April 4, 2011
Eric Namesnik GP: 'He was the son I never had'
The Eric Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix will be held April 8-10 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The meet is named in honor of two-time Olympian Eric Namesnik, who swam for and later coached at Michigan before passing away in a tragic automobile accident in 2006. Namesnik’s former coach and mentor Jon Urbanchek remembers his legacy.
By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Jon Urbanchek – also known affectionately as “the man whom swimming won’t allow to retire” – has a big week ahead.
Not only is he running the elite-level group at Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team with one of his former assistant coaches at Michigan – who is also being hauled out of retirement – “Urbie” is going back to Michigan. For a special meet. Honoring a special man.
Urbie pauses as he gathers thoughts, and emotions run so high inside him that they force tears into his eyes.
“It’s hard to put into words what he meant to me because he swam for me for so many years and coached with me for six years, so I had known him 16 years,” Urbancheck said. “He was so dedicated. You know I have a daughter – biologically, I had a daughter. He’s the son I never had. Everybody always thought he was my son.”
Urbie loved that. And he did love Eric Namesnik like a son. Urbanchek is quick to point out that Eric had two great parents of his own, who raised him right and inspired in him a work ethic – the likes of which Urbie has rarely seen in life – that carried Eric to two Olympic Games.
“I think I might have been a father figure to him, even though he had his own mom and dad,” Urbanchek said softly.
But he was like a son to Jon. And like many sons, he found footsteps in which to follow.
“He wanted to become a swim coach,” Urbanchek says, gathering his emotions as a second round of heartfelt thoughts tugged at his heartstrings. “His tragic death hit me hard. It still does. I sent message to his wife in the Netherlands, ‘Next week, we will be thinking about you guys a lot.’ All the great swimmers come back to this meet in Ann Arbor because of the respect we have for Snik.”
Urbanchek coached the legendary battles between Namesnik and Tom Dolan at the University of Michigan. Namesnik grabbed silver in the 400 IM at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, in addition to silvers in the 200 IM and 400 IM at the 1991 World Championships. He also won a bronze at Worlds in Rome in 1994 and won silvers in the two IMs at the 1995 Pan American Games. The training sessions with Dolan though, are now part of folklore.
“Everybody remembers that,” Urbanchek said. “But if you ask people whom they cheered for – it was so hard for me because both of these kids could have won the gold medal – nine out of 10 would have said they were cheering for Eric. Tom was talented, but Eric had such dedication and desire. People pulled for Eric because he didn’t have that great talent but did have the dedication and commitment. As a coach I look back at Snik, and see that he literally gave everything he could in every workout, every battle. He came in second, but did his best and I was never more proud of anyone. And I was very proud of Tom, too. As long as we went one and two, I didn’t care. I told them, ‘I can see either of you winning.’”
He said Dolan knew what Namesnik did for him, too.
“When we lost Snik, Tom, who was a fierce competitor, said, ‘I would not be here today if it weren’t for Eric,’” Urbanchek recalled. “That rivalry was hard and at times vocal. But Tom said, ‘We were good for each other, and neither of us would have gotten here without the other.’”
Olympian Chris Thompson swam for Namesnik, and then coached with him at a competing club. He said the swimmers coming to Michigan knew who Eric was.
“Oh, for sure, coming in and respecting the history, we knew about him in the 1992 and 1996 Games battling,” Thompson said. “Those legendary battles with the big Michigan guys. He won silvers both times, and you can never be disappointed with that. He swam the IMs, so he could do all the strokes well.”
Thompson said not a day goes by where he doesn’t think about the assistant coach who helped shape him in not just a great swimmer, but a responsible man.
“He loved the sport. He loved Michigan. He loved coaching all of us guys,” Thompson said. “We all wanted to be like him. We heard all the stories about the sets he and Dolan would do. Eric was this scrappy kid from small town Pennsylvania, and he was just so amazing. To have the chance to follow in his footsteps motivated all of us. He definitely had that mold and mentality that all the University of Michigan people try to have. Eric Namesnik is one of the legends of the program, and of the swimming world, in general. He embodied everything we wanted to be, and I hope what all the people there in the program now and in the future want to become. We always wanted to make him proud of us.”
Urbanchek means so much to his swimmers that he gets more nuptial invites than some wedding planners. He has a very special place in his heart for Eric Namesnik.
“As a coach, you don’t want to pick someone else above anyone ever, but Snik meant a lot to me,” Urbanchek said. “I really felt close to him. I still feel close to him. He should still be here, he should not be gone. The memories – what he left –are what we can live on. He left enough memories for the next generation. All the coaches and athletes knew this kid was special in and out of the pool, with his commitment, and his love for family. It was a great loss.”
But Urbanchek has far more smiles than tears in remembering Eric. He brought with him a work ethic from rural Pennsylvania that endeared himself to coaches and made him an instant leader. Urbanchek also recounted a funny incident recruiting Namesnik in which assistant coach Mike Barrowman pulled Urbie’s leg at letter of intent time.
“Mike tricked me and said, ‘Eric Namesnik picked ASU,’” referring to Arizona State, which Namesnik was also considering, Urbancheck recalled. “He called me one night and pulled that joke on me. ‘I hate to tell you, but Eric is not coming here.’ Of course, Mike, who had helped me a great deal in recruiting Snik, knew that Eric had already picked Michigan because Mike had just talked to him.”
Though Snik is gone, he hasn’t really left. Urbanchek said that’s because he left such a solid legacy of character, commitment and integrity.
“Oh yes, he accomplished a lot more than people do in longer lifetimes,” Urbanchek said. “Please understand, this is hard for me to put it in to words. Eric is with me. I see him every day. You appreciate what he accomplished. You feed off what he has done. What he would be like today is one of the top coaches in America. I really felt like would carry on the tradition.”
Going back is painful. But with pain comes rushing back great memories.
“You know what? I am glad the meet carries his name,” Urbanchek said. “That is what the meet is about, about bringing the best together, and going head to head, with everyone giving their best. In Eric, that lives on.”
The Eric Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix will be webcast live right here on usaswimming.org. To watch the webcast, and for more information about the meet, go to usaswimming.org/michigangrandprix