Had enough of his Georgia athletes qualified for the Tokyo Games, swimming and diving head coach Jack Bauerle planned to coach in his fifth consecutive Olympics. But when the NCAA canceled the remaining swim season shortly after the SEC championships, and the International Olympic Committee postponed the games to 2021, Bauerle had to switch from trainer to damage controller as his pupils, both collegiate and professional, reeled from their deferred dreams. This summer, Bauerle has trained a small group of Team USA swimmers in backyard pools and local swim centers as they wait out the year-long Olympic Trials postponement. While the professionals still have a shot next year, Bauerle’s current seniors saw their final championship opportunities vanish in the wake of COVID-19.
The Red and Black’s sports editor William Newlin caught up with Bauerle over the phone to discuss his summer, his swimmers and the uncertainty surrounding next season.
William Newlin: In your more than 40 years of coaching, how do the challenges of this spring and summer stack up to past obstacles?
Jack Bauerle: It’s unbelievable, and it’s hard. I’ve been around the bend and, you know, none of us have seen anything like this, and we’ve had some pretty tough moments in the pool with some of our athletes. When this hit them, especially when Olympic Trials were starting, we had some athletes that were really despondent. And I don’t blame them. In the last month and a half, I’ve given two Saturdays off just so they can get a breath, which I never do. And there’s times where I’ve [said] “Just take a day, get out of here and do something else but don’t be here.” I want to push so we’re staying in shape. You want to get in as good shape as you can be so they feel their confidence coming back too. But at the same point in time, you can’t over-push because I think right now they could just sort of go backwards on us too. It’s a delicate balance to say the least.
Newlin: What has training looked since getting back in the pool?
Bauerle: I think right now we're pushing, but we're not pushing too hard. We certainly built back up again. Believe it or not, we were in two pools here with the pros, in two backyard pools. That's how we were doing it at first. We were in like 17-yard pools, but we're sort of used to being in a 50-meter … We went over to one backyard pool and I’m sitting here thinking “Well we had 1 … 2… 3 gold medalists in there, [and] we had a silver medalist in there …” If it was basketball, it would be sort of like having an NBA All-Star team playing hoops in your backyard. But at that time, anything in the water was better than nothing. So, I'm really thankful to [the pool owners], because we started building up. We went from nowhere to about 3000 yards to 4000, and now we're over at Summer Hill [Swim Club], which is in Watkinsville … It’s a great pool. I mean, it’s certainly providing us with water. We come in at 8 [am] before the clientele comes in at 10. So, that’s where we are right now, we’re just swimming outside.
Newlin: Has USA Swimming released safety guidelines for training?
Bauerle: Well, a couple things: you walk in, you get your temperature taken. Secondly, you keep your distance. Thirdly, you don’t even come in and change in a locker room. You come in your suit and leave in your suit. You wash your hands before you’re in [the pool] and you get out. That’s pretty much it. So, basically everything is covered.
Newlin: How much does age factor into whether the postponement is beneficial or damaging to an athlete’s Olympic chances?
Bauerle: I think it's just all how they treat this. If someone is 29 or 30 [years old], I don't think it matters. You know, I think it's just really how you handled the whole situation mentally. Because my soon-to-be 30-year-old is knocking it out. She's probably in a better spot right now than I've seen her in a long time, even before trials. So, I’d say [it’s] person to person. I mean, we're not that arrogant [that we think] everybody's supposed to understand our athletes, but when you go for something for four years, and that is your entire point of focus in your life, it is really difficult when it's yanked. And, you know, hats off to all of them actually for staying tough about it because I think we've done a really good job in that way.
Newlin: Do you know what the season could look like if you're back competing by October?
Bauerle: Everybody's waiting on more information. I do know this, we just got everything bumped. The [dead] period got bumped to August 31, and I just thought, personally ... that was silly because it's not going to be August 31st. I don't think it's happening until October [or] November and, you know what, it might not happen. But I'm not throwing stones here. We were pretty sure [about] things about two and a half weeks ago, and all of a sudden, if you want to watch the news, you're not sure about much at all right now. We’ve already made some adjustments to be quite frank with you about some travel that’s not going to happen. We know that for a fact, like some airplane travel early. We are very fortunate [because] we have a totally home-laden schedule this year, but all I know is that I don’t know. Because I’ve been stunned by a lot of this already. But now, I’m looking at it realistically with all the spikes that are happening in areas of the country … so, we’ll see.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.