On a Friday evening in August 1989, Tom Jager is about to race in a 50-meter freestyle event at the U.S. National Championships in Los Angeles.
The race marks the return of Olympic gold medalist Matt Biondi, who dueled with Jager in the same event at the 1988 Olympic Games less than a year earlier.
The capacity crowd of 2,500 is settling in for what promises to be a memorable race when Jager is called for a false start and disqualified, though TV replays indicate otherwise.
Jager’s reaction is immortalized in a New York Times photo taped to his Gibb Pool office window. His arms are outstretched, an incredulous look on his face.
“The way I prepare,” recalls Jager. “I don’t need to false-start. I can give people a head start.”
Jager argued his case amid the din of a disappointed and disbelieving crowd who chanted, “Let him swim! Let him swim!”
“I remember distinctly the referee said to me, ‘It doesn’t help that you swear.’
“I remember me being calm, saying, ‘I appreciate that,’” Jager says, laughing, “‘but what would you like me to say?’”
Jager said a lot with his accomplishments in the pool during a decorated career as an NCAA and Olympic swimmer. His goal today is to do the same as a coach.
On another Friday evening, this one in late October 2011, Jager once again has his arms outstretched, but this time to cheer on the Washington State swim team during a meet with Pac-12 rival USC at Gibb Pool.
“This is as big a moment in my career as any moment that I’ve had,” Jager recalls thinking that night.
This from a man who earned seven Olympic medals, including five gold, and six NCAA titles.
The Cougars are facing a USC team led by Hall of Fame coach Dave Salo, a fact not lost on Jager, who accepted the WSU head coach position in May after seven years leading the University of Idaho program.
“The Pac-12 hosts the best coaches in the world, and it was really an honor to be on the same deck as Dave Salo,”Jager says.
Though the Cougars lost on this night, it seemed fitting that Jager’s first meet as a Pac-12 coach was against USC, an opponent Jager was no stranger to during his competitive swimming days as a student at UCLA.
The winning and championships Jager enjoyed at UCLA carried over to the Olympics and, for a time, overlapped.
While at UCLA, he captured two relay gold medals (4×100 meter freestyle, 4×100 medley) at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. A year after graduating, he picked up two more relay golds (4×100 meter freestyle, 4×100 medley) and a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 1988 Games. In 1992, he closed out his Olympic career with a gold medal in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay and a bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle.
It is the relay gold medal at the 1992 Games that is Jager’s favorite.
Entering the event, Jager says the U.S. team, which had been dominant in the event in past games, faced its first serious threat.
But Jager and teammates, including Biondi, held off the challenge of the Unified Team of former Soviet republics by less than a second.
“We beat them, and it was a great experience,” says Jager, reflecting back on winning what he describes as the “signature event” of the Olympics.
Four years earlier, Jager and his relay teammate Biondi were involved in another memorable race, but this time against each other.
The 50-meter freestyle would be making its debut at the Olympic Games, and Jager, who says the race was “my event,” was the world-record holder when the race began.
But not when it ended. Jager lost to Biondi, who swam a world-record time of 22.14 seconds to Jager’s 22.36.
Over 20 years later, Jager still describes the loss as a “killer.”
“I was a world-record holder when I went in, and I had beaten Matt seven out of nine times. To have that all taken away in 22 seconds. Those are the races that haunt you.”
Though acknowledging he would have rather won, the loss is an experience that Jager anticipates will serve a purpose during his coaching career.
“I find myself seven years in [my coaching career] and I’m at the Pac-12 level. I’m pretty proud of that,” Jager says. “I knew that I had to earn my stripes at a mid-major and work hard in order to prove myself and learn this business. There’s no pretense on my part that I have the ability of a Dave Salo today, but in 10 years, yes. In 10 years, I see myself to be a top coach in the country.”