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Stoddard Finds Life to Be Just Rosy Beyond the Nadadores : Swimming: After coaching a team in decline, he enjoys being around a program that's growing strong.

HOW THEY'RE DOING: One in a series

August 25, 1994|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terry Stoddard felt as if he had finally made it to the big time as a swim coach. One of his proteges stood on the highest level of the podium at the national championships, a gold medal in her hand.

But what was that in her other hand?

Stoddard's moment of glory quickly deteriorated into nausea. Debbie Babashoff was proudly hugging a license plate that read: "DEB 442."

Deb had indeed won the 500-yard freestyle in 4:42, but this didn't look like a novelty-shop replica. This was the real thing.

"Debbie's roommate had spotted the license plate and, well, this person, uh, stole it," Stoddard said. "Then Debbie took it up on the award stand with her. The photographers were taking pictures and all I could think of was that we had finally made it this far and now we're going to end up getting arrested. Instead of celebrating, we'd be spending the night in jail.

"We made sure the license plate was turned in, but I still wonder if some guy opened up his sports page the next morning and saw Debbie standing there with his license plate."

Stoddard's life as head coach of the Mission Viejo Nadadores wasn't the way it had been for his predecessor, Mark Schubert. During the team's years as the uncontested juggernaut in the waters of U.S. swimming, the Nadadores clinched the men's, women's and combined national titles halfway through most meets.

Olympic and world championship medals swung from the necks of many Schubert-coached swimmers.

But the Mission Viejo Co., the program's most-benevolent benefactor in the 1970s and early 1980s, had sold much of its property in Mission Viejo by the time Stoddard took over in 1986 and the buck had pretty much stopped there.

Schubert's goal was to achieve excellence at any cost and his Nadadores teams won 18 national titles. Stoddard held on to the tradition for a year--winning another championship in 1987--but he was hired to cut costs.

Schubert coached the Blue Jays.

Stoddard had the Padres.

"My job with the Mission Viejo Co. was to spin the team out financially over a period of seven years," Stoddard said. "When I finished, the company turned the team over to the parents. It was always understood that the parents would hire their own coach, go their own direction."

When the end of his tenure arrived, Stoddard probably wanted to raise his arms and yell, "Free at last." He was leaving a job that had the burden of incredible expectations and none of the resources to reach them.

"No matter what was done," he said, "it was never enough."

*

When former Olympian John Naber, a member of the board of directors of Rose Bowl Aquatics in Pasadena, interviewed Stoddard in 1992, he already knew a lot about the man sitting across from him.

"I had known him for a number of years," Naber said. "Both when I was an athlete and as a coach and I've always respected him, especially in terms of his ability to converse with adults about their children and for his ability to relate to young athletes.

"But there were a number of things that made us decide he was the right man for the job. No. 1, our role model for excellence is Mission Viejo, so why not hire someone who's done it? Plus, he had managed a team with 250 swimmers, which is about what we're looking for."

For his part, Stoddard saw the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of the building process instead of the stress of maintaining a program against impossible odds.

"When I took over, there were only 32 kids on the team who were 13 or older," he said, "and in the spring of '93, I took one swimmer in one event to Junior Nationals.

"What I've tried to do here is build from the bottom up. And thanks to all the work of (his wife) Sheri, who runs our Swim America program, which has had more than 1,000 swimmers the last two summers and more than 1,500 this summer, the club has grown 20% over each of the last two years. We have about 170 swimmers now."

While the numbers on the roster swell--40 graduates of Sheri Stoddard's Swim America program joined the team this summer--the ones on the clock are dwindling.

"The most satisfying thing for me is that the quality has really improved," Stoddard said. "We were Junior Olympic section winners this summer, and earlier this month we finished third in the Junior Olympics against all the age-group teams in Southern California.

"The boys won our first JO championship and we finished third in the combined behind Irvine and Mission (Viejo). That was our highest finish ever."

Nobody's talking dynasty, but those results haven't gone unnoticed.

"He's turned a recreation program into a competitive program," Naber said. "The numbers aren't where we'd like them to be yet, but a team is entitled to grow. And that's what we want, gradual, long-term growth.

"I don't think there's any question we hired the right guy."

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