If I walked into Coach Lopez’s office with a preconceived notion of what I’d hear during this interview, I left it with those notions swept clean.
Sure, I knew I was talking with an Olympic medalist – he won the Bronze in the 200m breaststroke for Spain in the 1988 Olympics, competed again in 1992 and qualified for the 1996 Games.
Did I leave an hour later a bit overwhelmed by Coach Lopez’s humility? Affirmative. Completely.
Sergio Lopez Miro is the head swimming coach for The Bolles School, a college prep school located in Jacksonville with a well-earned reputation for being a sports and academic powerhouse (disclosure, it’s also my alma mater). Coach Lopez traveled to Omaha June 22 so that 17 swimmers from the Bolles and Sharks (its non-student
team open to the community) programs could compete in the Olympic Trials. Under his tutelage, four swimmers have already punched their ticket for London. By the end of the Trials, six swimmers representing five nations (two for Team USA – Ariana Kukors and Charlie Houchin) will be traveling to London. Coach Lopez will be head swim coach for Team Singapore.
Did Coach Lopez gloat over such a jaw-dropping accomplishment? Hardly. This man is the antithesis of the chest-thumping egomaniac. What he more closely resembles is a deeply-caring parent, who happens to have Olympic-caliber talent of his own to coach and challenge his team.
You see the depth of his passion for his “kids” when he talks about the intense bond they forge over time:
When you train and spend hours with them and travel with them and cry and laugh with them, it’s different. Sometimes you watch them walk from class and you see they’re sad, you bring them in to talk and find what’s wrong. Once you’re in tune with the rest of them you are in a better position to help them through the rest.
This relationship is central to his coaching as well:
The most important thing I have to teach them is first to trust what they can do. Then to give me their trust… Sometimes they wake up and think ‘I’ll try hard tomorrow.’ It’s my job to motivate them to give it their best every day.
See if you aren’t moved by this short clip of Coach Lopez congratulating Ariana Kukors after her qualifying swim in the 200 meter IM:
Sergio Lopez Miro discovered swimming by age four, almost by necessity. His father abandoned his family while he and his two siblings were very young. His country, Spain, was in the final years of a dictatorship, and his family didn’t receive much community support. His mom was forced to work long hours, leaving the children to themselves. “Times were rough,” Coach Lopez reflects. Instead of harboring anger about his childhood, Coach Lopez is more philosophical: “I was on my own more than I was with people, and it gave me time to understand who I was.” Most of his free time was spent at the pool, which became his refuge, and soon, it shaped his life.
Coach Lopez recalled, “I wasn’t a good swimmer when I started out. I was one of those kids who had to train, train, train to get anywhere.” But he always loved the feeling of power he got in the pool, and how powerfully he connected with the joy it brought him. By the time he was 15, Coach Lopez was mentored by some of the best coaches in Spain. He qualified at the age of 19 to swim in the 1987 European championships.
I thought hearing about winning his medal was going to be the highlight of my interview. It turns out that the most compelling story was his recovery from a motorcycle accident.
On his way to a practice just weeks before the championships, Coach Lopez was hit by a car from behind. It left him with asphalt embedded in his knuckles and a broken shoulder blade – injuries that would have knocked any other contender from the competition. This is where all that time alone as a child really came into play. When he was released from the hospital, he created a daily routine to heal himself: “I listened to music to calm myself down. Then I’d visualize my shoulder healing, and me swimming at an exact time. I’d do my lower-body workout to keep myself strong. I did this every day until I took myself back to the doctors and told them, I think I’m healed.”
Guess what…the bone had healed. In five weeks. Thanks to that time alone in his youth, he had spent years meditating and visualizing, without realizing that’s what he had been doing.
He went on a month later to swim at precisely the time he visualized, which was three seconds faster than the national record. It was the first time he was a world-class-ranked swimmer. The following year, he won the first medal for Spain in the 1988 Games.
So while most coaching programs involve mental exercises, there are likely few which can parallel what Coach Lopez is able to train his kids to do.
There’s another component that complements this incredible mix of experiences and skills: Coach Lopez majored in kinesiology, the study of human movement, while at American University. He proclaims that understanding how energy moves through the human body means you can manipulate it for a goal – like swimming at your body’s highest potential.
The final factor that elevates Coach Lopez above the rest is his life-long ambition to coach:
Even though I was a bad swimmer [at age 8] I had a good eye, a feeling or understanding of someone else’s talent. I wanted to work with swimming since it made me feel so good, and I wanted to share that with others.
Need more proof? Read his blog post on the Power of a Team and see if you don’t want to run out and join something. Now.
If there is a formula for coaching an Olympian, I’d have to say it’s embodied by Sergio Lopez Miro.
Talent + Passion + Humility + Trust = Unparalleled Success.
Florida Blue wishes Coach Lopez, his swimmers and all Olympians (and Olympic hopefuls) every success.
Has a coach in your life left a lasting impression? Tell us about it in our comments below. And be sure to visit our #TeamUSA board on Pinterest.
A note on the author: Kate Warnock works on the social media team at Florida Blue. She did not break any records while attending Bolles, but felt pretty cool sitting next to kids who did. Find her on Twitter @mkatewarnock.