By Matt Brown
For the Collegian
“Never coach.” More than 40 years ago, Ed Bartsch received this advice from his coach at Michigan, Gus Stager. Now the assistant coach in charge of distance swimmers for the Penn State men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, Bartsch has a colorful coaching past and has no regrets about his career choice.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to work with really outstanding people everywhere I’ve been,” he said. Bartsch’s diverse coaching experience is difficult to match, but he also has a distinguished history as a swimmer. He captured both AAU and NCAA national titles and won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1963 Pan American Games. But after collecting championships as a swimmer, Bartsch followed the advice of his coach and put aside his coaching dream to focus on a career in business. He earned a masters of business administration from Southern Methodist, did post-graduate work in finance at Oklahoma and went on to spend more than 20 years in the business world. However, in 1988, Southern California head coach and long-time friend Peter Daland offered him a coaching position, and Bartsch decided it was time to get back to doing what he loved.
“He was looking for an assistant coach, and I just had made a decision that I wanted to sell my businesses,” Bartsch said.
“I got to do what I’d always wanted to do for 20 years.” While working as the associate head coach at USC, Bartsch got involved in numerous other swimming programs, including clinics in foreign countries and coaching a Los Angeles-based club team, Team Trojan. Bartsch traveled to both Peru and India to teach swimmers and coaches, and while it was difficult adjusting to coaching people from other countries, he said he learned a lot from his experiences.
“You get to know kids that are tremendously receptive,” he said. “They want to learn and they’re so enthusiastic that they do 90-percent of the interpretation. They were terrific, and we communicated very well even though it was a sign language more than a verbal one.” But Bartsch said that his most memorable international experience stemmed from his success while coaching Team Trojan. Eighteen months before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the Philippine Amateur Swimming Association asked Bartsch if he would coach their swimmers that had qualified for the Olympics. Bartsch agreed, and the Philippine swimmers moved to Los Angeles and joined Team Trojan. About one month before the Olympics, he was approached with an offer to be the head coach of the Philippine team at the Olympics. After initially refusing the offer out of respect for the coaches from the country, he accepted a second offer and went on to help the swimmers break eight Philippine national records in Barcelona.
“It was a great honor, and they could not be nicer and more supportive,” he said. “The athletes were just great. I had worked with them on a daily basis for 18 months, so I had gotten to know them quite well.” The majority of Bartsch’s coaching career has been spent at the college level. He left USC to take over as head coach at Villanova in 1994 and led the women’s team to back-to-back Big East championships in 1995 and 1996 before leaving the program following the 1999-2000 season. In 2001, Penn State head coach Bill Dorenkott asked Bartsch if he would come to Penn State to oversee the distance swimmers.
“One of the reasons we asked Ed to come over and be a part of our staff is because he brought a wealth of experience and knowledge,” Dorenkott said. “That in itself is a unique element to what he brings to our program. There are a lot of times our athletes or our coaches will go to Ed and ask for advice just based on experience.” Bartsch’s wealth of experience makes him well-qualified as an assistant coach, and he said that he accepted a position as an assistant because Dorenkott was willing to give him a lot of independence as a coach. Dorenkott believes Bartsch’s ability to practically relate experience to his athletes is a major advantage.
“We’ve never had a stronger distance program than during the period of time while Ed’s been here,” Dorenkott said. “We’ve had a good distance swimmer here and there, but just our depth and our quality of distance swimming over the past seven years has been remarkable and that’s attributable directly to Ed and his influence over our program.” Bartsch’s distance swimmers have taken over the Penn State record books. The top four women’s swimmers in Penn State history in both the 1000 freestyle and 1650 freestyle all swam under his direction. As he stands on the pool deck watching practice, the different aspects of Bartsch’s personality and coaching style are conveyed. Every swimmer who walks by en route to the locker room jokes with him. But when it comes down to instructing in practice, Bartsch is all business. While he is tough on his athletes, they trust him and know he truly cares about their success.
“I swam my best times last week,” sophomore Stephanie Roop said. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m proud of you,’ and that means so much coming from him.” Standing next to her, junior Sarah Baker was quick to agree that Bartsch genuinely cares about his athletes’ performances.
“It’s not like just another coach being like ‘Good, more points for the team,’ ” Baker said. “He really cares about how we’re doing and that’s why he’s so intense in practice and on the pool deck.” When asked about his proudest moment as a swimmer, Bartsch described the feeling of winning gold at the Pan American Games. He said the most emotional moment occurred when he stood on the podium afterward and listened as the national anthem was played. Forty-four years after earning Pan American gold, Bartsch prepares his swimmers to have similar moments in which the feeling of accomplishment becomes overwhelming.
“When it comes down to it, when I step up on the block at Big Tens, I’m going to know that he’s prepared me to be the best I can be,” Baker said. “Hands down, I’m not going to doubt it at all.” Bartsch was told that it is too difficult to make a living as a swim coach. But with so much enthusiasm and passion for the sport and a desire to help others succeed, it appears that he made the correct career choice.
“I’ve never felt it was the place;it was always the people,” he said. “Whether there was a language barrier or not, they were just great people to work with. And that’s why I think I really look back on it and I say it was never the wrong decision. I’ve never been happier doing what I’m doing because of the young people I’m working with.”