Holger Dietze, who has been producing swimming champions at the Starlit Aquatic Club in Fairfax for 10 years, says he is successful because he knows when to practice and when to play Frisbee.
"At the very top level of swimming there's more pressure at the nationals than there is in the Super Bowl or the NBA playoffs," he said. "The sport is so demanding, I don't want to impose any more pressure on the athlete.
"So after we've gone really hard for a week straight, I take them all outside and spend the afternoon throwing the Frisbee around. I have to take the edge off it. Like anything, you can do it to an extreme."
In a sport in which coaches have long preached success through excess, Dietze is almost alone in those feelings.
But he has been bucking stereotypes since he arrived at Starlit in 1972. He never swam competitively while attending the University of Colorado. He earned his degree in political science, not physical education. He doesn't even wear a whistle around his neck.
Dietze, 31, has lived in Virginia most of his life. He made hardly a ripple in swimming when he decided to supplement his income as a pool manager by coaching a team at Lakevale Estates after his junior year at Colorado.
For his first four or five years at Starlit, he was viewed in coaching circles as a maverick. But by 1977, when the club was ranked 12th nationally, he was more or less accepted.
"Out of the top 10 coaches in the country, I'm probably the only one who does it my way," he said. "I think at first some of the old-school coaches resented me. But I've been successful long enough that it's accepted now.
"Most coaches at the top levels of swimming are very authoritarian. They tell their athletes what to do. In some cases they are real screamers. I've just figured out my own way of doing it."
Dietze's office, a stuffy cubicle at one end of a trailer backed up next to the club's pool, is not cluttered with the usual knickknacks of success. But here and there on the mostly bare paneled wall are hints--a calendar with the lettering, "Universiada '81 Bucurestia Romania," a photograph of four swimmers in United States warmup suits.
Inside the steamy poolhouse, Dietze puts about 50 swimmers, the cream of the 250-member program, leisurely through their paces as a stereo drowns out the sounds of splashing.
But even with Dietze's low-key approach, nobody is fooling around. They take this business of making champions pretty seriously at Starlit.
The swimmers are weighed regularly, and Dietze and his assistants, Susan Teeter and Chip Collier, use videotape equipment to point out flaws in their strokes. The coaches shackle the swimmers' legs with rubber doughnuts to build up arm strength, and strap plastic wafers to their hands to increase resistance in the water.
Starlit swimmers work out an average of five afternoons a week for about 2 1/2 hours and three mornings a week for 1 1/2 hours. They push themselves in their specialty only three or four times a week and devote the rest of their pool time to technique and breath control exercises.
The swimmers train as hard out of the water, lifting weights about 40 minutes two or three times a week and running five days a week during some phases of their training.
But Dietze toughens more than their bodies.
"There's a tremendous amount of psychology involved in training young swimmers," he said. "When you get into the top 5 percent of swimming, everybody trains equally hard. So it comes down to two distinct factors for success: genetic makeup and psychology--how you approach it on a daily basis.
"That's what coaches are really here for--to guide the swimmers from a mental standpoint and prepare them for the pressure."
Besides insisting that his swimmers stay away from water a day and a half every week, Dietze puts them through relaxation and positive self-image training. He teaches them how to project a successful image by recalling pleasant situations, like a sunny day, and then recreating the scene in their minds.
Dietze has done more than build swimmers. He has built Starlit. When he came to the club in 1972, it had about 125 swimmers. That number has more than tripled.
Dietze returned from a year's hiatus at Stanford, where he coached the women's team to a second-place national finish in the AIAW swimming championships, in time to guide Starlit to a sixth-place ranking this past indoor season.
In 10 years, he has sent 200 swimmers to college on full or partial scholarships. This year, nine of his 12 swimmers graduating from high school received full or partial scholarships.
On his own, Dietze has coached U.S. teams at meets in France, Holland, Romania and Brazil. For a while he coached at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. Last summer he coached the U.S. junior team in a Milwaukee meet against a Soviet team.
He expects to have 10 world-ranked and 25 nationally ranked swimmers competing for him this summer. Eight of his high school swimmers have already qualified for the nationals.
Among his prize pupils is Heather Strang, 15, who he says is the best young swimmer in the world.
Strang is one of only 10 female swimmers in the world to have surpassed the landmark 50-second time in the 100-meter freestyle. Her 49.7 at the indoor national meet last winter was good for second place. She had placed third in an international meet last summer.
World-ranked swimmers Betsy, Suzy and Jenny Rapp are further testimonial to Dietze's skill.
"Holger is definitely the best coach I've ever had, because he treated me differently," said Betsy Rapp, a recent graduate of the University of Florida, where she was female athlete of the year.
She narrowly missed making both the 1976 and 1980 Olympic teams after finishing fourth in the trials. Her sister Suzy made the Olympic team in 1980.
"Holger just knows me so well," she said. "He knows my mental state in and out of the water. He's that way with everybody."
Her father, Edward Rapp, agrees. "The typical coach I've seen on the national scene has a really big ego and is always trying to feed it off his kids.
"Holger isn't interested in anything that reflects on him individually. He isn't after all the glory. I don't think that our kids would have gotten as far, enjoyed it as much, or stuck with it if it weren't for Holger Dietze. He's not only a technically proficient coach, but he motivates the kids to meet realistic goals in life."
Dietze doesn't know how much praise or credit he deserves.
"Some people don't need a coach but 5 percent of the time. Some need one for 95 percent of the time. I'm just here for whatever they need."