Steady as He Goes

David Durden Leaves Nearly Nothing Unplanned in Ensuring His Team's Success

Skyler Reid/Staff

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Feature on Cal Men's Swimming Coach David Durden

Nathan Adrian and Tom Shields discuss coach David Durden's role at NCAAs, coaching style, and planning that enabled their surprising second-place finish at the Big Meet.

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David Durden, full-time electrical engineer and part-time swimming coach, was watching Auburn butterflier Mimi Bowen during an NCAA tune-up practice.

Instead of diagnosing a system failure, he was asked to estimate her heartrate.

It was a test put forth about 10 years ago by head coach David Marsh, who was auditioning Durden for a graduate student position on his staff.

Durden confidently made his projection, hoping it was somewhere near her actual rate.

To his surprise as much as Marsh's, it was exactly the same number Bowen reported.

"He just had this look of like, 'Hey, who are you, kid?'" Durden says. "And I was just like, 'Yeah, yeah, that's right.' So very cool and collected while I was scrambling underneath."

That moment signified the beginning of a coaching career that would span five years at Auburn, followed by two at Maryland's helm.

Now coming off his third year at Cal, the men's swimming coach is as precise and intuitive in his calculations as ever, never giving any indication that there is ever any sort of scrambling going on internally.

The Bears' second-place finish at NCAA championships this past season points to his talent, but his level of planning and extreme attention to detail far exceed what one would imagine.

Expansive whiteboard calendars cover a wall in his office, spanning from 2009 through 2012. On them, workouts for each member of his team planned for the next few years.

He crafts ways to make sure 100-yard butterfly champion Tom Shields gains more long-course experience during his three remaining years. He devises methods of preparing senior Nathan Adrian for transition to the pros. He even helped alum Will Copeland shave nearly a second from his 100-yard freestyle.

While the coach may have these long-term plans, he doesn't lose sight of the present, tailoring every day's set to each individual.

"He's very, very organized," Adrian says. "He can handle a million different things at once and make you feel like he spends an hour on you even though it may not have been."

It's in championship meets where Durden's meticulous planning yields results. Months prior to the event, dozens and dozens of itineraries are drafted and revised. Nothing from protein bars to massages is overlooked.

"When you get into a championship-meet environment, it's all about the little things," Durden says. "Taking care of all their little causes for concern or stress and alleviating them I just try to take that away from them, 'I gotcha, you don't need to worry about it.'"

It is no wonder, then, that the team has complete confidence in Durden's grand schemes, even when they may appear questionable.

A crushing collapse against Arizona, followed by narrow losses to Stanford may have suggested an unraveling squad to the untrained eye.

But throughout the dual meet season, Durden never wavered in his strategy, saving significant advantages for NCAAs. He refused to let the swimmers rest from a grueling training regimen or shave prior to the national championship meet - even when their opponents were taking those measures to beat Cal.

It wasn't until the Pac-10 championships that the coach allowed the swimmers to ditch their Speedos - affectionately termed "skimpies" - in favor of jammers, the hip-to-knee championship suits that would make them faster.

Durden had a plan, and not to the team's surprise, the plan worked. After Day 2 at NCAAs, Cal found itself atop the leader board, leaving Arizona and Stanford in the dust.

While Texas would triumph on Day 3 and take the title, the 34-year-old coach was awarded Coach of the Meet honors for his team's unexpected surge after consecutive fourth-place finishes.

Durden's ability to plan is certainly part of the reason for the team's success, but also important is the team culture - something he didn't plan for. It's evolved to be particularly close and team-driven - a unique dynamic, the swimmers declare, its benefits clear from their performances.

The team may not be able to exactly peg why this team is so different, but it makes sense given the less-than-transparent nature of the coach.

With Durden, so much goes unsaid, whether it's the abandonment of their usual team responsibilities contract, or seemingly benign questions that the swimmers ponder for hours.

"He's more of a mystic kind of person to me at this stage," Shields says. "I never really know what's going through his head and I don't always know what he's saying to me means, but I know it has a purpose and has a reason and I just kinda gotta go with it."

It's all part of Durden's coaching style, which oscillates between strong guidance and a more hands-off approach.

"There's plenty of coaches out there in our sport that will tell them what to do," he says. "And I think I've become very comfortable in the fact that I don't need to do that - besides where I need to do that.

"But I just don't need to fit a square peg in a round hole. I need them to understand that they're round."

Even at NCAAs, he gave his swimmers that same breathing room. Durden wasn't fixated on the scoreboard as his team jostled for top spot - surprising given his affinity for precise planning.

He was preoccupied with another goal - getting his guys to fully enjoy the moment.

"I've been on championship teams ... and it has just been a labor," Durden says. "You sit back and at the end of that championship and there's no joy in winning, performing, or swimming fast.

"I think that's where we turn our focus, just on the joy of swimming fast and the joy of being teammates."


Contact Christina Jones at [email protected]

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