How My Swim Coaches Helped Me Become an Olympian


Kim VandenbergUp2Us Sports Ambassador 2008 Olympic Swimming Bronze Medalist

One of the reasons I loved swimming as a child was simply because I loved the swim coaches on my first summer team. During one particular afternoon practice, I vividly remember my first coach Sean had us all singing lyrics from a Jimmy Cliff song: “you can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last” during a kicking set when it was chilly outside and most of us were in a bad mood since the water was so cold. He also sang “you’re my sunshine on a cloudy day“ to us when we didn’t want to get in the water. He was always smiling, optimistic, and playful. As an eight year old, everything was new, challenging, and exciting and I viewed my swim team as an extended family. My first coaches gave me a pure love for the sport of swimming, which opened up many doors.

Leaving my summer team to train on a year-round team was a hard decision to make at age 12. I loved my summer team and I knew I would miss the atmosphere of warm summer days spent wearing my speedo all day, hanging with my friends and goofing around with the coaching staff. But it was time for the next step and for new challenges. The transition was difficult, as we would train in the mornings before school and again after school during the winter months in an outdoor pool. It was the complete opposite of swimming in the hot afternoons in July. Swimming was no longer fun for me and I was constantly tired and always cold with wet hair. My new coaches were also difficult to adjust to, as they demanded more of me. I remember constantly getting into trouble. I was a young difficult teenager; rebellious and emotional. I would have long talks with my coach Ron about how I wanted to have a social life and how I felt like I was missing out. He was always talking to me about the bigger picture and my future, which I was unable to see at the time. I would talk back to him, challenge him, and fight with him often, yet it was through his high expectations that I grew as a young athlete. He gave me a set of lessons to build my future on; attention to detail, discipline, setting bigger goals, and developing an appreciation for my family and the strong community that we lived in. He also developed my stroke technique and my confidence in racing, which provided a solid foundation for the next level of competition that I would experience at UCLA.

I moved down to Los Angeles to study and train at UCLA, which inevitably came with a higher level of expectation. I was intimidated by the workload and was fearful I wouldn’t survive all four years training at that level while also managing my schoolwork and travel demands. Again, I was lucky to have two coaches to help guide me during those years of doubt and struggle. My coaches Greg and Cyndi gave me the faith that I needed to push past my comfort levels. After one particularly hard week, I remember calling my coach Greg crying because I was so overwhelmed with the demands of Division-1 swimming, schoolwork, and all the social distractions that came with university life. His ability to calmly listen, understand, and support me during this transition was one reason I kept going—even though I was doubting myself and my abilities. I remember he would say, “find a way” when I would be swimming slow. He set the bar higher than I set for myself and eventually, I rose up to it.


My head coach Cyndi was my source of strength that propelled me to competing at the Olympic Games. I had doubted my abilities for years, thinking I wasn’t good enough to race at that elite level. I was only 18 when I began swimming with her and was more than a handful for the first few years. She demanded the best out of us, and if I wasn’t giving 100% in workout, she would kick me out of the pool. Cyndi allowed me to make mistakes, but there were definitely consequences for my occasionally reckless behavior. There were times when I missed morning workouts because I was out  late with my friends, and once I was suspended for a week. She helped me take ownership for my actions and she taught me not to compare myself to others, which was something I had always done. She encouraged me to set personal and athletic goals, to work with UCLA’s sports psychologist and nutritionist. Cyndi gave me the opportunity to explore elements of training that I had never thought of.  She believed in my potential and nourished my self-confidence with her ability to see me as more than just a talented athlete. She was there for me outside of the pool when I was having difficulty with my parent’s divorce and breakups with boyfriends. I trusted her like family and was able to open up to her about problems in my life that would inevitably affect my performance in the water. Her strength of character gave me the courage to eventually qualify for the Olympic team and compete at the highest level of swimming.

Each of my former coaches has deeply impacted my life. There is no doubt in my mind that without all the lessons my coaches instilled in me throughout the years, I would have never become an Olympian. The power that coaches posses to positively impact and empower the lives of others is unmatched and is a such a rare gift. I was beyond blessed to have had a handful of coaches who gave me the courage and confidence to pursue my dreams and to appreciate all the opportunity in sports. Although he was never my personal coach, every UCLA Bruin learned from the great John Wooden and one of his quotes still inspires me to this day: “success is never final, failure is never fatal, it’s courage that counts.”