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Sports - June 19, 2013

Swimmers salute inspiring coach

George French trained Ladera Oaks swimmers, including Olympic contenders, during 1960s and 70s

by Sam Borsos

It's been decades since they were swimming together as kids under the direction of Coach George French, but many of the swimmers on the Ladera Oaks Aquatic Club during the 1960s and 70s reunited Saturday, June 15, to reminisce and thank their childhood coach.

About 100 of those swimmers whom French coached — some of whom went on to compete at national and Olympic levels — gathered for the reunion at the Alpine Inn in Portola Valley.

"It is a dream come true to have this experience with so many great individuals," French said. "All of these kids have been wonderful parents, successful professionals, leaders in their field and great examples."

From 1962 to 1981, French coached Ladera Oaks swimmers, including John Naber, who won four gold medals and one silver at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

French left Ladera Oaks in 1981 to take a marketing and sales position for a construction company. Twenty years later, he was offered an assistant coaching position for a swimming team in Folsom, and eventually became the head coach of the California Capital Aquatics swim team in Roseville, California. He retired in 2008.

Wendover Brown, 59, who swam for the Ladera Oaks club starting at age 7, says she was the first swimmer that French took to the national and Olympic trials in 1968. She was 13, the minimum age required to compete.

Under French's coaching, she recalls having two practices a day, before and after school, and competing at high level tournaments on the weekends. Brown expressed her appreciation for French as not only a coach, but a life mentor.

"This is a coach who touched and inspired many kids to better lives and greater contributions to society," Brown said. "This reunion is a testament to a great coach and the value of sports in young people's lives."

Olympic gold medalist Naber joined the Ladera Oaks team when he was 13. He is now 57. A 1977 graduate of the University of Southern California, Naber participated at a high athletic level since his time with French, but says he enjoyed his time at Ladera Oaks the most.

"George was the only coach I ever had who took the time to get in the water with me," Naber said. "He was a great teacher of technique and character."

At the reunion, French's former students presented him with a 50-year-old Swiss movement stopwatch to commemorate his impact on their lives.

"Today, all the stopwatches are digital and they have a lot of features and are accurate to the hundredth of the second — you can sync them with a starting gun," Brown said. "In our day, 50 years ago, everyone used a regular Swiss movement stopwatch."

The watch is engraved with French's full name on the front, and a message on the back that says, "Thank you for the golden times, Your Swimmers at Ladera Oaks."


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