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Joe Hudepohl: Eyes on the Gold

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Joe Hudepohl’s answering machine provides callers with a comprehensive summary of his life this past year: “This is Joe. I’m either swimming or sleeping.”But then what else would you expect from someone striving to make the Olympics? Especially someone who took the swimming world by storm four years ago when, as an 18-year-old high school senior, he qualified in three events for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. Many heralded him as the next king of swimming. The road back to the Olympics, however, has proven challenging for Joe–both physically and mentally.

At this year’s Olympics, Joe will be competing in only one event–the men’s 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay. This year’s Olympic Trials, which were held March 6-12 in Indianapolis, were a bit of a disappointment for Joe, but overall he achieved what he set out to do–return to the Olympics in 1996.

“I’m going back to the Olympics. That’s starting to make me feel better,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer shortly after finishing fourth in the 200-meter freestyle. “Being an Olympian is a big deal, so it’s great I know I’m going now.”

A few days after the Olympic Trials, Joe talked to St. Anthony Messenger about swimming, his training and what being a two-time Olympian means to him. During the interview at his parents’ home in Cincinnati, Joe repeatedly flashes the smile that has become a symbol of his positive attitude. No matter what the results of a meet, you can always count on Joe to wear a smile.

While his smile reflects his personality, the rest of him reflects his swimming. At six feet two and 162 pounds, he is a model of physical fitness. His upper body tells the tale of a powerful freestyle swimmer, able to cut through the water with ease.

But according to his mom, that wasn’t always the case. “There was a time when he probably was about 11 or 12 where everybody was growing faster than he was. They were all passing him up. Well, then they started passing him up in swimming also. They were a lot bigger and stronger and I thought that he’d probably give up then, but he was so determined. He always was like that. But then he started growing slowly and by the time he hit 13 and 14 he started getting a little bit stronger.”

But for all of his accomplishments, Joe says his love for swimming had a humble beginning at the same place most kids become acquainted with the water-swimming lessons. Joe’s parents, Pat and Jim, enrolled him and his siblings at an early age in swimming lessons at the local YMCA. “We have a summer home on the river down in Kentucky and so they obviously wanted us to know how to swim,” says Joe. “My parents used to take us to the Y all the time when we were little.”

Pat remembers well the beginning of Joe’s relationship with the water: “We put him in swimming lessons when he wasn’t even quite three years old because he loved the water so much. I put him in one class because he would do anything you told him to do–go under the water, try to paddle. The first day he was in the class the teacher said, ‘Oh, he’s going to pass.’ So he just stayed in the class for two weeks and then they passed him on to the next. After that he just went from one class to the next.”

Making a Big Splash

Joe’s entrance into competitive swimming came when he was six. One of his swimming instructors asked him if he wanted to join the swim team. “I said no at first,” remembers Joe, “and then one day I came home and told my mom that I wanted to join the swim team. So that’s how it all started.”

When he was 11, Joe joined the Cincinnati Marlins swim team. He swam for the Marlins until he went off to college. He still swims with the Marlins, and practices with them when he comes home at Christmastime or summertime.

He didn’t devote all of his attention to swimming, however, until high school. While attending St. Vivian’s Elementary School he played baseball, soccer, basketball and track. “The only sport he didn’t play that he always wanted to was football,” says Pat. And the reason for that, she says, was that “there was just too much conflict with the baseball, the soccer, track.

“Up until the eighth grade he did everything,” recalls Pat. “He would go from baseball practice to swimming practice or basketball practice to swimming practice.”

Joe says his decision to focus on swimming in high school was simple: “You kind of like what you’re good at.”

Hudepohl attended the Jesuit-run St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, but did not swim on the school’s swim team until his sophomore year. Once he hit the water, though, there appeared to be no stopping him. While at St. X, Joe helped lead the Bombers to three consecutive national titles and personally set national records in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle. During his time at St. X, Joe continued to move to the top of the world of swimming.

The coach of St. X’s swim team, Jim Brower, told Swimming World magazine in 1991 that “the thing that sets him [Joe] apart is something no one can ever coach. It is just a feel for what he is doing. He knows his body and can feel the water. Also, his intelligence, modesty and cool head have helped take him far.” Joe managed to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average while at St. X.

Pat recalls that when Joe was in high school, “he would get up and go at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, go to school all day and then swim after school until six or seven at night. Then he would come home and just have a little bit of time to eat and do his homework and go back to bed before it started all over again. A lot of nights he was in bed by 8:00 or 8:30,” she says.

Those personal characteristics and drive helped Joe make the ’92 Olympic team as much as his physical characteristics. In Barcelona, he competed in three events: the men’s individual 4-by-200 freestyle, the men’s 4-by-100 freestyle relay and the men’s 4-by-200 freestyle relay. He was the youngest member of the U.S. team, having graduated from St. X just a month before. Joe placed sixth in the individual 4-by-200, won a bronze for the 4-by-200 relay and took home a gold medal for the 4-by-100 relay.

