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by Rich Burns

December 1, 2010

"Surrounded by greatness"

If there is a theme to my swimming career it can probably be called, surrounded by greatness.

I grew up on the north side of Chicago. My family had a cabin on the Southeastern shores of Lake Michigan where, from the time I was 3, I spent every summer on the beach. That’s where my father taught me to swim. Swimming to the sand bar, which was usually about 25 yards from shore, was my earliest swimming practice.

When I entered high school in 1957 the expected thing to do was pick a sport. My best friend who lived across the street was a pretty good AAU age group swimmer so he, of course, headed for the pool to join the swim team. I followed. My lake lessons were sufficient to earn me a spot on the freshman squad. That New Trier High School team emerged as one of the best high swim team ever assembled. Our coaches were Dave Robertson, an ISHOF Inductee, and Ray Essick, long time executive director of USA Swimming.

As seniors, our team placed 3rd at the AAU Nationals behind only Southern California and Indiana. My friend from across the street was Fred Schmidt. He went on to win a gold and bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics. Other team members included Dale and Jack Kiefer, Adolph’s sons, Dave Lyons, Roger Goettsche and Terry Townsend, all of whom ranked first in the country in their respective strokes. I however, was a “C” team swimmer through the better part of my senior year. On a team of almost 100, that meant I practiced in a shift long after my friends headed for home. Mid-season I had a breakthrough swim that was good enough to elevate me to the “A” team and earn me a 10th place All-American award. But as the third fastest backstroker on our team, I never swam in a big meet.

My participation in this stellar program suggested that I had promise. I once again followed my friend Fred to Indiana University with the expectation of emerging stardom under Doc Counsilman’s coaching. Four years at this citadel of collegiate swimming, failed to result in the personal greatness I had hoped for. It was not however for lack of positive influences. My roommate sophomore year was Mike Troy, ISHOF Inductee and winner of two gold and one bronze medal at the 1960 Olympic Games. Another roommate was Ted Stickles (ISHOF Inductee) and fraternity brothers included Kevin Berry (ISHOF Inductee) and Alan Somers (1960 Olympian). Swimming alongside me everyday (I say alongside because lane lines in practice were a thing of the future) were the likes of Tom Stock (ISHOF Inductee), Bill Utley (1968 Olympian), Chet Jastremski (ISHOF Inductee), Lary Schulhof (1964 Olympian), Frank McKinney (ISHOF Inductee), Chuck Richards (1968 Olympian) and more All Americans than I have fingers and toes. This group, like the New Trier High School assemblage, was universally considered one of the greatest collegiate teams ever. I was both a bit player and an awed teammate to the stars.

After graduation I spent two years in graduate school and another two years in the Army, where my only swimming experience was a trip to the 6th Army Championships where, without a day of training since leaving Indiana, I was able to win six events. This briefly rekindled my swimming desire but despite that realization, life got in the way. In the ensuing years I moved to San Francisco, started a design practice, had a family and pretty much avoided any physical activity.

In 1975 I received a call for Dore Schwab, a UCLA All American and one of Masters swimming’s earliest advocates and organizers. We had a mutual client who told him that I had swum at Indiana. Dore invited me to visit the local team to see if it was something I might be interested in. “In fact,” he said, “we have a meet this weekend and if you come by you can meet the coach and see what Masters swimming is about.” I did drift by the pool that Saturday and upon my introduction to coach Marie McSweeney, was promptly asked if I would like to swim a relay.

Not thinking, I replied that I didn’t have a suit whereupon at least six guys produced suits that I could borrow.

“How long until the relay,” I asked.

“A couple of hours,” was the answer.

“Anything I can swim in the meantime,” I asked.

“A 200 back is the next event,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

To this day I don’t know what I was thinking. It had been over a decade since I had last swum a serious lap and I clearly remember the atrocity of that 200. It was however, my reentry to swimming. I joined the Tamalpais Masters program in San Rafael, Calif.

I swam through the winter, which was another rude awakening as my Midwest upbringing meant I had rarely swum in an outdoor pool, even in the summer. Morning workouts, outside in January, with the occasional temperature in the 20s, was an unnatural act. The following May I attended my first Masters Short Course National Championship. My performances were lackluster and upon waking up the Monday morning after with a painful earache, I decided that I had enough of Masters swimming, exited the sport and turned my attention to growing my business.

In the summer of 1980 I received another call from Coach Marie informing me that the Long Course Nationals were being held at Santa Clara and, “how would I like to swim a relay.” I made a cameo appearance, swimming a 50 back in the medley relay. It was enough of a reintroduction to the sport to bring me back to the pool.

The following spring the Short Course Nationals at Irvine was my next big competition. The meet reignited my zeal for competition and despite lackluster performances – I finished with 4th, 7th, 10th, 20th, 27th and 31st places. Since that competition, I have attended every short course national meet (30), as well as 17 long course national and 3 world championships.

I quickly came to understand that I was seduced by competition. That was quite a revelation as, in retrospect, I was not especially competitive during my days at New Trier or Indiana. My teammates all shared a certain “go for the jugular” spirit while I was less compulsive. As I have gotten older, I am driven by my love of competing. My early Masters races continued to be mostly middle of the pack finishes. But they were also more chances to be exposed to great swimmers. My age group was full of them with the likes of Thompson Mann (ISHOF Inductee), Tim Garton (ISHOF Inductee), Steve Clark (ISHOF Inductee), Lance Larson (ISHOF Inductee), Bob Strand ((ISHOF Inductee), Dave Lyons (Olympian), Tod Spieker (ISHOF Inductee) and a whole lot of other great swimmers from my era.

My first Masters win was at the 1982 Long Course Nationals in Portland. I recall it as an out of body experience. I managed to place ahead of one of my former teammates at Indiana, Ralph Kendrick. In our years together with Doc, I never came close to approaching Ralph’s times. As I held the gold medal, my instinct told me that it didn’t really belong to me. But it also became a catalyst for my desire to succeed in Masters.

Accepting success was slow coming. At the 1984 Short Course Nationals at Industry Hills California, I swam the 100 free in a heat with a number of my age group’s best swimmers, including Steve Clark. It was in the early days of electronic timing and the meet was complete with state of the art equipment. I remember looking up at the scoreboard at the end of the race. My time: 51.64. My immediate reaction was frustration. “The first time I get to swim with electronic timing and my lane doesn’t work,” I thought to myself. The scoreboard was correct and I placed 4th but it was inconceivable to me that I could swim that time. That experience reflected my confidence and self-image as a swimmer.

I have continued to swim through seven age groups. The constants through this entire time have been my family, who have always encouraged, supported and indulged me; my coach Marie, who has guided my Masters career and has always known how to keep me coming back; and especially my teammates. Here too, I’ve been surrounded by greatness. My teammate and roommate from Indiana, Ken Frost is a many time national champion and world record holder. We share the same lane – day in and day out. Nancy Ridout, also a many time national champion and world record holder, as well as one of Masters swimming’s guiding lights, has been a partner in Masters from my very first day. I also credit the competitors in my age group. After over 30 years of racing the same people, they become like extended family. These rivals and friends have always made me hungrier.

And perhaps the greatest Masters swimmer ever, Laura Val (ISHOF Inductee), has been an inspiration, conscience, friendly competitor (we once swam seven of the same events in a meet and after a total of 18 minutes of swimming, our times were separated by just 4/100ths of a second) and a special friend.