Beijing Memories: Mike Westphal
Sept. 2, 2008
Indiana University assistant swimming coach Mike Westphal recently sat down with iuhoosers.com to discuss his experience as a member of the Ukrainian swimming staff at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Westphal is the first-ever foreign coach selected to the Ukrainian swimming staff and he was there working with Hoosier junior Kate Zubkova and IU alum Sergiy Fesenko.
How were you selected to the Ukraine coaching staff?
"Part of it was through having two Ukrainian athletes (Kate Zubkova and Sergiy Fesenko) on the squad. They are two of the better athletes from the Ukraine and when they went through their Olympic trials, when they selected the staff to the Olympics they based it on how many athletes each coach would have going."
What were some of your duties as a member of the coaching staff?
"When we were in training camp in Russia I focused mostly on working with Sergiy and Kate. When we got to the Olympics I started working with some of the athletes who didn't have their own personal coach there, whether it was timing them or giving feedback and instruction."
How was the language barrier to overcome?
"With the coaches there was a language barrier. There was only one coach that spoke English and he did not travel on to the Olympics. So at the Olympics there wasn't another coach that knew English. For the swimmers, most of them knew a little bit of English or picked up on it."
What are your thoughts on the performances of Kate and Sergiy?
"Sergiy and Kate both posted some best times. We were a little disappointed but it is hard to be disappointed with best times. For both of them this was their second Olympics and the expectations on them was a little bit higher than with the first one. I think maybe the pressure got to them a little bit."
How do you think this experience will benefit Kate this year?
"After being disappointed with her performance in Beijing she is going to come back and be fired up and ready to go. She is a competitor. She wants to swim better not only during the NCAA season, but she is also looking toward the (2009) World Championships to redeem herself. She knew she was ready to perform at a higher level and is setting her sights for the World Championships this summer to be a top-three finalist. She talked about that goal after the Olympics."
How does this experience benefit you in your coaching career?
"It opens your eyes and brings your career to a new level. When you put that on your resume...it is an honor to be on the coaching staff. When you look at how few coaches go from the U.S. and other countries, you see what a great honor it is."
What other events were you able to watch while there?
"The Bird's Nest (main Olympic stadium) was right next to us at swimming and you could walk right over. So when track started right at the end of swimming we would walk over and watch some of the events over there. But really, when swimming started at the very beginning of the Olympics there wasn't a lot of time when you have a workout in the morning, or you are preparing for an event. You don't have a lot of time to go to other events until you are all done."
What were your immediate thoughts when you realized you would be coaching at the Olympics?
"Lucky. That really popped into my mind. It has always been a goal of mine to go to the Olympics in some form. To be able to go to the Olympics and be a participant and coach two athletes, a lot of it is about being in the right spot at the right time. I've work hard to get where I am at and have been able to build relationships with athletes who have been able to push for their choice of coach. I was the first foreign coach ever on the Ukrainian Olympic staff and it was a pretty big honor."
Did you participate in the opening or closing ceremonies?
"No. The opening ceremony was right before the start of competition for our athletes. You could see what was going on from afar, but from what the other athletes and coaches said it was hot and humid and not a completely fun experience, to be honest."
What was the most memorable moment for you being there?
"For me it was seeing eight gold medals (by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps) live. It is fun to watch the swimmers you work with get there, but to see something that hasn't been done and might not ever be done again is pretty amazing."
What kind of interactions did you have with other athletes and coaches from other countries?
"With the coaches you are able to talk amongst each other during warm ups. But usually you are in a routine and are just focused on taking care of your own team. Once the event start you get a little more talking on the pool deck and that is where you really get your eyes opened a bit when you are talking to a coach and he says it is his fourth Olympics. You would ask him how you deal with certain situations and it was a really good learning experience. One think I like about the sport of swimming is the coaches are very open. They will tell you what they are doing, so you get a lot of sharing of ideas."
What activities did you participate in away from the pool in Beijing?
"That is the only unfortunate thing, to go that far and not have a lot of time. I had a half a day where I was able to go out and see a little bit of Beijing. I went to the Forbidden City, which was pretty awesome. The one thing I didn't get to do but wanted to was to go to the Great Wall. Seeing the mix between the old and the new there was pretty amazing."
What was it like for you to be a part of such an historical event?
"At first, you are a little awestruck. You see how it is organized and think about all the man-hours that went into everything. I came back thinking there is no way anyone is going to be able to out-do what China did, from the opening ceremony to the closing ceremony, to how the athletes got treated. For a first-timer you are in awe and think the bar is set pretty high."
Are you already thinking about London in 2012?
"It is hard to think about it right now. With the time you spend away...I never really understood everything that went into it. You are gone for 32 days it is a little bit of a stressor being away that long. But then again, when you are part of the games it is pretty hard to turn down and not have my eyes set on going. Probably in about a month or two and I really start thinking about it I will think it would be great to go back again and be a coach at the Olympics."
What are your thoughts on getting more Hoosier athletes at the 2012 Games?
"I think it is a definitely possibility. We have some young athletes that could really develop into Olympic-caliber athletes for the U.S. and other countries. Todd Patrick and Ben Hesen just graduated and they definitely have the talent level to have a shot at making it in four years. We definitely have the talent to do that. It would be nice in the next Olympics to get four or five IU athletes there."
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