Olympic Interview #2 - Kim Rhodenbaugh

Oct 15, 2004
Olympic Interview #2 - Kim Rhodenbaugh
Swimming World Magazine

Ever wish you could talk to an Olympic swimmer and ask him or her what it was like? Not just what it was like to swim THAT FAST, but what it took to get there? In our series of Olympic Interviews, Go Swim asks Olympians past and present about their early years, their training, motivation, successes, and failures. This week's featured Olympian is Kim Rhodenbaugh, a member of the 1984 US Olympic Team in the 200 Breaststroke. Kim is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is part of one of the most successful swimming families in history.

Did you win every race you ever swam?
Unfortunately, most people are not happy unless they win a race. Think about it. The first thing people ask after you swim in a meet is, "Did you win?" I learned early on that I wasn't going to win every race. When I was little I didn't do the breaststroke kick properly. So I would go to the meets and even come in first and the stroke judge would tell me I was disqualified. (This means I got last.) Instead of getting all bummed out and saying "I can't do it," I decided to work really hard. Finally, after almost two years of practice, I started doing the right kick. Guess what stroke I eventually swam in the Olympics?, You guessed it -- breaststroke.

Where did you find your motivation/inspiration?

I received motivation and inspiration from many sources. First, I had a very supportive family. I'm one of eight kids and all of us swam. My family would send cards, and make posters and psyche-up tapes for each other. They're awesome! I also had some great coaches who were very good motivators. One of my idols growing up was Tracy Caulkins, one of the best female swimmers of all time. She was a great inspiration not only because she was a great swimmer but also because she was a great person. And finally, I was very self-motivated. I wanted to do everything I could do to be the best I could be.

What's your most memorable swim?

Kim and Mook

Most people would think that my most memorable swim was at the Olympics. Not so. It was at the 1982 State High School meet in Ohio. I have never been to a more exciting meet. The pool had stands on three sides and they were packed. Before every race there was dead silence and then after the start of every race the place would erupt. It seemed like everyone in the crowd genuinely loved swimming and cheered regardless of whether it was a swimmer from their team. My brother Mook and I were both trying to set national records in our events. Mook swam the 100 backstroke first. It seemed like the whole pace was chanting, "Moooook, Moooook," before the start. He ended up setting a national record. I swam the 100 breaststroke next. I was so pumped after seeing Mook set the record. The crowd cheered with every stroke. At the finish I looked up and realized I had also set the record. It was an awesome meet!

Would you do it all over again?
I definitely would do it all over again...but with a few changes. I started out with a great love for swimming. But as time went by and training got harder and the meets grew more intense, I developed a love-hate relationship with the sport. I realize now that my identity was wrapped up in "Kim the swimmer." My advice to anyone is never get your self worth or identity from what you do. Find out who you are through God's eyes. Otherwise, some day when you don't do the thing that gives you your identity, you will feel very lost. Unfortunately, this is what happened to me. Plus, I was so burned out when I finally quit because of all the stress I put on myself. When you get your identity from what you do, your self worth is wrapped up in how well you perform.

What do you remember most about your training?
I remember the people. I loved the social aspect of the sport. Training could get very long and tiring. The interaction with my teammates made training a lot more fun. We used to swim twice a day and do weights and dryland training for 2 to 4 hours at a time. Workouts could be grueling. We would sometimes swim 8000 to 10,000+ yards/meters a workout. Back when I swam, the focus was a lot more on how many yards or meters you could get in rather than balancing yardage with technique instruction and strength training. The friendships I made were invaluable to keeping me going and focused.

Do you still swim? Why or Why not?
After 17 years in retirement, I finally decided to get the old Speedo out and swim again. (Well, I didn't actually wear my old Speedo. I bought a new one) Last year my family decided to put together a "Team Rhodenbaugh" and swim at the Masters National meet last spring in Indy. At first I wasn't too excited about swimming again. But I joined a Masters team in Fort Worth and started really enjoying being a part of a team again. It also felt good to be in the water. The coach has helped to put the fun back in swimming for me and many of my teammates.

