terms of nutrition and fueling. With cafeterias being closed, etcetera, we didn't feel great about having that nutrition out of a box. And we are trying to condense a year of their learning curve in the matter of a few weeks. That is going to have some balances with it.”

BI: Do you feel you have a target on your back, the Alabama of college swimming?

D: “I hope we are the good guys on top rather than the bad guys in that regard. 

“Everything has changed from recruiting to how you structure your team to the qualification process for the NCAA championships and how you score in the NCAA championships. For the last ten years, I feel we do some of that really well, we’ve kept our eye on it. As the recruiting has shifted from a reality base, ….to social media that everything is great and wonderful. And that’s not what Cal is about. It is just the balance of things of proving who we are and kind of focus on that and not let outside influences dictate what we should be.”

BI: Are your athletes dealing with it OK?

D: “I really like this group and how they move through it. We have been fortunate over the last few years to be competing for a national title or be in that conversation. You know that is a very hard thing to sustain. So rather than look at the performance let’s look internally. How can we improve things? Certainly, the pandemic has put some limitations on what we can do. It has forced us to step back as a coaching staff and think how can we get better in this moment. And that’s always the great part, Not looking at the outside and the challenges from the opposition, but look at the internal challenges and what we do and how we do it and figuring out how we can get better. 

“We can look at the competition. ‘Oh this team is coming for us.’ ‘This team has had better-ranked recruiting classes the last three years.’ ‘This team has a new staff member and they are up and coming.;  ‘This team is great on social media,’ ‘This team has won so many national titles.’

“We can look at all that and have it motivate us. We tend to look more internally at areas of our program where we can improve. “

Al Sermeno - KLC fotos
Dave Durden has been Cal’s head coach since 2007

 BI: Has the record of success made recruiting easier?

D: “I wish it made it easier. I am still waiting for the day when that happens, when you can just make a phone call and say, ‘Hey. We’re Cal and one of the best programs over the last decade both collegiately and internationally.’ And then it’s just a snap of the fingers. 

“But it’s never that easy. We know that. And it’s the same thing with swimming. Just because we’re Cal, show up at the pool and put a Cal cap on, it doesn’t mean we’re going to win a national title. There is work that has to be done, stay in synch, stay who we are and how we do it. That is what we have to keep our focus on. And it’s the same thing with recruiting. We have to work hard at it, identify the right athletes and this is a unique time and a unique challenge.”

BI: Is it hard to balance being both Cal coach and Olympic Coach.

D: “I don’t know that it takes away from a time perspective. It certainly is a challenge. It’s not that I am sitting on the pool deck thinking about the Olympic team when I have guys that are training in the water. But it certainly is something that is on the back of my mind. This time period we were kind of running full throttle heading toward the Olympic trials in March then we hit the pause and pulled back. It was the right call, the right decision to make. 

“The fortunate thing for us is that as Olympic coaches we had a plan in place for 2020. It allowed us to pause and plan, really plan for a second Olympic Games. Even though the first one didn’t go through, and we didn’t have the feedback of this worked and this didn’t work. It really allowed us to pull back and say I really didn’t like the way we scheduled this. Let’s think about it and really dig in. 

BI: “Will having the pause in the Olympic process changed the makeup of the Olympic team?

D:Not so much. Everybody from East Coast to West Coast is in a different training situation, and we may want to stop and evaluate things differently. And I think everyone is sort of in a unique spot right now. Some may have been training a little bit longer. Some may have gotten back into their training program relatively recently. I think we are all in the same spot as a country. The great thing about the US Swimming is that you have some really great coaches in this country and just figuring out, that is the thing about being a great coach. You are presented with a set of circumstances and you are figuring out how to make things better. “

BI: How will you determine the final Olympic roster?

D: One of the challenging times will be over the next four months, not having the opportunities to really step back and evaluate athletes in a competitive environment. It’s one thing to race, to step up on the blocks and do it in a time trial, you’re racing yourself. Then it’s getting yourself in an uncomfortable spot, racing competition. Going eyeball to eyeball with a competitor. That is what gets the makeup of the athletes of the country. And we’re not going to have that for a while.

“People may post a great time trial and that’s great, but it does not necessarily capture where they are as a competitive athlete. That’s capturing them in a practice environment, and that’s very different from a meet environment. There are probably a lot of coaches and a lot of programs that put a lot of stock in a practice environment and it’s not the same thing as when you get into a competitive environment, and that’s what I look for as a coach.”


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Cal Swim Coach Ready to Continue Run of Success

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