One glance at Steve Potsklan, Fordham’s broad-shouldered swimming coach, and you would never believe he didn’t make his high school football team.
“I was very small and thin, and it didn’t work,” recalled Potsklan, the son of former Albright College football coach John Potsklan. “So my dad said, ‘You don’t have to do football. Just get into some sport you like and want to do.’”
Potsklan had always loved to swim. After that failed football tryout, swimming quickly became his sport of choice.
After high school, Potsklan joined the Penn State team as a walk-on and left four years later as the team’s most valuable player, setting school records and winning a league title in the 100-yard freestyle.
But it was coaching that really appealed to the Pennsylvania native, who said he “grew up on the sidelines of football fields.” After completing a master’s degree in physical education from West Virginia University, Potsklan landed a job as an assistant swim coach at Yale. From there, he jumped to the head coaching position at Fordham in 1993.
This spring, Potsklan was named Fordham’s 2009 Coach of the Year and the 2009 Atlantic 10 Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year after leading the women’s swim team to a second-place finish in the league. It was the team’s best finish in the Atlantic 10, trumping its 2007 third-place finish.
“This was an amazing season for us,” Potsklan said. “The majority of the team had lifetime-best performances.”
In fact, the 2009 men’s and women’s swimming teams set 25 school records, and 11 of Potsklan’s students earned All-Atlantic 10 honors. Rising senior Caitlin Napoli received the team’s MVP award, setting six school records. Courtney Collyer, now a rising sophomore at Fordham College at Rose Hill, was named 2009 Atlantic 10 Women’s Rookie of the Year and broke an A10 record in the 200 butterfly.
“My swimmers kept telling me, ‘You should win [best coach]this year,’” said Potsklan. “But my win was because of them—both the men and women. They were fantastic.”
During swimming season, which runs from late August to mid-spring, Potsklan spends every day at the Francis B. Messmore Aquatics Center on the Rose Hill campus, where his office looks out on the swimming pool. He oversees nine workouts a week for approximately 55 team members, and he demands 100 percent attendance in order to maintain an “inspiring environment” for his team.
“Academics are always first, but we try to keep swimming at a very close second,” Potsklan said. “We do a tremendous amount of team-building skills—in and out of the pool.”
With new technologies, the mechanics of the sport has changed tremendously in the last decade, Potsklan said. Today, the use of video analysis and other advanced imagery helps swimmers locate trouble spots and hone their techniques.
“If a hand is coming into the water at 85 degrees and I want it to come in at 90 degrees, showing it to the swimmer on video can absolutely make a difference in improving it,” he said.
In the last few years, the development of new “miracle fabric” suits has led to a spate of record-shattering, creating what some call a new class of swimmers.
“Old speeds are being wiped out across the board,” Potsklan said. “It’s exciting.”
No matter what the technique level of a swimmer is, said Potsklan, the most critical element of the athlete is self-confidence. To develop a swimmer psychologically, Potsklan practices team-building skills, such as maneuvering hula-hoops through a human chain or engaging in friendly team competitions. The better the team chemistry, he said, the healthier the individual swimmers.
“One of our key elements this year was that the team believed not only in their individual abilities, but in the team as a whole,” said Potsklan. “What they gave to each other came back and allowed each individual to perform better.”
Potsklan recruits approximately 16 new members annually, mostly from regional high schools. Using the online U.S. Swimming Database, he can check potential candidates’ academic averages along with their swim times. From there, he goes to see a candidate in person, looking for a stroke that looks “effortless. Pretty.”
“It’s a very simple word, pretty. But it means they’ve been taught good mechanics,” he said.
With the sweep in gold medals by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimming has grown into a much higher-profile sport, said Potsklan. He is proud that Fordham’s fans come out to watch home swim meets, sometimes filling the stands, and he sees swimming growing as a spectator sport.
“In Phelps you now have a swimmer who is a major marketing celebrity, a million-dollar athlete,” he said. “It really promotes the sport, and it makes swimmers more proud of their role in athletic competition.”
– Janet Sassi