Do you still compete? Why or why not?
I swam in my first Masters meet last February. My times were a lot slower than I thought they would be. It was very humbling but a lot of fun. It was great being part of a team again. I had to reprogram my brain to what kind of shape I was currently in and not compare myself to who I used to be. This was a little hard at first because I'm slightly competitive! I ended up getting a couple bronze medals at the Masters National meet and "Team Rhodenbaugh" came in 29th out of 150+ teams. It was a blast swimming with my family. Even my Dad swam in the 75-76 age group! I also had forgotten how much fun it is to compete. I wasn't sure if I would keep swimming after the nationals. But after a few weeks I realized I missed it. I think my love-hate relationship for swimming is finally back to a love relationship.



By permission of Sports Publications, Inc. we are republishing this story from the August 1982 issue of Swimming World Magazine. 

The Rhodenbaughs, a No. 1 Family

A Personality Feature by Mark Merfeld

The finals crowd rimmed the pool on three sides, crammed into bleachers that rose toward the rafters. Their vertical numbers transformed the pool below into a sort of competition pit, a swimming rodeo arena, if you will.

Kim and Mook

The chant began long before the race. At first it seemed as though only a few strays had wandered from the herd. A "Moo-oook" descended from above. Another "Moo-oook" answered from the side. Then the bovine chant became louder, more rhythmic. "Moo-oook, Moo-oook." Soon it was everywhere, a constant moo reverberating through the building.

It sounded like a cattle roundup. A very loud cattle roundup. The setting, however, was very uncowboy-like. The sounds emanated not from the wide open ranges of Texas. Not even from some congested stockyard. They came from the C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton, Ohio. And, as it turned out, they were indeed the sounds of a roundup--a roundup of national high school records.

The rustlers of these records were Mark ("Mook") Rhodenbaugh, a senior at Cincinnati's Oak Hills High School, and his sister Kim, a sophomore.

It was the night of March 5, the first night of the 75th annual Ohio State High School Swimming Championships, and Mook Rhodenbaugh was atop the starting block for the 200 yard individual medley. Mook's mooing fans quieted long enough for the starter to begin the race. And with the start came a constant roar, drowning out the splash of the competitors. The bleachers shook under stomping feet; towels whipped encouragement through the air; urban cowboys in the crowd "Yahooed" their hats skyward. As each split froze on the scoreboard, the crowd noise rose to a new level. They were trying to collectively will Mook to a national record.

And they succeeded. Mook touched in 1:48.97, eclipsing the two-year-old national standard set by Chris Cavanaugh of Lynbrook High School by .42 seconds. A standing ovation followed . . . and a lot of mooing.

One would think this spontaneous, kinetic outpouring was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of scene, except for the fact that it was repeated the next day. Twice.

Mook's target that day was the 100 yard backstroke record, a mark he had set once last year, but which had been subsequently lowered by Dave Bottom. Sophomore sister Kim, though still three weeks shy of her 16th birthday, was after the 100 breast national high school standard of 1:02.96. The team battle was an exciting one between 12-time defending state champion St. Xavier High of Cincinnati and eventual champion Akron-Firestone. But competitors and fans alike found themselves caught up in the Rhodenbaughs' quest.

"It was more exciting than Nationals," Mook would say later. "A lot of people said it was the loudest crowd they'd ever heard."

Before Mook's 100 back effort, the cycle started again: the chanting, then the silence, then the cheering, the stomping, the standing ovation, the record. Mook had done a 49.76, the first high school backstroker in history to break 50 seconds.

"As soon as I got mine (the record), I got out of the pool and Kim came over and hugged me and I said, 'It's your turn. Go do it,' " Mook remembered.


