by Art Levy
Updated 4 yearss ago
I was born a blue baby, and I think my parents kind of turned me loose because I had a heart valve problem, and back then there was not a lot that could be done. So, I think they said: ‘Well, let him have fun until he drops over.’
My personality is good when things are going well. I think when things aren’t going well, I don’t handle it as well now as I used to and so I probably speak up a little more than I should.
I’ve coached some really successful swimmers (Tracy Caulkins, Nancy Hogshead, Craig Beardsley and Rowdy Gaines), but anyone who swam for me and tried to do what I asked, I really respected. When they named the pool after me at Episcopal High School in Jacksonville two years ago, Paul Herring, who swam for me at Florida, was there. He didn’t qualify to go to the NCAAs, but he means as much to me as the people who won gold medals because he busted his butt in the classroom, out of the classroom and became a very good swimmer. He’s a doctor now in South Carolina. He didn’t even go to Episcopal.
It’s tough driving across the state. You go through Orlando and hit a traffic jam — that could be two hours by itself.
I wanted to win at everything, every time.
Watching the kids work hard — a good workout — that’s what makes me happy. Seeing their times and how they’re breathing, how they’re pushing off and how far they’re getting under water. When those things are hitting, that’s a real good time for me.
Every winter, I used to grow a beard and then shave it off, but the mustache stayed. Maybe it became a little bit of my identity. It’s funny you ask because, lately, I’ve been thinking about shaving it off. There are much more important things than a mustache.
Coaching at the University of Florida, I became very good friends with Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade. We used to have lunch probably once a week. He started doing some testing of the swimmers, blood testing and things like that, and that helped me to have a better insight into what our training really was doing — how high we were running their lactic acid up and how much recovery time was needed. Just knowing him and having a chance to talk about the scientific part of training was a tremendous education.
I swam at FSU, and the summer after my junior year I was going to go out and swim for George Haines in California, and my dad said: ‘Well, you need to go get checked out by a doctor before we let you go.’ My dad had a heart issue, so he set me up to see his heart doctor, not my usual doctor, and that’s when my dad broke the news to me that I had a heart issue.
Growing up, I thought Daytona Beach was the greatest place in the world. We used to go over to the water and throw our mullet net in and catch fish. I had good friends. I just went back two weeks ago to see a couple of guys I hadn’t seen in 53 years. We sat around and talked about everything.
What got me into swimming, I think, was my father had three brothers who drowned. His father was a road builder — he built Tomoka Road in Daytona — and they had dug an area close by where a bridge was going in, and the dirt was real soft going into water. The brothers were young, like 12 or 13, and they were in the water and got caught up and panicked and were trying to get out, and the ground kept falling in, and they all three drowned. That was something my father was not going to let happen to me and my brother.
So, I couldn’t swim for the summer in California, and I couldn’t swim my senior year, which kind of pushed me into coaching. When I went back to FSU in the fall, they had me coach the freshman team.
Cade had already done Gatorade, and we started doing a drink, a protein drink, to help kids recover faster. Our drink was called Gator Go. We were going to try to get Gatorade to take it on, but it didn’t happen. Everyone’s doing a milk-based drink now, but we were doing it way back, and it would have been the first of its type on the market.
If you have a good governor, I think your state is going to do well, and I think this guy (Ron DeSantis) is really good.
My career almost went in a different direction. I life-guarded on the beach starting after my freshman year of college, and I met a guy named Ron Rice (the founder of Hawaiian Tropic), and we got to be real good friends. I used to go to his house and help him mix up his lotions in a 55-gallon drum. I was still in college, and he asked if I wanted to go over and work with him in Hawaii because he was opening up an office there. My parents said: ‘Nope. You’re finishing school.’ I probably would have went to Hawaii if they let me.
When the kids start to train, you look for their ability to push themselves harder and harder. That’s the key.
My wife and I will go out to dinner, but it’s a different dinner than it used to be. It used to be rush here — we had to get home for the babysitter — and this and that. I think our relationship now is what I would have liked it to be when I didn’t have the hours to do it. I’m probably spending as much time with my grandkids now as I spent with my own kids.
Tracy Caulkins was, and still is, the greatest swimmer ever. Everybody thinks Michael Phelps is, but Tracy Caulkins held American records in four strokes. No one else has ever done that.
Personally, I don’t need to win, anymore. I’ve had enough kids do well, win Olympic gold medals and stuff, that it’s about seeing them get the reward. I enjoy watching them be happy when they do something they didn’t think they could do.
Read more in Florida Trend's July issue.
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