After a lifetime in and around the pool, retirement wasn’t quite as eventful as Tom and Becky Jager may have envisioned. So, after only nine months away, they decided to get back into it by taking over as the coaches of the Aspen Swim Club.
“We’ve been married 30-something years and that was the first time we didn’t have a team we were responsible for and lo and behold we missed being part of it,” Becky said earlier this month from their home in Glenwood Springs. “It’s a different ball game. This is the happy, beautiful side of swimming. That’s refreshing.”
The Jagers began coaching the team this spring, taking over for Gordon Gerson, who was pushing a decade as the club’s coach before deciding to step away. A cardiologist in the Roaring Fork Valley, Gerson wanted more time with the family and stumbled upon the perfect replacements in the Jagers.
Over the course of a handful of months, Gerson and the swim club’s board, which is predominantly made of parents of the swimmers, convinced the Jagers to take over. It was quite the find, considering their impressive background in the sport.
“It was great to have a year off. For us, swimming has always been a part of our lives,” Tom said. “What a great opportunity to have. This is a lot more low key than a (Division I) job. For me, this is natural.”
Most recently, Tom had been the head coach for the women’s swim team at Washington State University in Pullman, having taken over the program prior to the 2011-12 season. He officially left in June.
Prior to coaching the Cougars, Tom had restarted the swim team at the University of Idaho, in nearby Moscow. The Jagers also had owned their own club team and know plenty about coaching at all levels, and certainly have an affinity for the mountain lifestyle.
“We just saw a lot of similarities with that type of community feel with the Aspen program, and that’s a tribute to Gordon and those parents,” Becky said. “They are connected through the sport.”
Becky, who was a college history professor, also moonlighted as a swim coach. Her background is impressive in its own right, including when she helped coach Tom when he was at his peak. One of the most decorated swimmers in U.S. history, Tom won seven Olympic medals, including five gold medals in relay events, dating back to his first in the 1984 games. He also competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.
“What I felt I learned from the sport of swimming is the process is important,” Tom said. “If you want to be good at something, that consistent, daily drive and the focus is really important. Swimming can be that foundation.”
One of the greatest sprinters in American history, Tom broke the long course 50-meter freestyle world record on six occasions. His best time of 21.81 seconds, set in 1990, held for nearly a decade. He also won two world championships in the event (1986, 1991).
A native of Illinois, Tom was a star swimmer at UCLA, where he won six NCAA championships. He’s in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
HOME SWEET HOME
The Jagers, who have two adult sons, have been coming to the valley most of their lives. They’ve had their home in Glenwood for five years, although prior to retirement only used it sparingly.
“My favorite pool in the world is Glenwood Hot Springs, and I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen a lot of them,” Tom said with a laugh. “It seems like a good place for an old guy to retire.”
They learned of the club through their neighbors, whose niece had been a Speedo. It was hardly an instant yes, but over time the idea of returning to coaching grew on them.
Then, after getting the chance to coach the swimmers one afternoon as a sort of trial run, the decision was made.
“They were really engaging and super polite,” Becky said of the kids. “They worked so hard to try and do exactly what we said. They seemed very, very coachable. Clearly Gordon has got them to where they really respect and listen to the coach. So once we met the kids, we were like, ‘We can do this.’”
The program Gerson built over his nine years in charge is undeniably stellar. Despite its small size, the Aspen Swim Club has been able to hold its own against larger clubs, at least in terms of individual talent.
He helped send numerous swimmers to college, including current Aspen High School senior Davy Brown, who is headed to Colorado Mesa University. Prior to Brown, there was Kennidy Quist, now at Harvard; Emily Driscoll, now at Occidental College; L.J. Fetzko, now at Hawaii; and Kelli Callahan, now at Puget Sound, among others.
Led by Quist, the AHS girls swim team, made with many of the club swimmers, won the 2017 state championship under coach Kathleen Callahan.
Not that the Jagers want this to influence what they plan to do.
“I don’t want to come in with any preexisting ideas or anything, because that’s in my experience the best way to start a job. Be fresh. Everyone is fresh to us. Everyone has a clean slate, which is great,” Tom said. “What Gordon has done in a small town, to build this program up with the swimmers that he has, is really great. We are really appreciative that he would entrust it onto us.”
The Jagers certainly inherit plenty of young talent, including eighth-grader Lillie Boggs, who is proving to be one of the best long-distance swimmers for her age in the state’s history.
However, getting swimmers to college would only be the icing on the cake to the sort of program they hope to run.
“In college, there is a lot of tension. This is my 51st year in swimming, so I get to choose whether I want the tension or not. With kids and swimming, they want to be there,” Tom said. “Some of them go on to be great musicians, great teachers, some of them go on to be great swimmers, but they all have this swimming in common. We enjoy that. It helps both of us. It’s a great opportunity for us to give back and be a part of it and not just drift away into nowhere land. It keeps us connected with the community.”
The Aspen Swim Club’s first meet with the Jagers will be May 3 to 5 in Thornton.
SO, CAN THEY SKI?
It’s an important question when living in the Roaring Fork Valley. Considering they also have a ski condo near Schweitzer Mountain Resort in northern Idaho, the short answer is yes.
At least, Becky is pretty good. Tom’s skills are questionable.
“Tom says he is a beginner, but he has been skiing for a long time,” Becky said. “He just doesn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of us.”
To which Tom responded, “Everyone needs a good equipment man.”