Walker treading water in search of Olympic dream

By Gus Bode

U.S. National Open Water team coach hopes for 2012 London bid

Rick Walker knows how to run a program.

His swimming and diving teams rarely finish lower than second at Missouri Valley Conference meets, which is where they placed earlier this year at the meet. Walker has produced stars like Marcelo Possato, the Brazilian graduate who this year became the first SIU swimmer or diver to make the NCAA Championships since 1995.


Walker also helps make well-rounded student-athletes. Six members of his women’s team made the MVC Scholar-Athlete team this year. Walker is seen as one of the most dedicated and successful members of SIU’s Athletic Department, but his influence in the swimming world reaches far beyond Carbondale.

The USA Swimming House of Delegates gave SIU’s long-time Swimming and Diving head coach the Glenn S. Hummer award for his contributions to the United States National Open Water Team.

Walker has coached the team since 1996. He also heads up goodwill clinics that are held around the world where he works with some of the best athletes and coaches around the world.

“I’m in the same community, the same pool as the fastest swimmers in the world,” Walker said. “I pick up the newest techniques, the newest training regiments. All kind of things that I can pick up on the pool deck from the best coaches in the world.”

This is the second time Walker has taken home the award, which is given annually to a person or group that makes the greatest contribution to long-distance swimming.

Walker’s main contribution this year came in leading the national team to a fourth place finish this summer at the Open World Water Championships in Montreal. The team finished one point out of a trophy placement but still came away with three medals, one gold, in three different events. This was the highest finish for the U.S. since 1998 when they won the world championships.

Walker’s love for swimming and for teaching the sport to others fuels his SIU career, but something else makes him volunteer his time working for the national team and do as much work as it would take to run another college program. Walker just wants one chance to be on an Olympic team.


Walker relishes the idea of representing his country – he’s wanted to do it since before the 1980 Olympiad, but any chance of that happening disappeared when the U.S. boycotted the games, which were held in Soviet Russia.

By 1984, Walker was past his prime and transitioned to a career in coaching. Three years later Walker jumped onto the staff at SIU after a number of small stints at his alma mater Texas A&M and at YMCAs in Texas and Illinois. Walker said he was always pleased with his coaching career, but the fact he never saw the Olympic stage nagged at him.

Denny Ryther is a close friend of Walker and a former coach of his from Kankakee, Walker’s hometown. They both got into the international committee at around the same time. Ryther now is chairman of the open water committee and is aware of Walker’s commitment to this dream.

As Walker has established himself more in the international swimming community, his priorities have expanded to the fight to get open water swimming in the Olympic games.

“Rick and I have been working towards that for a long time, we were hoping for China (in 2008), but I’m not sure that it’s going to work out,” Ryther said. “London is our best chance.”

Walker says that the people behind the 2012 games have asked for these events, and he feels as good about the prospects for the London games as he’s felt about anything regarding open water.

If all the pieces fall in place and Walker is still heading up the U.S. team by then, he believes that a long journey will have finally come to an end. Walker also believes that will provide a sense of redemption.

“The fact that I didn’t make the Olympic team as an athlete wouldn’t matter anymore,” Walker said.

If Walker never gets to the Olympic stage, he’ll still take solace in what he does here. He already appreciates what people here do for him. Walker splits his time many ways, but he said the only sacrificing happens amongst his Salukis, his wife and kids and the administrators at SIU.

Walker often globe trots at the expense of time spent with these facets of his life.

“It’s such an honor for him to even be a coach,” senior SIU swimmer Briley Bergen said. Bergen has known Walker since she joined the U.S. national team at age 11. “And that’s why everyone is behind him. The team is very supportive, but our coach can be gone for a week or two at a time.”

Under Walker’s coaching, Bergen has won 11 U.S. national open water championships.

His life can be hectic, his responsibilities overwhelming, and his dreams just out of reach, but to offset all that, for the people Walker comes in contact with, he has kept a clear purpose.

“Every day in every way, I try not to mess somebody up,” Walker said.

Reporter Kyle Means can be reached at [email protected]