If Michael Phelps is the most well-known name in swimming, then the name of his head coach of 14 years, Bob Bowman, is probably a close second. Bowman, who is now the CEO of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, coached Phelps to a record eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and like every other head coach, has started a "coaching tree," which has spread all across the nation. One of Bowman's disciples, Michael Sabala, has taken root right here in Morningside Heights as an assistant coach on the women's swimming and diving team. Sabala, a native of Long Island, was a four-year letter winner at Harvard on a squad that lost only one dual meet in that time, and missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympic trials by just three-tenths of a second. Sabala's love of swimming took him around the world, including stops in Belgium and Kenya. Sabala, "failing miserably" at his first coaching job, started working at university summer swimming camps, starting at Stanford and Auburn. "You get to work with the staff and coaches from that university," said Sabala. "You go and work for the camps at the best programs. It's competitive to get in and it's fun but it's hard work." Both Stanford and Auburn are ranked in the top five nationally for men and women, so Sabala got a chance to work with the nation's best coaches. The Olympic training camp for the Beijing Olympics took place at Stanford over the summer of 2008. While working at the camp, Sabala would meet the man who gave him valuable insight into the world of coaching the nation's best swimmers. "Michael was coaching the Stanford swimming camp in 2008, when we were having Olympic training camp," said Bowman, who was named the USA Swimming's Coach of the Year in 2001 and 2003, "and we stayed in touch and in the fall, started emailing, and he would always ask me questions." "I met Bob and stayed on him," said Sabala. "I wanted to learn from him and establish myself as a coach. We met up and we went out for a beer, and he knew everything about me." Sabala worked the 2008-09 season as a volunteer assistant for the Columbia women's swimming and diving team. During Ivy season in March, Sabala got a call from Bowman inviting him to spend the summer at NBAC, where Bowman was based. Sabala spent the summer in Baltimore working with the teenagers and the "tomatoes" group at the nation's most prestigious swimming club. "Bob wanted to see how I fit in at North Baltimore," said Sabala. "They are big into culture. The U.S. is the most successful nation in swimming and NBAC is the most successful club." Sabala got the invitation from Bowman to stay on full time, and Sabala spent one year at the club before he decided that New York was the place for him to be. "It was an amazing opportunity to be on the deck with Bob, and to bounce questions off him," Sabala said. "I learned what I needed out of coaching, and I'm thankful to Bob that he gave me the opportunity," he continued. "North Baltimore is all about excellence and tradition. They think highly of themselves because they've accomplished so much. Bob made it arguably as good as anyone ever has." Sabala came back to New York and was selected from a large applicant pool to be the assistant coach on the women's team at Columbia under Diana Caskey, who has been the head coach for 19 years. "Michael has been a great addition to the coaching staff," Caskey said. "He's got a strong command of the sport's science and principles of creating effective training in and around the water." According to senior co-captain Mariele Dunn, Sabala has been an extremely positive influence on the team. "His unwavering enthusiasm and constant encouragement is contagious and has truly revolutionized the entire attitude and approach of the swim team," she said. "Now we swim with a different purpose, a different attitude, and a different approach, all of which enables us to accomplish things we never thought possible." Bowman believes that it won't take long for Sabala's impact to be felt on the pool deck at Columbia. "I think he can have a huge impact, I think he brings a different perspective, and I think he will challenge them more physically; I think he already has," Bowman said. "And then finally, I think he can raise the bar to competing in the NCAA instead of just conference meets and dual meets." Sabala's experience under one of the most renowned coaches in the world in any sport has taught him a lot, which he has brought to the Lions. "Bob gave me a metaphor we used this semester," said Sabala, "'You need to grow your potatoes.' You plant them, nourish them, and grow them so at the end of the season, you can pick it and know that it will be good. Bob gave me the confidence to grow potatoes." Bowman also taught Sabala about "a commitment to hard work, consistency in teaching excellence and professionalism, and working one step beyond everyone else." "Bob has remained a resource and continues to impact my career," said Sabala, "I didn't learn everything there was to learn, but I hope I took what I could from when I was there." Bowman believes that what he taught Sabala extends on what Sabala already knew. "He was very knowledgeable technically and he had a good understanding of the basics of training," said Bowman, "A lot of the basics he already had before he got here. I think we probably raised the bar in terms of periodization of training, learning how training interacts, how they can be used during a week or a season, but the biggest thing was to see on a daily basis what can happen when the standard is really high. I think what people are surprised by when they come to work with us is that our normal standard is really high, what we expect out of our swimmers on a daily basis and how we expect their attitude to be. I think that really broadened his horizons." Bowman, who meticulously planned and watched each and every one of Michael Phelps' thousands of strokes on the road to eight gold medals, is known across the swimming world as an obsessive planner. "Bob taught me about planning," said Sabala, "We [the team] are planned out through August 2012 and the Olympic trials. We know what we're doing every week, with the goal to have people competing in London." One day, when he was in Baltimore, Bowman showed Sabala the video and training logs, which had every lap, set, and stroke that Michael Phelps swam between Athens and Beijing in training and preparation for his goal. Sabala also became friends with Dawn-Marie Cain, who was Phelps' strength and conditioning coach for 2008-09. Sabala is motivated to be a coach because of his experiences in dealing with his own coaches. "I want to be better than all the other coaches I've had," said Sabala, who has been swimming since he was two years old. "I hope to not make the mistakes they've made." Bowman believes that one of Sabala's strengths that he has brought to Columbia is his ability to work individually with the swimmers. "I think he's very good at dealing with swimmers on an individual basis," said Bowman. "He really wants to get in and find out what motivates them and then creates a specific training program based on that. He really tailors it to the individual." Sabala believes that he can continue to learn at Columbia under the tutelage of long-time head coach Diana Caskey. "I wouldn't have come to Columbia if I didn't think I could continue to grow under Diana, and learn about college swimming and all the intricacies that go along with it," said Sabala. "Bob was the head coach at Michigan for four years. Diana has perspective and experience that compliment Bob's years on the national team coaching staff." Sabala, a three time Ivy League champion at Harvard has one goal in mind for the women's swimming and diving team at Columbia. "I wouldn't have come to Columbia if I didn't want to coach here," said Sabala, "and we all want to win a championship." With Bob Bowman in his corner, Sabala could mark the beginning of his coaching career by helping bring an Ivy title to Morningside Heights.
Alyson Goulden / Staff Photographer