Gauchos ready for Omaha action

Sophia Yamauchi (Photo by Wendy Allen)
Sophia Yamauchi (Photo by Wendy Allen)

By Mike Takeuchi, Santa Barbara News-Press Correspondent

With his wife Carol, three children and grandkids J.T., Reilly, and Cana, Gregg Wilson already has a nice sized family.

But in the Wilsons' latest summer trip to Omaha, Nebraska, that brood has grown into a full-sized clan of surrogate kids of which he will be in charge, because the UCSB swim coach will be leading that group into a different kind of attraction-this week's U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials.

"Carol and I have kids of our own, but I call them ours because when you spend so much time with them, you become close with most all of them," Wilson said on Friday. "This is going to be an exciting trip."

After qualifying 13 for 2008's Beijing Games, an unprecedented 17 current and former UCSB swimmers are entered into the event that begins today.

Gaucho alumni like four-time Olympic gold medalist Jason Lezak and women's breast stroke contender Katy Freeman will be in action, along with 14 current team members will be competing.

Five of them - 100-freestyler Katie Tomkinson, 400-IM'er Randy Aakhus, Sophia Yamauchi (100 breast), Katie Records (200 breast), and Ryan Hanni (50 and 100 free) - sat down for a recent interview, pointing out that their coach factored big in their success in more ways than they expected.

"Everyone on this team is so close, and that's because of Gregg," Hanni said. "He is literally like a second father to all of us. He's firm and he's fair, and he honestly cares about everyone. You can see it in his eyes and how he talks. I loved him immediately."

"Everyday, you get a warm and accepting feeling from him," Yamauchi said. "He always makes sure everything is okay with each of us, while also making sure everyone on the team is on the same page."

For starters the long practices and countless laps in the pool have become bearable and often even enjoyable thanks to the man who just completed his 36th season as head coach.

"Sometimes it's tough to come to practice, but once you get there you get greeted a coach who always wakes up on the right side of the bed which it makes it much easier," Tomkinson said.

Once the swimmers get into the water, his presence his heard not through yelling, but in the often amusing things that come out of Wilson's mouth.

"You hit the wall after a set and he says "Pretty Good!" in this really high voice or he'll bust out a song like 'This is the big one,' little things that make you laugh," Yamauchi said.

Aakhus laughingly added, "Like when he makes a mistake and says that's the first one he's ever made."

"If someone tells him they're sick, he'll say stop licking the doorknob," Records said. "But if you are ever really down, he'll be the first one to check in to make sure you are okay."

"And that carries over into how we treat each other and how we want to succeed for not only ourselves, but our team and for him," Tomkinson said.

When relayed what was said, the longtime coach smile and then admitted that there were bumps along the way.

"When I got here 37 years ago, one of my goals was to make a difference in the lives of the kids, but I didn't know everything about how to do that," Wilson said.

One such experience occurred with Lezak, a swimmer he once kicked off the team before agreeing to take him back only if he adhered to a contract between the two. That document is posted next to the door of the team room, an old trailer Wilson affectionately calls "the poor white trash trailer".

"Jason and I are really close now, but if I knew coaching like I do now, that wouldn't have gotten that far," Wilson said. "But I learned, just like I learned from my wife that putting in 90 hours a week is not the way to coach."

Through that all though, the one thing Wilson is pleased about since the beginning, the closeness of past and current swimmers all together thanks in large part to many assistant coaches like the current Tim Siciliano. Along with two-time Olympic gold medalist Richard Schroeder and his wife Dawn being their closest friends in Santa Barbara, Wilson remains in touch with most of his past swimmers. This is something not lost on the current group.

"Because of Gregg, I could never leave this family," Hanni said.