But, as Joe says, because he had never gone anywhere but up in his swimming, when he made the Olympic team in ’92, he didn’t truly grasp what an accomplishment it was. “I was young and I just kind of assumed that was part of [competitive swimming].”

He thinks that might have happened “because I was only 18 and I never really experienced the ups and downs of swimming….I don’t want to say I didn’t appreciate it because obviously I did, but it was just kind of like, ‘O.K., that was in the plan. That was something I planned to do and it just happened.'”

Pat says, “The pressure is what bothered me more than anything. I was very nervous for him. Through all his swimming career I always thought there was a lot of pressure on him. But he always seemed to handle it himself and he was happy and that’s what he wanted to do, so we just stood behind him and whatever he wanted to do was fine with us.”

Time Out for Training

Due to his outstanding academic and swimming records, Joe was awarded a five-year swimming scholarship to Stanford University in California. When he entered Stanford in September 1992, a promising college swimming career lay ahead of him. Stanford’s swim coach seemed optimistic that Joe could win more than 10 various NCAA championship titles. Unfortunately, that prediction never quite worked out.

During his time at Stanford, Joe had three second-place finishes and finished third three times. Suddenly, he found himself facing a very difficult decision-stay at Stanford or take some time off to focus on making it back to the Olympics in ’96.

In July 1995, Joe decided to forfeit the rest of his scholarship and last year of eligibility at Stanford University to focus on training for the Olympics. He says he made the difficult decision “because I wanted to look back on something and say at least I tried it. I wanted to take full advantage of everything that I had.” Joe also felt it was a move he needed to make: “Swimming was starting to lose a little bit of the fun for me.”

When Joe left Stanford, he had a 3.8 grade-point average and three quarters to go toward a degree in economics. He reunited with Jack Simon, his coach from the Cincinnati Marlins, who had trained with him for the ’92 Olympics. Simon is currently coaching at the Long Beach Swim Club in California.

For Joe, returning to his old coach was a logical move: “I just felt I would swim better with the coach I had before the last Olympics. I had to look at it as what I had to do to get ready for the Olympics. You don’t get that many chances at the Olympics, but I can always get back to Stanford,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer.

He says that the decision to reunite with his former coach not only made a difference in his training, but more important, “made a difference in my view of sport swimming and how I appreciate it more. I realize that this last year has been such a great year and I attribute quite a bit [of that] to being with my coach. He revived swimming in me a little bit.”

Striving to Be the Best

Looking at his records and achievements, it’s easy to see what Joe Hudepohl has done for swimming, but what has swimming done for Joe? “Probably the biggest thing that I learned from swimming is that it’s given me a way of focusing: Learn to focus and aim for one goal and just work hard at it every day.”

The pressure and achievement Joe has faced in swimming would greatly affect most people. Not Joe. People who know him repeatedly remark on his positive attitude and personal confidence. For Joe, it is simply living what he says he learned at home: “I think all you can do is give it your best every day and just hope that at the end something will come of it.”

And what if nothing comes from all your hard work? Don’t worry, says Joe, “because you can’t do anything about it. If you have a bad meet, there is nothing to be mad about because there is nothing that you can do about it. It was last week and you can’t go back and do anything different.”

His mom says that Joe has always been a rather laid-back person and takes things in stride. She remembers that at times when he was growing up she would hear of things the kids he was swimming with would say to him. “But he would never come back and tell me,” she says. “I would hear it from somebody else. A couple times I would say something to him because I didn’t want him to try to keep everything in. He’d say, ‘Mom, I don’t even listen to them.’ He could shut them out and not worry about it. He never tried to strike up an argument with them or anything like that. He would just let them say their piece and let it go.”

She even admits that “he’s probably more laid-back now than he was as a kid. He doesn’t let things bother him.”

Spring Break Versus The Olympics

Joe says that “lots of exciting things” have happened to him because of his swimming, but “probably the two that are ranked together would be the gold-medal performance and the world-record relay [Pan Pacific Swim Championships] that I was on last year.”

He also doesn’t feel that he’s had to make many sacrifices for swimming: “I didn’t really sacrifice anything. It was more just kind of a trade. The only thing I never did was go on spring break with friends.” But even that, he points out, wasn’t so bad. “I did some stuff that they never did and they did some stuff that I never did. They went on spring break to Florida and I went to Spain,” he says.

Being in sports has done a lot for him, he thinks, “especially in how I learned to deal with people and deal with disappointments.” He is a throwback to sportsmanship during a time that seems to have lost much of the definition. “I’m not really there to showboat,” he says. “I guess I’m kind of more keeping into myself.”

One thing is apparent, though: Joe Hudepohl wants to be the best. “If I’m going to do something, I want to be the best at it. That has always just been a part of me. I like to compete and I like to be the best.”

But he wants to be the best for himself. According to his mom, most of Joe’s friends never even knew he had the trophies and medals he did. To him, that wasn’t what was important.

