Alabama’s Opelika Swim Team has reached new heights over the past couple months.
In December, four girls from the club program led Opelika High School to their first-ever relay state title in the 200 free relay. Then last month, 10-year-old Max Stern erased a legendary record at the BCL Southern Classic, breaking Chas Morton’s 41-year-old Southeastern Swimming LSC mark in the boys’ 9-10 50 breaststroke (SCY). Stern clocked a time of 33.05 to lower Morton’s previous record of 33.24 set back in 1982.
Tyler McGill, an Olympic gold medalist at London 2012, is in his fifth year leading the growing Opelika Swim Team group. During a phone interview this week, the 35-year-old former assistant coach at Auburn University offered his insights about building a program, his coaching philosophy, and the unique perspective he’s gained from his Olympic success. Check out the full conversation below:
How have you seen the Opelika Swim Team grow since you took over as head coach in 2018?
There was a year-round program offered before I got to Opelika, but mostly the program was centered around a summer swim, park and rec program. There was always a handful that continued to swim throughout the fall. Really lucky that our city officials and mayor and other people in the community saw a lot of value in swimming and the positives that it brings to a community. The city wanted to invest more into the program, wanted to have its swimming program grow to just be a positive influence in the community and things like that. That’s where I was able to get involved and help their vision of what swimming can be in this community grow.
Now we run a really awesome swim lesson program. We’ve had somewhere between 175 and 200 members in our club the past couple of years. It’s been a really positive thing for the community here and just the surrounding area — that’s Auburn and Lee County. Hoping to continue to grow and continue to build the type of program that makes that kind of positive impact in our community here.
In the South, in general, lots of lakes and rivers and things of that nature — the Gulf — that involve being around bodies of water. We’re able to be around those bodies longer throughout the year just with the warmer weather. Safety and comfort around water is a huge deal. But I don’t know that it’s always recognized that way. So for the city to see, ‘Hey we want to improve the financial side of this,’ and they see the benefit of that, but then to also quickly recognize, ‘We’re able to serve over 500 kids in a lesson program and give thousands of swim lessons to at least educate the population on water safety. Obviously, not all those kids go on to be on a swim team, or competitive swim team. But at least we’ve done a good job educating people about water safety. I call it water literacy, where you have that healthy respect for being around bodies of water. Those two things combined have really grown the value of aquatics in Opelika.
What attracted you to that position coming from nearby Auburn?
I wanted to stay at Auburn. I loved the university; my wife still works at the university. We loved the area. We wanted to stay here. We wanted to raise our family here, we love the community, we loved the people. So when that opportunity didn’t present itself, we made the choice as a family to try to figure out a way to stay in the community and stay in Auburn-Opelika. So just through knowing a few people and being around the swimming world, the city of Opelika reached out to me and asked if I would have any interest in helping them grow their program and build their program. It’s been a really awesome fit. We live in Opelika, my wife and I do. We love the community, love the people. I’m sitting in the car line at school right now. It’s been a really awesome thing to stay here and invest back in a place that has given so much to my family in totality.
Tell us a bit about Max Stern, the 10-year-old who made headlines for breaking a 50 breast LSC record from 1982 belonging to Chas Morton.
Chas is one of those names that always catches people’s eyes because of how good he was at such a young age, and how good he continued to be and the career he went on to have. He actually sent me an email a couple weeks after Max broke that record, reaching out to congratulate Max. I think that’s such a cool thing, and says a lot about him and how he cares about the sport and is willing to be kind that way. It’s pretty amazing that it’s been that long.
Max is a great talent, hard worker, and has a great feel for the water. He’s progressed and has gotten better and better and better. I’m just super happy for him and his family to get to celebrate something unique and special like that, whether that leads to — in this sport, there’s so many amazing young swimmers who, the biggest gain they ever get is the benefit of being in this sport of swimming. Truly very rarely does someone go on to be an age group superstar and make an Olympic team and do things like that. My big thing with him is to continue to celebrate the result and celebrate his hard work and be really proud of what he’s done. And just really appreciate being where he is and enjoying this sport for what he’s doing right now.
He might have just turned 7 when he started swimming with Opelika. There are people who understand water and they have an amazing feel for the water. It’s not something that you can teach all the way. For him, there’s clearly a unique ability to feel the water, to know his body in the water. There’s some of that that you can teach, but when you have it at 7, it’s a very natural gift that you have. So yes, he’s come a long way in this sport, he’s learned a lot of details, he’s gotten faster and stronger and all those things that it takes to swim fast. But truthfully, a lot of Max’s ability is a wonderful, beautiful, natural feel for the water and understanding how to move through the water.
Where have you picked up your best breaststroke coaching tips over the years?
Dating back to Pat Calhoun in 2000, Auburn has had a breaststroker at almost every single Olympics — Pat Calhoun, Mark Gangloff, Micah Lawrence, Eric Shanteau, and Annie Lazor. So you talk about this school where it’s kind of unique in that way, where it’s been that consistent of a high-level breaststroker around campus. You just kind of pick things up and learn things from being around athletes like that.
And then I was fortunate enough to work with Sergio Lopez (former associate coach at Auburn, current head coach at Virginia Tech) when he was here and listening to him and the success he has with breaststrokers. People would call him a breaststroke guru with the way he has coached and has helped a lot of breaststrokers become great. So just listening to him and the little things he would talk about in terms of how to work your breaststroke and turn your hands and manipulate your toes and all of that. I was so lucky to spend a couple years with him and learn from him. I use some of that to pass on to my swimmers. Obviously some of it is connected with Max and it’s helped him and it’s helped a lot of our other breaststrokers as well. So I’ve just been really fortunate that way to be around both an institution and individuals who have developed and done a great job with breaststroke. I’ll pass that along to as many as I can.
How does your Olympic success inform your coaching philosophy?
It allows me and it helps me put in perspective to the athletes the uniqueness and how special all of their successes are. I think a lot of people look at Olympians and think that that’s the expectations for Olympians, to be Olympians. To me, that’s never been the experience anywhere I’ve been. I think the expectations of people who have reached the highest level in a sport are that the joys that I was able to have, and the joys so many other Olympians were able to have, are the same joys that we want younger athletes to experience. To be able to verbalize that and share that appropriately with all swimmers, whether they’re 6 years old and on a swim team for the first team or they’re 18 years old and they’re trying to swim in college. I think being an Olympian allows Olympians a unique perspective that not many other people get to have. So that’s probably been the most unique and special thing to share with them.
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