O'Brien intends to retire in October 2020 after 40 years of Masters coaching
Kerry O’Brien didn’t think he would be the Walnut Creek Masters head coach this long.
During his February 1981 interview, he said he could see himself holding the job—which he had already filled for five months on an interim basis—for five years. That was a good enough response to launch his career, one that will end with his retirement in October.
“For 40 years, all it’s been for me is giving back as much as I’ve gotten,” O’Brien says. “It’s all about giving back into those things that have fed me for so long. I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed with the opportunity I’ve been given, the relationships I’ve built over the long years.”
O’Brien will retire after producing a lasting legacy on U.S. Masters Swimming.
He helped Walnut Creek Masters, a Gold Club, grow from around 70 members to more than 450, and his club has perennially been among the best at USMS’s pool national championships. His efforts were recognized when the Grassroots Coaching Award was renamed the USMS Kerry O’Brien Coaches Award in 2008. The award is given annually to coaches who display passion, dedication, and heart on the pool deck and help build membership in their communities.
“I was just kind of floored,” O’Brien says. “I’m still floored about that.”
He reads the nomination letters for the award each year and reviews what makes those coaches good, using that as a motivator for him to display those traits when he’s coaching.
O’Brien’s swimmers see the results of his dedication to coaching every day.
When he joined Walnut Creek Masters, Harold Boscovich struggled to swim more than 25 yards without taking a break. O’Brien worked with Boscovich, having him swim in a 2-foot wading pool to teach him not to go too deep on his strokes and having him swim with rulers duct-taped to his forearm to show him the correct position for his arms upon entering the water.
“It looked stupid, but it worked,” says Boscovich, who has been on 35 Top 10 relays. “Anyone who wants to learn how to coach or be a better coach should shadow Kerry for a few days. His style of coaching brings out the best in people.”
O’Brien enjoys passing along his knowledge to other Masters coaches. He describes USMS’s pool national championships as having “a clinic feel” because he’s discussing stroke technique.
O’Brien participated in USMS’s mentor/mentee program for coaches this year and also serves informally as a mentor to other coaches across the country.
Texas Ford Aquatics Masters Head Coach Richard Garza reached out to O’Brien in 2016 after accepting the position for advice on building a team. O’Brien didn’t hesitate to offer his help, and the two had multiple phone conversations ranging from 10 minutes to an hour.
O’Brien’s advice paid off: Texas Ford Aquatics Masters was named the USMS Club of the Year and Garza the USMS Coach of the Year at the 2019 annual meeting.
“Anyone that has ever coached Masters, especially as a young adult, will understand that you’re dealing with the toughest audience there is,” Garza says. “Once I realized that he was dealing with the same problems I was dealing with and still remained cool and calm about everything, I realized it was possible to react to all of these problems in a much more effective way.”
O’Brien still has several months of coaching left, time he wants to use to help his club hire its next coach and train that person, though he’d like to fill in when needed after retiring, news that his swimmers welcome.
“Throughout the years, [my wife Chris and I] moved away, we came back, and all that time, Kerry O’Brien and the Walnut Creek Masters were always here,” Walnut Creek Masters member Dean Ottati says. “Always welcoming. Always familiar. Always appreciated. Kerry has touched so many people, enhanced so many lives, is loved by so many. It’s hard to put it into words.”
Once he’s retired from coaching, O’Brien intends to keep swimming with Walnut Creek Masters. He can’t leave what he’s developed over the years.
“In 1986, my mom passed away, and suddenly all these older women on the team come up to me and say, ‘We’re your mom now,’” O’Brien says. “It’s just things like that—these relationships we’ve created over this long period of time. I want to have those relationships. These people have been in my life for a long time, and I’m not ready to go off yet.”
- Human Interest