Frank Busch is USA Swimming’s National Team Director, a position he has held since 2011. Before this appointment he was Swimming Head Coach at the University of Arizona for 22 years (1989-2011), and coach at University of Cincinnati for nine (1980–89). He was a coach for the USA Olympic teams in 2004 and 2008, and was named NCAA coach of the year six times.
Q: The ebb and flow of generations is a complex picture that rarely means that a team has bullets to fire from every barrel. The flow of swimmers into clubs and programs keeps the stream flowing but what measures does USA Swimming take to actively build strength wave after wave, season after season?
A: Fortunately for us the sport is growing, and has had steady growth for probably the last 20 years. Since 2000 I think Michael Phelps and Chuck Wielgus (USA Swimming Executive Director) have been instrumental in the sport’s growing popularity over the past 12, 13 years. Michael has become something of an icon in American sports, we’ve never had a swimmer like him before, and Chuck’s vision was to expose our sport to the masses through television. So with Michael’s performance and Chuck’s vision it’s been a great combination.
The reason I think we have swimmers continue to fill the ranks and improve is because our coaches are educated, knowledgeable, and they’re more in tune with the sport than ever before. Also, I don’t know if there’s anyone in the world more competitive than American coaches and swimmers, there’s just something about the sport that seems to breed that kind of competitiveness.
Q: Post-Olympic is a watershed each cycle, with coaches changing programs, kids moving on, some going to college, some catching up, some retiring. It’s a wide, varied and complex picture: how, if at all, do you plan for it?
A: I don’t think we can plan for it. Our desire is not to control our athletes or any of their choices, and I’m sure the next generation of swimmers is thankful when people retire or take time off, because it gives them the chance to perform at a higher level. There’s really nothing that can be done in our system that’s going to change that, so we just take it as it comes.
Q: Not wishing to suggest that post-Olympic year is “soft”, it is a fact that the battle the year after a Games is not quite the same battle as the one before the Games. What opportunities does that raise?
A: I don’t know that it presents any more opportunities than are already there, other than perhaps giving the chance to a few swimmers that were maybe third or fourth at the Olympic trials, or those that have had a good year since the Olympics. I think one of the things that people don’t realize when you look at athletes like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin, Grant Hackett, and other greats of the sport, is how they continue to perform year after year at a consistently high level, whether it’s the year of the Olympics, the year after, or any year for that matter, and that’s what separates them from the rest of the group. Without being critical, some athletes might say they need time off after going through the four-year build-up to the Olympics, getting through trials and the Games themselves, and everyone’s different, some people need the break, the pressure of it all is tremendous. But think about those athletes that I mentioned (and I probably missed a few) and what they accomplished, year after year, it never seemed to matter what year it was, they are the ones that set the standard.
Q: One of the most notable aspects of the US London 2012 success story (and that has been the case at a lot of big meets down the years) is the high level of athletes who stepped up (faster at the big meet than trials). Many nations go the other way. What’s at play? What do you do as Team USA to deliver the best when it most counts?
A: I think it comes from expectations. There’s a culture of expectation that’s been there long before I got to where I am, it’s transcended time, and athletes realize that to get to the Olympics is a great challenge, but to perform at the Olympics is the ultimate goal.
Q: In this transitional post-Olympic year, your team has some new names in its midst. Who should we be looking out for and why?
A: I honestly have no idea. After all, in 2012 who was looking at Katie Ledecky? Every athlete on this team wants to perform well in Barcelona. There’ll be some surprises, there’s no question about it, and who they are, your guess is as good as mine.
It’s moments like this that really bring out the champion and the desire. Take athletes who accomplish something when they’re younger, say 12 or 13, it doesn’t matter what the sport is – as long as they realize that as expectations grow, they don’t become a ceiling or a threat, they are an opportunity, and I think it’s important to foster that feeling in young developing athletes rather than saying you have to do this and you have to do that.
Q: The US is a big place. How do you do your job? Is it a case of programs coming to you? Do you travel around a lot? Is everything made easier by the digital age of Skype and teleconference and info sharing at the click of a send button?
A: My primary job is to service the members of US Swimming, so I get out there and make sure that I know what the needs of our athletes and coaches are. I think coach education is a huge part of our success, and so I make sure that our coaches know about the most up-to-date things that are happening in our sport, give them the support that they need, and give them competitions that will foster great swimming and growth. Another important thing is to let them know what my vision is, and what’s coming down the pike. So I do get around a lot, but we also have a few meetings a year when our high profile coaches get together, and there’s also quite a lot of training in Colorado Springs when the athletes come up.
