As swimmers take their mark and the tension thickens in the final seconds before the race, Rick Walker watches his athletes as they dive into the water with the look a worried parent.
“I have a personal connection with each and every one of my athletes,” said Walker, SIU men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach. “They have made this proven ground for how to be competitive; these kids get it.”
With a recent win over Illinois and standout performances such as freshman Pamela Benitez getting the Missouri Valley Conference’s Swimmer of the Week, Walker said the team’s success thus far has held up to his expectations.
Walker retains the enthusiasm of a man at the start of his career after 25 years of coaching swimming at SIU.
“All that glitters may not be gold,” Walker said. “But I firmly believe in this program, and intend to stay.”
Walker, a Kankakee native, earned himself a spot in the 1980 and ‘84 Olympic trials during his career as a swimmer. Two years after Walker graduated in 1984 from Texas A&M, he found himself at SIU assisting coach Doug Ingram.
“Coach Ingram was my mentor,” Walker said. “Finding out what made him tick and assisting him made me the coach I am today.”
Following his mentor’s footsteps, Walker is now the second person in school history to become the coach of both men’s and women’s swimming and diving. He said he encourages them all to try hard both in the classroom and in the pool.
“Education and athletics are one and the same,” Walker said. “The kids I coach are blue-collar, hard-working kids who know how to work towards a set goal.”
Assistant coach Scott Olson said he credits Walker’s success to his longevity in the program and realistic attitude toward his student athletes.
“He’s definitely the master of SIU’s swimming and diving program,” Olson said “He’s been a great mentor: (he) allows his assistants to use their talents and earns a great degree of respect from his athletes every season.”
Walker said a win-loss column doesn’t matter come tournament time on the college level. Two meets remain until the MVC championships, and Walker said the whole season is spent in preparation towards the event and that individual performances determine the team’s placement.
The staff and athletes speak volumes towards Walker’s humbleness and respect towards the program. Walker speaks of a program built up by what he said are the hardworking athletes the university has attracted and spoke only of himself as a side note towards the program’s success.
“He always knows when to push us hard, and when to pull back,” said senior swimmer Steve Wood.