Kim was no stranger to cheers herself. The night before she had set the Ohio state record in the 200 IM with a 2:05.36 clocking, the eighth fastest high school race in history. Now shouts of "Come on, Kim," "Go, Kimmy" ushered her to the starting block for her 100 breast final. Her 1:03.10 effort in prelims had left her .14 seconds behind Kathy Smith's (Lake Washington, Wash.) national high school record. The crowd had decided to make up that time with cheers.

"I was really excited when Mook set his records," Kim said later. "I think that helped me. I was psyched.

"During the race, even all the other high school teams were cheering. Every stroke, when my head came up, I'd hear the yelling. I think it was the most intense meet I've ever been to."

Kim touched in 1:02.49, breaking the record by nearly half a second. Another standing ovation followed. But this fantastic Ohio crowd wasn't finished yet. As Kim and Mook received their awards, they were given still another ovation.

Jay Fitzgerald, the Rhodenbaughs' club coach with the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins, was touched. "When Mook got his award they must have chanted his name for five minutes. It was a very moving moment. It's really gratifying for a coach to see something like that."

It was particularly gratifying for Mook Rhodenbaugh, for he accomplished both records--as well as three top-five finishes in the Short Course Nationals the following month--with a detached ulnar nerve in his left arm. Anyone who has ever banged his "crazy bone" against a door and felt the tingling numbness that results can sympathize with Mook's problem. He frequently had numb fingers on his left hand, but he refused to let it interfere with his swimming. After Nationals he underwent surgery--technically called a "transposition of the left ulnar nerve"--and was immobilized in a cast for 10 days. Then he re-dedicated himself to making the U.S. team for the World Championships.

For Kim, the record was the first of three special events. Her national high school record is even more amazing in light of her age. Here is a swimmer, still 15, setting a standard that none of this country's 17- and 18-year-old high school seniors could match. Then, at the Short Course Nationals, Kim defended her 200 breast title and finished second to Tracy Caulkins in the 100 breast. A national high school record, a national championship in the 200 breast, a silver medal in the 100- not a bad month's work for someone just turning 16.

But all that may have to take a back seat to what happened following the Short Course Nationals. In Gainesville, Fla., during a long course dual meet with the West German national team, Kim beat Tracy Caulkins (not to mention the West Germans) in the 100 meter breast by .6 seconds.

"That was the first time I'd ever beaten her,'" Kim said. "I used to be really nervous against her and say, 'Oh-oh, here we go again.' Now that I've beaten her once, I feel a lot more confident. It's really inspired me a lot toward the World Championships this summer."

The victory came right after Nationals . . . in a low key meet . . . against an outclassed West German team. As such, it wasn't an important one. But, for Kim Rhodenbaugh, it could be the most important victory of her swimming career. For it was a psychological breakthrough, a realization that she can beat the best. She can beat Tracy Caulkins.

"Tracy is an awfully imposing presence," Kim's coach, Jay Fitzgerald, explained. "And she's been able to do it to a whole lot of people for a long time.

"After Kim's 100 race at Nationals (when she was second to Tracy), I told her, 'If you had swum the same time you did at the High School Championships, you'd be the national champion in the 100.'

"I think Kim looked at that time, the race, and felt, more than ever, that she could beat her."

The Rhodenbaughs' road to national recognition winds not iust through Gainesville and Cincinnati and Canton and the other cities capable of hosting large swim meets. Further back it covers miles of highways across the midwest, hundreds of age group meets, and thousands of training laps. The very first strokes were not in a pool, but in the concerned minds of Dr. Dillon Rhodenbaugh and his wife, Beverly, who decided to involve their children in swimming two decades ago.

"We feel very strongly that kids have to be kept busy," Dr. Rhodenbaugh, an oral surgeon, explained. "The drug scene in the '60s and '70s and even now was a big concern to us. We looked around and found that with eight children five sons and three daughters we needed a sport where we could combine both sexes . . . tennis or swimming. Since then, all of our children have been in the Marlins."

