SIU swimming coach Rick Walker may get a second shot at making it to the Olympics

By Gus Bode

If only James Bond could have stopped the Cold War in the 1970s.

In 1980 President Carter decided to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Several other nations followed suit.

Rick Walker, who is now Southern Illinois University’s men’s swimming head coach, was expected to make the Olympic team that year.


“It was supposed to be my year,” Walker said, “but we boycotted.”

Time trials were held at the same time as the Olympics to name an honorary American Olympic team. The Americans posted their own times on a board and compared them to the times of the Olympic swimmers.

“We were going gold, silver, bronze, then fourth, fifth, sixth, and then there would be the gold medallist of the Olympics,” Walker said. “It was devastating. I had worked all that time. I’d been to the Olympic training camp as a selected member who legitimately had a shot.”

Walker said a rogue thought entered his mind in the middle of a swim that would alter his finishing time for the rest of the trials.

“I was right on track to finish pretty high,” Walker said. “Whether I would have made it, I don’t know. My pace was right were I needed it to be. A thought hit me.

“I don’t know where it came from and to this day I don’t know why I had it at that time. I thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’ I became two seconds slower on the pace for the second half of the race. There is no closure for something when that happens. I never really got a chance to find out [how good I was].”

Walker again qualified for the Olympic trials in 1984, but he had an important decision to make. He had finished school and wanted to get married so he needed to find a job to support his family-to-be.


“It was time to put my toys up,” he said. “I could have hung on to go through that, but I felt like my time had come and gone.

“Whose nickel and dime was I gonna be on while I trained? I was looking beyond that now. I wanted to be able to support my wife and get started, so I retired.”

Walker, who became a swimming coach when he retired, has been head coach of the Salukis for 10 years. He was an assistant coach for five years under SIU Hall of Famer Doug Ingram.

Walker’s program produced five straight Missouri Valley Conference titles from 1995 to 1999.

“I’m a coach and I now get to help other athletes live out and reach their dreams,” he said. “To a degree, I never really had to give it up. Whether I ever get finality out of my career really doesn’t matter because my focus is on somebody else’s now.”

In 1996, Walker was selected to coach the United States’ national team for open water swimming, in which all swimming is done outdoors in a river or lake instead of an indoor pool.

He had been trying to get open water swimming entered as an event in the 2004 Games in Athens, but due to complications it isn’t going to happen.

“We had a vast push to get that in,” said Walker. “We were the No. 1 priority from FINA (Federation Internationale Denatation), the world governing body of aquatics.

“They were pushing it as an Olympic event. Then it got locked into a couple of other events. The Olympic committee didn’t want these other events, and since we were tied in with it, it went down too.”

Greece may not want the open water swimming event, but Beijing does.

Earlier this year in China, about 50,000 spectators attended an open water event, according to Jeff Goelz, SIU women’s swimming head coach and assistant to Walker on the National team.

“The Chinese love it,” Goelz said.

Chinese officials have requested that the event be implemented for the Beijing Games in 2008.

“For the host of the Olympic Games to ask for it, that’s a huge step in the right direction,” Walker said. “FINA already put us at the top of their list. We’ve got everything going in the right direction.”

Goelz said it has been Walker who started the movement and made it what it has become.

“When it eventually gets to be an Olympic event,” Goelz said, “he will have done 95 percent of the work.”

Walker understands what it would mean to coach his event at the Olympics.

“It would be a great honor,” Walker said. “I’ve worked so hard in this area. To me, open water is the purest form of swimming that we have. I’ve been a distance swimmer, so I know how grueling that can be, going that far without having your body shut down.”

In this era of newfound patriotism, the loyalist in Walker realizes the importance of American sports on a national stage. He realizes the significance of wearing the red, white and blue.

“Every time I go to a world championships or a Pan-Pacific Games or to an international competition,” he said, “the one thing that I still have not lost is the enormous pride that I feel representing our country and wearing the USA on the uniform. There are very few people who get that honor and I have not forgotten that.”

Reporter Christopher Morrical can be reached at [email protected]