SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
July 10, 1978
In the past five years members of California's Mission Viejo swim club have won 48 national titles. Their mission nuevo for the next two years is Moscow
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July 10, 1978

They're Pooling Their Talent

In the past five years members of California's Mission Viejo swim club have won 48 national titles. Their mission nuevo for the next two years is Moscow

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It is 7:02 a.m. and Mark Schubert is annoyed. "Shut up!" he snaps at two girls, still half-asleep but jabbering on the deck of the 50-meter pool. The girls fall silent. Within seconds they and their 60-odd teammates on the national team of the Mission Viejo swim club are in the water, swimming laps, but Schubert is still frowning. "Move it," he yells to nobody—and everybody—in particular. Practice was supposed to start at 7 o'clock and two minutes have been lost forever. To socializing.

Schubert's top swimmers spend five hours every day in the water and another hour lifting weights. They work out twice a day, six days a week, 11 months a year. During the school year the first workout begins at 5:30 a.m. at Mission Viejo High and swimmers can be seen slumped in their cars in the parking lot, catching a few last winks in the lifting darkness. Even now, summertime, when all workouts have shifted to the Mission Viejo International Swim Complex and morning sessions start at the more civilized hour of seven, the regimen guarantees a long day. Swimmers finish the first workout at 9:30, then return to the pool at 4 p.m. to lift weights before going into the water again at five. At 7:30, Schubert signals the end of the session by flipping vitamin tablets to his spent athletes. Still in the water, they lunge at the offerings with open mouths, like seals going after fish.

But these swimmers at the peak of the club's pyramid are not the only ones expending energy in Mission Viejo, Calif., a planned community of 43,000 occupying a stretch of hilly Orange County 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The club has 550 members all told and the swimmers on the lower rungs walk, bicycle or are car-pooled to workouts at the high school and at the 25-yard pools in the Montanoso and Sierra recreation centers as well as in the main complex. There are novice groups, a bewildering array of age-group sessions—the 9-10s with the 11-12s, for example—and also senior "B" and "C" groups. And there are learn-to-swim classes for children as young as 4. What all these groups have in common is a no-nonsense approach decreed from on high by Schubert. "The stars have to toe the line and set an example for the younger kids," he says. "The younger kids have to toe the line because they're the future stars."

Contrary to what some rivals say, Mission Viejo swimmers aren't always drilled until they drop and they don't automatically turn into champions as soon as they don their blue-and-gold sweat suits. It only seems that way.

The Mission Viejo Nadadores dominate most levels of swimming in the U.S., turning out age-group record holders and world-beaters alike. This was the home club of Shirley Babashoff, the now retired queen of American swimming. It remains the summer club of the sport's reigning glamour boy, UCLA sophomore Brian Goodell, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder in the 400-and 1,500-meter freestyles. And of American record holders Jesse Vassallo (400-yard individual medley) and Alice Browne (800-meter freestyle). And AAU champions Dawn Rodighiero, Valerie Lee and Jennifer Hooker. Then there is Mission Viejo's foreign contingent, which this summer includes Australian backstroker Mark Tonelli, a fourth-place finisher in Montreal (and an AAU champion), and Olympic bronze medalist Enith Brigitha of the Netherlands. In all, nine Olympians from four countries are training in Mission Viejo. As though that were not enough, the Nadadores also have a new diving team, whose impressive ranks include Jennifer Chandler, the 1976 gold medalist in the three-meter event, and Greg Louganis, the silver medalist in the tower.

Mission Viejo's swimmers and divers keep the water roiling in six pools around town. The hub of this activity, the International Swim Complex, consists of a 50-meter pool, a 25-yard warmup pool, a diving well and a carpeted weight room. There, beneath a hillside bedecked with marigolds arranged in outsized letters spelling MISSION VIEJO, Goodell & Company can be seen swimming laps while Chandler & Company arch gracefully through the air. The site is also used for major meets, including the annual Mission Viejo Invitational, national Masters and age-group championships and last year's AAU long-course nationals.

Obviously, there is something special happening below Mission Viejo's marigolds. The U.S. has long been the world's leading swimming power, thanks in large part to go-getting community swim clubs that compete strongly with the baseball and football coaches for the good young athletes. These clubs are typically put together by upper-middle-class swim parents, who bicker with the coaches but who also pay dues, sponsor bake sales and wrangle enough dollars from local tire dealers and soft-drink distributors to keep the clubs going. Mission Viejo is different. The Nadadores are formally co-sponsored by a boosters club consisting mainly of parents. But the other sponsor—and the club's founder—is the Mission Viejo Company, the high-powered land-development firm that built the town. Now a $150-million-a-year subsidiary of Philip Morris Inc., the Mission Viejo Company remains a commanding presence in the unincorporated community. Leaving police and fire protection to Orange County, it builds and runs recreational facilities and parcels out new housing developments. And it gets involved in zoning, landscaping and other civic matters.

It also throws its corporate weight behind swimming. First, the Mission Viejo Company built and freely makes available all the pools used by the Nadadores except the one at Mission Viejo High, thus sparing the club the need to scrounge for pool time the way other teams do. It also provides operating funds. The Mission Viejo swim club is a $250,000-a-year enterprise, with $100,000 coming from dues and $50,000 from the boosters club. Another $100,000 is anted up by the Mission Viejo Company. Such corporate largesse is unheard of at the club level in swimming, to say nothing of less favored amateur sports.

The responsibility of finding ways to spend all that money is solemnly discharged by Schubert, the Nadadores' aquatics director and head swim coach. An upstart, like Mission Viejo itself, the 29-year-old Schubert is just six years removed from obscurity as a high school coach in Ohio. Blond, lean and beach-boyish, Schubert says "super" a lot, likes to bodysurf and cuts a dashing figure at the wheel of a blue Porsche 928 outfitted with radar detector, CB radio (his handle is "Water Wings") and license plates reading SCHUBS.

But Schubert is not just another sunstruck Southern California playboy. "I've got a super deal, the best club situation in swimming," he says, and he plainly means to take advantage of these enviable circumstances. Schubert leaves his club's lesser swimmers in the care of seven assistants but takes personal charge of the national team. He loads down this select bunch with more of everything—work, discipline, innovations. A taskmaster even by swimming's notorious standards, Schubert makes his athletes log more laps and lift more weights than those on any other swim team in the U.S., but he wields the carrot as well as the stick. He has sent his swimmers to train in New Zealand and Brazil, not to mention the Soviet Union, whose swimmers have a cozy relationship with the corporate-financed club from conservative Orange County. The Soviet national team worked out under Schubert in Mission Viejo during a California tour in late 1976 and 16 Nadadores trained alongside U.S.S.R. swimmers in Moscow and Leningrad last fall. The trip to Russia was billed as a technical exchange but Schubert also saw it as a chance to let his bloodhounds sniff the quarry. "With the '80 Olympics in Moscow, going to Russia couldn't help but psych my kids up," he says.

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