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Turning a Pool of Talent Into an Olympic-Caliber Swim Team : Aquatics: 20 members of the Whittier Hills squad, under the guidance of Rick and Kathy Shipherd, will compete this weekend at the Junior Olympics.

July 29, 1993|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PICO RIVERA — Rick Shipherd crouched on the pool deck at Smith Park in Pico Rivera, his keen eyes trained on young swimmers churning out laps in the morning mist.

It was 6:45 and there was authority in Shipherd's voice as he barked stroke assignments for thousands of yards of practice.

With his wife, Kathy, whom he once coached, he is building the Whittier Hills Aquatics Club into a potential national power.

Last season, two swimmers qualified for the Junior Olympics for the first time in club history. There will be 20 from the club at the annual event this weekend at USC and the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena. Two more have qualified for national finals next month.

For many years, coaching swimming was Rick Shipherd's only life. But in 1988, tired of the long hours, endless fund-raising and low wages, he quit.

"You can't raise a family doing (just) this," he said. "There are maybe five or six coaches who can make a full-time living at it, and they don't have families."

It was five years ago when Shipherd got what he calls "a real job" in the personnel department of a bookstore chain and married Kathy Hall, who had been a star swimmer.

"It's kind of common in swimming for that to happen because you work so close together," said Hall-Shipherd, 29.

She was ranked 25th in the world in the 200 butterfly in the early 1980s, and swam in the 1984 Olympic trials. Shipherd, 39, who is from Arcadia, coached her at Nike Aquatics, a club he founded at East Los Angeles College in the mid-1970s, and then at Mission Bay Aquatics in San Diego.

When her swimming career ended after 1985, she returned to San Diego and became director of aquatics at the pool where Shipherd worked. They saw each other daily and the relationship blossomed.

Three years ago, Hall-Shipherd accepted a part-time job as swimming coach at Whittier Hills.

"I told her right there I wanted nothing to do with it," Shipherd said.

But a year later, after a few parents prodded her, Hall-Shipherd persuaded her husband to visit the pool and take a look at two girls who had shown above-average ability. He still wanted no part of the club.

"I told them to go to another team," he said of the two swimmers. "There were other clubs out there for kids with that kind of talent."

Two years ago, he relented and went with his wife to a swim meet where he saw some old friends who were still coaching. He was enticed by the smell of chlorine and the sound of water lapping at the edge of the pool.

"It was so exciting for me," he said. "I thought, 'God, I have missed this.' "

He attended some more practices and eventually became co-coach with his wife.

To make the club more competitive, the Shipherds separated the swimmers into age groups and added several part-time coaches. Hall-Shipherd works with the younger swimmers and Shipherd, who still works full time for the bookstore chain, handles them when they get to be about 12. The swimmers range in age from 5 to 18.

Both coaches put in 35 to 40 hours a week and receive a combined salary of $1,200.

Under the Shipherds, the club has expanded from one pool to four in the Whittier area, and membership has nearly tripled to 160 swimmers, about 70% of whom are girls.

"In the past kids had been on a waiting list and they never got a chance to swim," Hall-Shipherd said. "We haven't turned anyone away."

A decade ago, a young swimmer with promise used Whittier Hills as a springboard to more prestigious programs.

"We were a lot smaller before they (the Shipherds) came and it was fun, but in a different way," said Sylvia Haendiges, the club's newsletter editor. "Now the fun for the kids is the competition. The Shipherds have established goals for the kids that will help them in all aspects of life."

Shipherd increased the number of workouts from six a week to 12 and split training into early-morning and late-afternoon sessions so he could fit practices into his business schedule.

He insisted on old-fashioned distance training. Top swimmers are expected to do 16,000 yards a day, at least six times a week.

"It was hard at first, but after a while you got used to it," said Katie Ramos, 15, a backstroker. "If you want to win, you'll do it."

The coaches are a study in contrast. Punctual, precise and driven, Shipherd frightened some of the swimmers when he got involved in their training. As time went on, Ramos said, they came to respect him.

More laid-back, Hall-Shipherd has a knack for handling youngsters. "She can yell at the kids and they think it is OK," said Gigi Hentzen, the mother of three swimmers.

The Shipherds, who live in Whittier, have three daughters. The youngest, 3-month-old Madison, spends a lot of time in an infant seat on the pool deck while her parents coach. Other times, her mother carries her on her hip during workouts.

"The situation here is just too perfect," Shipherd said. "Lots of parents wouldn't put up with a coach that has a baby on her hip."

Practice was over at 8:45 on that recent morning, and the Shipherds went on to their other lives. She left with the baby to pick up their other daughters from a child-care center, and he put on a suit and went to work.

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