When Ray Looze — current IU swimming and diving coach and 2016 USA Swimming assistant coach — headed to Atlanta with eight of his swimmers and divers, the 49-year-old didn’t know what to expect.
They were flying to his first Olympic experience — the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was his athletes’ first experiences as well.
With them in Atlanta were past medalists, coaches who’ve gone through before and distractions any first-time coach would need to filter through for his athletes to find success.
Still, IU swimmers won six medals — four gold — and finished 32nd on the overall medal count as an individual participant — defeating 46 of the 78 countries that won medals.
“I don’t think anybody saw that coming,” Looze said. “The coaches were joking with me because we were all rookies, and they were all like, ‘I wish I got to experience my rookie season like that.’”
Looze said the IU swimmers practiced well and did good things while training for the Olympics, but there were times he thought the Hoosiers could be in over their heads.
IU’s coaching staff knew last summer a coach needed to be there so its swimmers could succeed. Being there for the ups and downs directly affected performance, Looze said.
But a coach that hasn’t been to the Olympics needs an adjustment period too, and Looze said he was constantly making mistakes in Rio de Janerio and began to doubt himself.
“We were in the pool after everybody else, time and time again,” Looze said. “Some of the coaches would come over and be like, ‘Well, are you gonna let them out?’ That’s a good example of had you not been there, whoever was there would have let them out of the water and said, ‘You’re doing something that’s not going to work.’”
Looze said he went into the Games knowing he and his athletes would have fun, but he knew he had to give everything he had toward enhancing his swimmers’ chances of winning.
Other coaches, including rivals, recruited some, but Looze said his swimmers deserved his undivided attention.
That’s what he provided, and then they won.
IU alumnus Cody Miller won first, a bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke, and his victory lit a fire in his fellow Hoosier swimmers, Looze said.
“I’ve never seen an athlete celebrate a bronze medal with more passion,” Looze said about Miller. “I now know why people got attracted to that. We got to hold Cody’s, because that’s the first one we could get our hands on. It was so honest and real what that meant to that young man.”
Then IU junior Blake Pieroni won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay. IU sophomore Lilly King did the same in what Looze called a “good versus evil” 100-meter breaststroke against Russian Yulia Efimova.
Miller then won a gold in the 400-meter medley relay and King won another gold in the 400-meter medley relay.
Junior diver Michael Hixon won silver in the 3-meter synchronized dive, and IU junior Kennedy Goss won bronze for Canada in the 800-meter freestyle relay.
Before 2016, no Hoosier swimmer had won a medal for the United States since 1979.
Now with an increased attention on his IU program, Looze said nothing will be the same for any of the IU Olympic coaches and athletes, and that the program is in good hands.
This all happened despite there being doubt when he made that trip to Atlanta.
“I didn’t want to go into that meet not knowing if you were ever going to get back without any regrets,” Looze said. “We feel really, really fortunate that it turned out the way it did because it could have gone the other way really easily.”
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