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Q&A with Dan Schemmel, head coach for men’s swimming and diving

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Stanford named Dan Schemmel as the sixth head coach of the men’s swimming and diving program in May of 2019. Schemmel was the head of both the men’s and women’s programs at Hawaii, where the Rainbow Warriors and Wahines enjoyed new levels of success. The women won three straight MPSF championships while the men captured their first conference title since 2006. Before taking the top job in Hawaii, he was an assistant coach at Wisconsin for five years. Schemmel sat down with The Daily’s James Hemker to talk about his immediate and long-term goals for the program, the makeup of the current team and recruiting at Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You were head coach at Hawaii for three years, and you had success there, so what was the motivating factor to take this position?

Dan Schemmel (DS): This is one of the most storied programs in collegiate swimming history. This is a dream job. It’s a dream university to work for. It’s a dream athletic department to work for. I thought it would be such an incredible honor to come in and be able to build off of the history and the tradition that had already been set in place.

TSD: You’re just the sixth head coach in over 100 seasons. How do you balance having all that tradition and then trying to bring your own new things to the program?

DS: Yeah, we’ve actually talked about that a lot with the men on the team — figuring out what traditions we wanted to continue and what we wanted to make our own. We obviously want to continue on the tradition of winning, and excelling in both the pool and the classroom, and just producing great people. All the little tertiary things that come with it are going to be our own.

TSD: Is your coaching style different from what the team is used to, and did you bring new staff with you to facilitate that?

DS: Our philosophy in general, between myself and the assistant coach, is very different from what the men had been used to. The training perspective, the approach to training, the approach to competitions, that style of training — just everything is different. Our assistant coach is Neil Caskey. He was a very good swimmer — swam at the University of Texas and was a part of national championship teams. He has that experience of being an elite athlete, similar to these guys. He was also a part of a team that had success to the level that we’re trying to get to. We overlapped for two years at the University of Wisconsin, so I’ve known him for a long time and have a tremendous amount of respect for him. 

TSD: Could you talk a little bit about the guys on the team and how they’ve handled this transition?

DS: They’ve welcomed us with open arms, and it’s been awesome. They’ve been very supportive. We’ve tried to take a bit of a collaborative approach at times, and they’ve eaten that up. They have pretty much bought into it from day one. It hasn’t always been very easy — we’ve had some tough patches — but that’s bound to happen when there’s a big change like that. As a whole, they’ve been awesome.

TSD: As far as competition goes, what are some of the strengths you see with the team this year? 

DS: Top to bottom, we’re pretty solid across the board. Our middle distance freestyle is definitely a strength of ours. So that’s Grant Shoults, Jack LeVant, James Murphy, Andrew Matejka, Johannes Calloni, Matt Hirschberger. Like those are some of the best 200, 500, and milers in the country. It’s probably our core unit. And then our breaststroke unit right now is very strong and very deep. We also have stud sprinters, stud backstrokers and IM. But I would say that middle distance freestyle and breaststroke are where we’re really exciting right now.

TSD: The program is storied, winning 31-consecutive Pac-12 titles from 1981-2012. However, in the last seven years Stanford has only won it twice. What are some areas of improvement that you see for the team?

DS: We’re putting more of a focus into that meet than maybe what the team had experienced in the past. There are three segments to the season. There’s the dual meet season, there’s conference championship and then NCAA’s. We’ve made the dual meet season the third-highest priority, and NCAA’s and Pac-12’s are kind of tied as the top priority. We’ve talked about it more this year than what they’re used to. Meets like that are ones with shorter distance events — so, sprint freestyle and shorter sprint strokes. From a training perspective, we’ve put a little bit more focus on those areas in hopes that we see the benefit of scoring more points there.

TSD: What are your goals for the program this year, and then over the next few years?

DS: We want them to keep getting better and challenging them to be their best selves. We have the talent on the team to be much better than what we were last year. Our mission has been to get them to believe in that and get them to live it and have confidence in that. Whatever the results at the end of the season play out to be, that’s what it will be, but I believe we have the talent to contend for the Pac-12 championship and place much higher at NCAA’s. This has been the year that we’re just laying the groundwork to build off of. Again, it’s been a big transition for everyone. We’ve been more focused on the cultural pieces, putting those in place. We are setting the standard so that, moving forward, we don’t have to necessarily talk about it as much. Everybody knows what to expect, and we can put a little bit more focus on just the details and the performance side.

TSD: In some sports, you can get one great, new player and they can instantly change everything, but one swimmer can’t swim all the races. How fast of a turnaround can there be for a team in swimming?

DS: That’s a great question. Honestly, I think it’s about when everybody’s happy, that’s when everyone performs their best. So we’ve talked about how championships are won in the locker room. The more positive they are in there, then the more positive and optimistic they’re going to be approaching workouts. They’re going to perform better and workout, and then all that’s going to add up to the end of the season. I mean, you can get someone like a Katie Ledecky who’s going to make a huge impact on the team, but our focus has been on ourselves, the energy that we have outside of the pool, and knowing that that’s going to translate over into the pool. Each day someone’s going to be on their A-game and kind of force everybody else to keep up with them. I wouldn’t stay focused on any specific person — our success isn’t hinged on one guy. We’ve made it very clear that everyone matters. Everyone counts. It’s gonna take everybody.

TSD: One of the biggest aspects of coaching in college is you have to recruit. Can you speak a little bit about how you will approach recruiting here at Stanford?

DS: We just finished up our class of 2020 this past fall, and it’s one of the best, if not the best, class in the country. Recruiting does have its challenges, but I think at the heart of it, the experience we are offering is so unique and different, and way more life-changing than pretty much any other experience offered out there as a D1 student-athlete. When you can get that message across, there’s really no other school that compares to it. It means that that person’s coming here as long as they get in. We are very lucky in the sport of swimming that the work ethic in the pool tends to translate over to work ethic in the classroom and vice versa. Many of the top swimmers in the country are typically very good students. Usually the top recruits in the country are also academically capable of getting into school here. It’s been very humbling being able to offer this opportunity out to people. I mean, this is like a once in a lifetime opportunity, so it’s pretty sweet.

TSD: When you are looking at future recruiting classes are you trying to fill holes, or do you take who you can get and shift the team in whichever direction works?

DS: Yeah, I would say our top priority is character. We want to get the right person who appreciates the opportunity that they have here and who is going to make the people around them better as an athlete and as a person. From that point, sometimes there will be an emphasis on specific events if there is a glaring hole. Otherwise, we’re just looking for the right fit. And so if sometimes we get a bunch of breaststrokers, then that’s kind of how it plays out.

TSD: Finally, can you just talk a little bit about this weekend’s competition against Pacific opening the winter dual meet season? What are you guys looking forward to, and what’s the general atmosphere?

DS: Yeah, everyone’s very excited. We spent 10 days in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center training at altitude, and we had a great training trip there. With great training in our sport, that typically means it was really hard and people are pretty beaten up. But with that being said, I think everyone’s excited to be able to race and see their hard work pay off. This is the start of a stretch of big dual meets coming up. This is kind of the appetizer for everybody. We are just getting them back into racing mode. Hopefully each weekend that we race, we get a little bit better and sharper, and by the time we get to Pac-12’s and NCAA’s, we’re on autopilot and ready to go.

Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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James Hemker '21 is a Managing Editor of Sports. A computer science major, he has made the cross-country journey to the Farm from Baltimore, MD. After being tortured for years by the Redskins, Browns, and Orioles, the wide successes of the Cardinal have shown him that the teams you root for can in fact win championships. Contact James at jahemker 'at' stanford.edu.