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The "Myth" of George Haines

Oct 25, 2012  - Chuck Warner

At a recent certification coaching course conducted by the American Swimming Coaches Association, the 48 coaches in the room were asked if they recognized the names of some prominent figures in the current and past history of swimming. The results were (in parenthesis he number of coaches who recognized the name):

  • Coach Dick Shoulberg (18) - President of ASCA and longtime coach at Germantown Academy
  • Coach Jim Wood (12) - Past President USA Swimming and current President of USAS
  • Coach Peter Daland (8) - 92 year old, longtime coach at USC - 25 National Team Titles
  • USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus (7)
  • Coach Mark Schubert (6) - Record of 44 National Club Team Titles at Mission Viejo
USA National Team Director Frank Busch (5)
  • Coach Jim “Doc” Counsilman (3) - Author of the Science of Swimming, former coach Indiana University
  • Coach George Haines (0) - 6-time Olympic Coach, 43 National Club Team Titles, 44 Olympic Gold Medals

Many of us coach and swim in the sport of swimming overlooking history and looking for help to achieve our goals by being attracted to whatever current trend seems to be effective. Frequently this approach is met with limited success. A friend suggested the other day that many coaches, and perhaps swimmers, toil each season and each year like the Greek Myth of Sisyphus.


Sisyphus was a figure in Greek Mythology that was condemned to death by the Greek Gods. He was able to strike a bargain with the Gods, however, to continue to live. His alternative to death was becoming bound to an eternal existence of pushing a bolder up a mountain, watching it roll back down and then pushing it back up again…over and over and over, forever. My friend compared the experience to the swimming coach who continually tries to reach for glorious success with his or her swimmers in a season only to watch it finish with limited results and then start all over again at the bottom of the mountain in the new season and push the boulder up just like Sisyphus. 

History can teach us many lessons that make it more likely to reach the mountain top and stay there. But in swimming we often miss out on learning from the past and instead become Sisyphus mindlessly repeating our journey of failure or mediocrity. 

When it comes to coaching swimming the story - or myth if you like - of George Haines is one that should be a part of anyone’s oral and written history to understand what it looks like to be standing on the top of the mountain in the sport of swimming. Perhaps from that view something can be learned about how to get there. 

Since no one in that ASCA course knew George’s name a myth might be concocted that he made his money in the Haynes underwear industry, and used the funds to bank roll opportunities to support fast swimmers thereby building a powerful team. This myth could even be created to say that Haynes took the Y out of his name and turned it into an “I” to hide his source of riches. 

Ok, not true. No underwear. This is just a story of a person helping swimmers get faster.

In 1951, at 26 years old, Coach Haines founded the Santa Clara Swim Club with 13 swimmers. Twenty-three years later Santa Clara had won 43 national club team titles, a record that stood until Mark Schubert’s Mission Viejo teams had beaten it in 1985. Haines also coached the Santa Clara High School boys swimming and water polo teams. His teams were so strong that it was once documented that some of his swim teams would have placed in the top five at the Men’s NCAA Championships. 

Even more impressive was the achievements of George’s swimmers at the Olympics.  If his life as a swimming coach was a myth one could conclude that he had made some sort of deal with Zeus who in Greek mythology was the god of the sky and ruler of the Olympian gods.  By the time George had retired in 1988 he had coached 53 swimmers to Olympic Teams that won 44 gold, 14 silver and 10 bronze medals. The majority of those swimmers were from his Santa Clara Swim Club teams. 

On the 1964 USA Olympic Team alone, there were 13 Santa Clara swimmers and they won 13 Olympic gold medals. Fifteen of his Santa Clara swimmers have been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, more than any other team in history. 

Why was George Haines so successful? What can we learn from his accomplishments a half century ago that would help coaches and swimmers today? 

Many stories could be told but here are a few quick facts:

  • George liked people and people liked him.
  • He kept firm discipline with his teams, adhering to high moral standards but kept his sense of humor in achieving it. 
  • He attracted a large training group of 40-60 senior swimmers, many of whom were very talented. 
  • To properly conduct his workouts with a group this size, his long course training transitioned from open water space (quarries
  • and lakes) to the building of a 50-meter complex in Santa Clara in 1966. 
  • He learned how to make individual adjustments while coaching a large training group. 
  • He didn’t simply pound his swimmers with work. Coach Haines had an intuitive sense of what was too much work and what was enough. George would say, “I had to decide how much training I dared to put them through.”
  • He entertained while he trained his swimmers. 
  • Practice was fun. 
  • One of his favorite tricks in between sets or on an easy day was to flip a chair in the air with his foot and catch it on his foot while still in the air (from personal experience clear the area while learning how to do this!)
  • He gave many individual swimmers he coached the sense that he truly believed they could win, even in competing with their teammates. 

George Haines was a master trainer, father figure and confidant to his swimmers. He never sought the limelight for himself but always for his swimmers and for The American Swimming Team. At the same time he was a family man that was married to June Carter Haines for 61 years and was the father of five children. 

In 1974 George finally left Santa Clara to coach the UCLA men’s team. There is a ‘myth’ worth sharing on how George treated people from his first few months on the job in Westwood. He was trying to improve the Athletic Department’s allotment for the wardrobe and equipment supply to his swimmers. He went to the long time UCLA equipment manager that had so generously cared for the high profile UCLA basketball, football and track teams. He humbly told the equipment manager, “I need your help.” Hearing from the greatest swimming coach in the world at the time, I need your help was enough for the equipment manager  to open the doors to the equipment room and outfit the swimming team in first class style. 

Doc Counsilman referred to the unique personal qualities that the most successful swimming coaches have had as the “X Factor.” Doc argued that if a coach who was a great psychologist had a team that competed against a coach who was a great scientist; the psychologist would win every time. 

There is always more to learn to stay at the cutting edge of world class swimming in the areas of skills, technique and training science. But those that understand how we arrived at this threshold of knowledge have a heightened awareness of those choices that will help swimmers meet their potential. And when it comes to the “X Factor” of coaching world class swimmers there is no better way to understand it than to share and listen to the Myth of George Haines. 

The alternative may be simply living the existence of Sisyphus. 

This article was written by Chuck Warner, author of:

...And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence AND Four Champions, One Gold Medal.