Q: When the team comes together, what new dimension does your role take on?
A: One of my jobs is to make sure that everything is in line logistically, and I have help with that, which makes it easy. It’s also important to inspire the athletes, so I think about ways that will work for unique teams such as this one, which is different from London. I try to think of things that are meaningful to them, to put them in a frame of mind which lets them know we’re going to have fun, and that we’re anticipating good results, so let’s see what kind of energy we can generate to make sure that those results happen. I would like to spend more one-on-one time with the athletes, but that’s more the coach’s purview. My job is to pick my spots (to engage the athletes).
Q: As the long-term head of a successful college program, how important do you think college swimming is to US success – and why?
A: It’s absolutely critical. It’s been the platform that our young athletes have aspired to, the majority wants to be involved in the collegiate system, and it’s an integral part of the step-by-step process as they move into the higher levels of the sport.
Years ago the club system and the high school kids were the developmental cogs of our sport and they fed the collegiate system; now the college system has also become a developmental part of the sport and it feeds the post-graduate system. The average age of this (US) team is 25 for the men, 22 for the women, so most of the athletes on this team are out of college. Maybe 10 years ago, the window of opportunity for a swimmer at the top level was pretty much one quadrennium, today it’s eight years, ten years. The college system’s capacity to provide the financial support for an athlete has had a big part in allowing them to stay at the top longer.
Q: Your team is a mix of youth and experience this summer. How important is to have a Ryan Lochte, an Anthony Ervin, a Natalie Coughlin on board – and – beyond any personal success they may have – what do they bring?
A: You can’t buy experience, you have to live experience, and when it comes to a competitive situation, experience trumps everything. Our senior athletes are great in the way they mentor our newer team members and those that haven’t been through the experience before, and just being around them helps to create a calming effect for those around them.
Q: Programs often visit Colorado Springs and set up regular camps there. What are they tapping into – what do they gain from being there (facilities, environment, sports science etc)?
A: When teams come up (to Colorado Springs), they come as a team, it’s not a select group. They have great access to facilities, nutrition, a very accommodating dorm system, and everything is an easy walk away. Obviously we do all types of monitoring and feedback, such as filming, nutritional evaluation, blood work, and things like that. Everything is there, it’s very focused and concentrated, and it makes it easy for athletes to tap into when they come.
Q: US programs train a lot of people from all over the world and some of those step up and beat Americans. It’s a debate that rumbles on in the background. What’s your take on overseas talent in your college programs?
A: People have been coming to American universities and colleges for over a hundred years, and it’s one of the great things about our culture that we accept people from all over the world. Opening up the college system to foreigners is a way we can extend our good fortune and hospitality to others, and to let them know that they have a chance. I don’t see it as a threat, when they come over (to the US) these foreign athletes raise the bar, and that’s good for everybody. I also don’t see it as a negative, and some people may disagree with me, but if you look at our culture and what it stands for, it’s about opening the door to the opportunities that they came for. Look at our basketball and baseball leagues, they’re full of athletes from all over the world. It’s about being competitive, and I think Americans understand competition, so wherever it’s coming from, we embrace it.
Q: Some say swimming is a sport of individuals; there’s an argument for saying that it is also very much a team sport. What’s your view on that – and if team is important, why?
A: The team is critical. Take an individual and ask them to do an activity by themselves, let’s say to do as many pushups as they can. Maybe they do 20. If we then bring in a group of people to cheer them on to do 30 (because that’s your goal9, there’s a good chance they’re going to do more than 20 and maybe more than 30. It’s a really simple concept. Any time you commit to something, you have an opportunity to excel at it, to take it to another level. When you have people around you that are interested in your success, they understand what you’ve done because they’ve done the same thing, and that’s what makes the team.
Q: What is the best race you ever saw?
A: Two come to my mind right away, and they were both in Beijing (2008 Olympics) – when America won the (men’s 4x100m) freestyle relay and when Michael (Phelps) won the 100 butterfly. Those were two pretty amazing races. I’ve also seen some other really good ones, including some great collegiate races, so to pin one down is difficult. But when Michael won those eight gold medals in Beijing, it’s hard not to single out those two, because without the relay he doesn’t do it, and without touching out (Milorad) Cavic it wouldn’t have happened. It was like he was destined to do it.