Passages: ISHOF Honor Coach Jon Urbanchek, Iconic Olympic, Michigan Coach Dies; Legacy Will Endure


10 May 2024, 06:57am

Jon Urbanchek, one of the most iconic coaches in swimming history has died. He was 87.

He coached the University of Michigan from 1982-2004, winning an NCAA title, and was the U.S. coach at the Olympics in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. He was also an assistant for the U.S. in 2008 and 2012.

“Keep it moving” was his often-used phrase, a mantra for training as well as life. He coached 34 Olympic swimmers, who totaled seven gold, six silver and four bronze medals.

He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2008 and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

He innovated he called the Color System of training, which revolutionized swim coaching by allowing athletes to easily gauge and adjust their training intensity to match specific physiological goals. The color-coded system categorized training intensities for swimmers, aligning them with specific heart rate zones and levels of exertion. This system helps swimmers understand and adjust their training intensity more effectively.

Urbanchek was born in Hungary on Aug. 23, 1936. He emigrated to the U.S. to attend the University of Michigan, where he swam from 1959-61, winning the NCAA championship in the 1650 freestyle in 1961, and helping the Wolverines win the NCAA titles in 1969 and 1961.

Before coaching at Michigan, he taught and coached at Anaheim High School, coached at Garden Grove High School in California, co-founded Fullerton Aquatics and coached at Long Beach State.

Anaheim High School’s pool was renamed Jon Urbanchek Aquatics Complex in 2019.

At Michigan, he led the Wolverines to 13 Big Ten titles, including nine in a row, and an NCAA championship.

When he retired from that post in 2004, he remained in Ann Arbor to help coach the team as well as Club Wolverine, where several Olympians trained. His Olympic medalists include: Mike Barrowman (1992), Gustavo Borges (1992 and 2000), Tom Dolan (1992 and 1996), Dan Ketchum (2004), Brett Lang (1988), Tom Malchow (1996 and 2000), Eric Namesnik (1992 and 1996), Chris Thompson (2000), Peter Vanderkaay (2004), Marcel Wouda (2000) and Kaitlin Sandeno (2000 and 2004).

In 2010, Urbanchek moved back to California to lead the U.S. Olympic Post-Graduate Training Center at Fullerton Aquatics (FAST Swimming). He coached two swimmers to gold medals at the 2012 Olympics (Tyler Clary and Matt McLean) and served as special assistant coach for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team.

Social media was flooded with reaction to his death.

“Urby is gone but his legacy lives on – a legend and my great friend. I already miss my cool calm and collected friend. Jon oozed with confidence wherever he went. When I was with him, I felt lifted by his contagious smile and attitude. I felt stronger thanks to the unshakable bond of candid friendship we had. As a coach, I saw in him the perfect combination of science and art. He was a genius of training and the world’s best at what he did. Truly, a few in the history of our sport stand at his rank. As a human being, he was as honest as they come, as kind as they can be, and as compassionate as I could witness in my lifetime. I am glad I got to travel around the world with him. I am glad I made him proud through our hard work and success. I am sorry he saw me frustrated and sad, struggling with injuries. But somehow, through it all he was still cool, calm and collected. And we kept it moving….He kept us moving. If you are looking for great leadership without ego, speak of my great friend Jon Urbanchek.

Rest in peace, Urby. I am sad you’re time is up down here but enjoy your time up there, buddy. Heaven is a better place with you in it my friend.” – OussamaMellouli

” No one has given more. The depth of this man’s commitment and love for the sport of swimming and his remarkable ability to express that love through caring for all of us is unmatched. Jon Urbanchek you have always been that one of a kind guy that listened, thought, and guided us well. I consider myself so blessed to have learned from you. Our time together getting coffee and setting up the pace clocks in the morning before practice at the Stanford Olympic Camp was priceless. Your focus on the “right things” never waivered. “Don’t complicate it John, just make him work hard and he’ll be just fine”. Urbs left us today without the spotlight on him, just as he wanted it.” – John Dussliere

“You will be missed. You’re far more than a coach and father figure to thousands of swimmers. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to swim with you.” – Steve West

“You will be missed terribly. The impact you had on me, my career, my family is like none other. You deserve nothing but peace and rest. Love you Jon Urbanchek 💔 #moveit.” – Emily Klueh

“I’m at a slight loss for words right now … I want to extend my condolences to all of the swimmers who shared Jon as their coach. We’re all hurting today, but we all get to celebrate that we had this great man touch and influence our lives too. And that’s what really matters. Godspeed, Jon.” – Erik Bacon

“I promise we will keep it moving, buddy.” – Bob Bowman

To read his ISHOF Honor Coach bio, click here:

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