What began as a hobby or pastime for the young Rhodenbaughs soon became an important part of their lives. Each was exposed to swimming through the older children. It started with Jeff, who is now 26, then came Brad, Christine, Katie and Greg, who will be a junior at Southern Methodist University in the fall; then Mark and Kim, and finally, Matthew, the youngest at 13.


"I was just following the family tradition at first," Mook says. "It became what I wanted to do later."

Somewhere along the line, Dr. Rhodenbaugh got involved too. His affiliation with the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins club has reached 19 years now. He is also the current president.

"All we've done is expose them to the program," Dr. Rhodenbaugh emphasizes. "The rest is totally their doing. They're the ones that have to get up for the 5 a.m. workouts.

"We owe an awful lot to swimming. And, if we had to do it again, I think we'd do the same thing."

Ushering eight kids to swim meets and workouts is not an easy task. Often the Rhodenbaughs' carload of young swimmers set off across rural Ohio sounding something like a rolling barn. It was here that Mark acquired his nickname, "Mook."

"When I was little, we'd take trips to the country and we'd imitate the animals we saw," Mook says. "I would be a cow. My sister would be a pig. My other sister would be a horse. And we'd make the sounds. Then they started calling me 'Mr. Moo-Cow' (after the television character) and that later became 'Mook'."

"Which he now actually prefers over Mark," Dr. Rhodenbaugh added with a laugh.

Whether Kim was the horse or the pig imitator is not clear, but clearly her swimming did a fair impression of a fish from the start. At 12, she was in the National Junior Olympics. At 13, her first Nationals. At 14, she missed making the Olympic team by four-hundredths of a second. It was the sort of disappointment that could have crushed a lesser swimmer. Instead, it propelled her to an outstanding year in 1981, when she won her first national championship in the 200 yard breast, was second in the 100 yard breast and made three finals (a third in the 200 m. breast, a fifth in the 100 breast and an eighth in the 200 IM) at the Long Course Nationals. She wound up ranked third in the United States in both the 100 and 200 breast and 10th in the 200 IM. She was also ranked fifth in the world in the 200 meter breaststroke.

Despite six hours of daily training during long course season and four hours a day during the school year, Kim finds time for her favorite subject--French--as well as her other studies, some tennis, and a growing interest in physical therapy as a possible career. She's also been known to get involved in a football or baseball game because, as Kim says, "when you have five brothers, you play everything."

"My friends all say, 'How do you have time to study'?' But it's just a matter of organizing your time. Sometimes it gets rough when the workload is bad, but I get used to it.

"I really don't think I've missed anything socially (because of swimming). I have a lot of time. I'm home at 8:00 every night. And I get to travel."

The year 1981 proved to be a big one for Mook as well. It was then that he garnered a sixth in the 100 back and a seventh in the 200 IM as a high school junior at the Short Course Nationals. He also finished in the top 20 in the Long Course Nationals in three events: the 100 and 200 meter backstroke and the 200 IM.

This past April, after setting the two national high school records, Mook was second in the Short Course Nationals in the 200 IM with a career best 1:48.72; third in the 100 back (a half-second behind Dave Bottom's American record swim of 48.94); and fifth in the 200 back.

His efforts are focused on making the World Championship team this summer before following his brother to Southern Methodist University in the fall. At SMU,
he plans to major in civil engineering . . . and swimming.

"I probably like soccer more than swimming," Mook says. "But I won't have time for it in college."

In high school, Mook had time for soccer, swimming and a 3.0 GPA. He also had time for others. Though he spent most of his training time with the Cincinnati Marlins, Mook swam for the Oak Hills High School men's team and was even elected co-captain. All the members of the team--whether they were competing or not--went to the High School Championships to cheer
each other on.

"They accept me as myself," Mook says of his less famous teammates. "And that's the way I want it."

