The most popular person on the pool deck during swimming’s national championships at the Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine is a slight man with a watch on each wrist, a deep tan and an endless series of one-liners.
The legendary coach’s Hungarian accent, familiar to generations of elite swimmers in Southern California and across the nation, overwhelms the sound of churning water.
Jon Urbanchek is at home.
“You’re wearing the same shirt you had four years ago here!”
“Keep it going, Tommy!”
“Get out of here!”
A grandfatherly smile accompanies the last quip to Chase Kalisz, a silver medalist at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and one of the coach’s disciples.
Urbanchek, 82, is a Hall of Famer who has coached 44 Olympians. Eleven gold medalists. Assisted on six Olympic teams. Worked closely with Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky. After pacing pool decks for 52 years and a slew of aborted retirements that are a running joke in the swimming community, the coach can’t stay away.
Last month, USA Swimming hired Urbanchek as the national team’s technical advisor to oversee preparations for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“I talked to my wife and she said, ‘Yeah, I think it would be good for you to get involved because you need some stimulation,’” said Urbanchek, who lives in Fullerton. “I love to be on deck because I live on the energy of these kids .... They smile and giggle and have a good time and train hard. I think I can handle it.”
Urbanchek took to Twitter as news of his new job circulated.
“The YODA will see you in Irvine ...”
“I won’t be here forever!”
“The old man is starting his last gig!”
The last comment inevitably elicits laughter and eye rolls.
“Fifteen times he has announced he’s retiring,” joked David Marsh, the UC San Diego swimming coach and head coach of the U.S. women’s team in Rio de Janeiro. “He’s not ever going to leave the deck. As long as he’s walking and moving, he’ll be there.”
Urbanchek came to Michigan from Hungary in the late 1950s and became an All-American swimmer. He flunked a chemistry class, ditched an engineering major in favor of physical education and discovered coaching. After a career that started at the late Olympic diver Sammy Lee’s Anaheim swim school in 1963, Urbanchek eventually took over Long Beach State’s program before spending 22 years as Michigan’s coach. He retired in 2004.
“I’ll be an ordinary citizen,” Urbanchek pledged at the time.
That didn’t happen. Instead, he helped out Club Wolverine, the powerhouse postgraduate swimming program based at Michigan that included Phelps. He directed USA Swimming’s elite training center in Fullerton before the London Olympics in 2012, including helping Tyler Clary to a gold medal in the 200 backstroke.
After that, Urbanchek once again said he was done. Then he joined USC as a volunteer assistant.
“I’m retired, but I’m not retired,” Urbanchek told a Michigan publication in 2016.
He passed on the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to give younger coaches an opportunity. No one believed he could stay away much longer.
Five-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian couldn’t hold back laughter when discussing Urbanchek’s on-again, off-again retirement.
“I know, like, ‘One more, buddy. I’m going to go one more,’” Adrian said. “OK, I’ll see you in 2024.”
Urbanchek is always eager to promote others, always leaves you feeling better about the world after a brief conversation, always bounces around the pool deck with the energy of someone half his age.
He doesn’t care about getting the credit. He wants to help everyone improve. Sure, his workouts are brutal. But he’s plainspoken. He is patient. He has a gift for relating to swimmers who are decades younger. He engenders an unusual loyalty — even affection — among swimmers and fellow coaches.
Or, as Marsh puts it, Urbanchek brings “wisdom and credibility that is unquestioned.”
A USA Swimming slideshow prepared a few years ago on techniques for more effective coaching included three pictures of Urbanchek and a simple admonition: “Be Enthusiastic!”
He invokes the wholesome, unified fun of the viral ‘Call Me, Maybe’ music video U.S. swimmers filmed before the London Olympics. That’s the kind of culture he wants to nourish on the national team in the coming months and years.
On the pool deck in Irvine, Urbanchek needed to find one of his swimmers. In a 20-minute span, the coach had greeted three former Olympians, two coaches and been invited to a pool dedication.
“Let’s not do this four years from now,” Urbanchek said. “I want to enjoy being retired.”
The coach grinned and walked away.
Times staff writer David Wharton contributed to this report.