“Most of the time he wouldn’t even get them except that I was always there and I would go pick them up,” she says. “Even to this day he’s like that.” She says that while Joe was swimming at Stanford, his girlfriend “would pick them up because she knows I like to have them. He would just leave them. That was never important to him, the medals or anything like that. His times were probably the most important things. He knew a time he wanted to get and if he didn’t get it at one meet, he knew what he had to do. Most of the time he would get it at the next meet.”

Strong Family Support

Joe says his family has played a big role in his achievements as a swimmer. Before he could drive, his mom or dad would drive him to workouts, some as early as five a.m. But even more than that, Joe appreciates his family just “being there and never really pressuring me.”

Joe is the youngest of five kids–he has three sisters and a brother. All three of his sisters, Lisa, Lori and Linda, live in Cincinnati. His brother, Jim, is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and is fulfilling his service requirements in San Antonio, Texas.

Joe also has two uncles who are Franciscan friars. His Uncle Al is pastor of St. Clement Parish in Cincinnati, and his Uncle Howard, a missionary teacher near Johannesburg, South Africa.

He says that his heroes can be found in his own home and to him “it seems that’s the way it should be everywhere.” Joe says his dad and his brother are probably the “two biggest influences in what I have done. Fortunately I was lucky enough to have the family that I have and that I was able to have someone to look up to in my family.”

Joe’s brother, Jim, who is four years older than Joe, “played basketball and set an example for me of being dedicated to a sport. He would go out there and shoot basketballs for hours,” recalls Joe.

A Little R & R

Even with his training for the Olympics, Joe finds that now he has time to do things that he couldn’t do when he was worrying about school.

“I just started to play a lot of golf,” he says. He also goes to the beach every once in a while and has found time to read all the books “that I should have read” but never did. “I read Dickens and some novels that are classics.” He says those books are “something good to know. I see them come up a lot or referred to a lot even in movies.”

Having made the Olympics in only one event, does Joe feel taking this past year off was a mistake? “A couple of people asked me, ‘Do you think you made the right choice to take the year off?’ I say yes, because it wasn’t just about that meet [Olympic Trials]. When I look back on it, I realize how much fun I did have in the last year.

“I shouldn’t be disappointed because I did what I thought was right in taking a year off and did everything that I could. There is nothing more that I could have done or asked of myself. I have viewed the last year as worthwhile. It didn’t turn out the way that I had hoped it would, but it didn’t turn out terrible.”

His mom agrees: “I’m a firm believer, and I think he knows it, I think it wasn’t meant to be. When things happen the way they do, they happen for a reason.”

During the past year, Joe says he has learned a lot about himself, “even things like religion,” and the important role his faith plays in his life. “I guess I never really thought about it directly,” he admits, but has come to realize “how much it does play in my life.”

While growing up, Joe says he received a strong basis for his faith from his parents and family. “When I grew up, we went [to Mass] every Sunday as a family,” says Joe. When he was old enough, he became an altar boy at church, remembers Pat. “He really enjoyed doing that, I know,” she says.

For Joe, “college was the first chance where no one was telling you that you have to go.” He says that in the last year he has “started to go [to church] more often” than he did before.

Pat agrees that faith was a key part of their family life. “We made sure we all went to church. We all went together as a family and prayed together as a family.”

Looking Beyond Atlanta

After the Olympics, Joe will head back to California, where he will return to school at Stanford in September. He will graduate in June 1997. For Joe, finishing school is “my first priority next year.”

If he does decide to quit swimming after this year, Pat wonders “what he’s going to do, because he’s so used to going every day.”

So, will he be at the next Summer Olympics? “I don’t want to say anything about 2000, but sometimes I think that, if I wanted to, I could stick around and swim for another couple years, but I’m not sure. I think my next goal is to finish school.”

But for now, Joe is focused on Atlanta. He says there isn’t one particular thing about the Olympic experience that most sticks out, but that the magic of the Olympics is about “the whole experience,” and “is kind of hard to put it in words.” What makes the Olympics so special, he believes, “is that everyone appreciates the hard work and stuff you put in to get there,” and the emphasis that everyone, like the media, places on them. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re going to the Olympics,’ and their eyes light up,” says Joe.

But just as easily as the media can make you a star, they can break you. Joe has experienced that firsthand, but doesn’t let it bother him. “They can write what they want or do what they want, but I know what I’ve done in the past 16 years of swimming,” he says.

A lot of the make-or-break media attention he attributes to the sport of swimming only being big every four years when the Olympics roll around: “It is one meet and that is it. You are either remembered for that one week or you are forgotten. There are some great swimmers who never get their name known nationally because it’s just that one week.”

Joe has high hopes that this year’s relay team can capture the gold. The third-place finish in the 1992 Olympics marked the first time since 1956 that the U.S. had not won the men’s 4-by-200 freestyle relay.

But no matter what the results, Joe considers himself very lucky even to be competing in the Olympics. “I have seen a lot of people who have talent and just never make it.”

So when he steps up on the blocks for his leg of the relay at Georgia Tech Aquatic Center this summer, Joe will definitely have his eyes on the gold. And if his relay wins a gold medal, Joe says he thinks “it will mean a little bit more just realizing how hard it can be to make it back to the Olympics.”