Yoshi Oyakawa is Mook's high school coach and he happens to know a little about Mook's specialty -- the backstroke. Coach Oyakawa, you see, won the gold medal in the 100 m. back in the 1952 Olympics and seven career NCAA titles in the backstroke in the 1950s. He also knows a little about Mook Rhodenbaugh, the person.

"All the kids get along with him," Oyakawa says, "He was elected co-captain this year, which says a lot. I think everyone realizes Mook has something special."

Just how special?

"Mook has developed his talent to the point that it is very outstanding," Oyakawa continued. "Swimming is the type of sport where talent has to be nurtured and Mook has certainly done that. Physiologically, he is very strong and I think he has a strong competitive drive. He sets goals for himself and works hard toward

"I really look for great things from Mook."

Although Mook has specialized in backstroke and Kim in breaststroke, both have become nationally ranked IMers over the past year. Much of the reason is Jay Fitzgerald, who became the Marlins head coach in the spring of 1981.

"Basically, I believe everybody should be a 400 IMer. That is my coaching philosophy," Fitzgerald says. "If they can't swim an IM, then I'll find a stroke for them.

"Kim is an excellent breaststroker. She was always an excellent breaststroker. But I felt if she was to continue to move ahead in the breaststroke and not get stale, she had to get into other events. If you have other events, you're fresher; you stay looser; you're not always worrying about your specialty.

Mook is a very talented individual. He was always a very good backstroker, but not too many people remember that when he was 11 and 12, he was in the top 25 in his age grou p in the breaststroke. And he's very competitive in the 100 fly and in the 50 or 100 free."

Put all that together and you've got quite a pair of IMers. Trying to stay "fresh" for the breaststroke, Kim won the 200 IM consolation finals at the Short Course Nationals in April. Mook was even fresher, finishing second in the 200 IM finals.

Kim shrugs off her success in her newest event. "I like the variety in the IM," she says, "but I guess breaststroke is still my favorite."

Meanwhile, backstroker Mook has dropped 41/2 seconds in the IM this year. Such results bespeak talent, dedication, discipline and intelligence.

"They have an unusual ability to combine all these things," Fitzgerald says. "They are very dedicated; they train hard; they are intelligent about strategy; and they are extremely coachable.

"They are able to swim a race a certain way if you ask them to try something. They are very receptive to the IM . . . and after swimming so many 400 IMs in practice, the 200 IM became easy."

The Rhodenbaughs' races are, of course, never easy. But they have been made easier by the enormous support they receive on all fronts--their parents, coaches, teammates, brothers and sisters, and each other. It's the kind of support one can tap in a race when the lungs and limbs are burning. For deep inside, beyond the pain, is the desire to please those who love and support you, to not let them down.

"Mook likes to try to please people who have helped him," Fitzgerald says. "People naturally do that,"

With so many people supporting Mook and Kim, it's no wonder their efforts are so pleasing to so many. They might take the form of some good-natured kidding at workouts; or some encouraging words at a meet; or a record-breaking effort in a race; or just a "Good Luck" sign hung in a conspicuous place.

"Greg and Mook were going to the Meet of Champions in California but I couldn't go because I still had school," Kim says. "It was a bummer. So I made up a sign that said, 'Good luck, Greg and Mook,' and hung it in the kitchen where they'd see it before they left.

"I love doing stuff like that," Kim, the sign painter, adds: "We're usually behind each other all the way."

"They have their own fraternity," Dr. Rhodenbaugh explains. "They know how hard it is to swim so far and so long, so they all kind of suffer together. They hurt together and they help each other."

Mook and Kim may just help each other onto the Olympic team by 1984. The last time an American brother-sister combination competed in the Olympic swimming events--Jack and Shirley Babashoff in 1976--they carted home five medals. Could the Rhodenbaughs join the Babashoffs as sibling Olympians!

"It never occurred to me till recently," Mook says.

And what do you think now?

"Now, I think it's a good possibility."

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