Dick Shoulberg’s Passion & Hard Work Built a Dynasty at Germantown Academy

Elwanda Tulloch

Swimming World first began recognizing the top high school teams in the country in 1971. Since then, three schools stand out as the most successful among independent schools. Featured in the magazine’s September print issue is The Bolles School of Jacksonville, Fla., which has captured the most national prep school […]

Swimming World first began recognizing the top high school teams in the country in 1971. Since then, three schools stand out as the most successful among independent schools. Featured in the magazine’s September print issue is The Bolles School of Jacksonville, Fla., which has captured the most national prep school titles with 18—10 boys’ and eight girls’—as well as 12 combined championships (public and independent schools).

Following Bolles for most national independent school titles are Germantown Academy (Fort Washington, Pa.) with 10 and The Peddie School (Hightstown, N.J.) with nine. Germantown’s girls have also won four combined championships, while Peddie’s boys’ and girls’ teams have each captured three public/independent school titles. Below is the story of Germantown’s success.

Coach Dick Shoulberg first strolled the deck at the Germantown Academy in 1969. At the time, the 30-year-old had a six-lane, 25-yard pool to work with and just a boys’ team. 

Since the school had only integrated women a few years before, Germantown’s first girls’ swim team came under Shoulberg’s watch in his first year. His passion for coaching came from his early days as a water safety instructor at the school, a position he held during his 44-year stint at Germantown. 

“One of the most famous kids I taught how to swim was Joe Frazier’s daughter in eighth grade,” Shoulberg said. “I told the little girl, I think tomorrow we are going to jump off the diving board and then you’re going to work your way 25 yards to the wall. I’ll be right there, and I’ll be watching you. Joe Frazier came the day his daughter swam the length of the pool, and I thought it was freaking awesome! He was one of the greatest athletes out of Philadelphia!

“I said to the headmaster, no ninth-grade athlete should not know how to swim. The last thing they want is to have their peers know they can’t swim, so I took a lot of pride in my learn-to-swim class. I loved teaching life saving. I taught CPR to the faculty every other year. I had a great experience.

“I took great pride in working with kids because they keep you young, and if you’re honest and direct and you show them a plan, if you raise the bar, they will reach for it.”

Richard Shoulberg

Dick Shoulberg. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It was in his learn-to-swim class where Shoulberg met fifth-grader Alicia Aemisegger in the spring of 1998.

“Shoulberg picked me out of my fifth-grade gym class, and I wasn’t a really good swimmer, and he said, ‘I think you could be a good swimmer, you should come join my team.’ And then I listened to him,” Aemisegger said.

“He had already coached over 30 Olympians. He already had a very successful career. I went to GA for the great education, and I was pretty terrible at every other sport. He picked me out of the swim class and I joined the team, so I knew it was a great powerhouse, but it didn’t really hit me until I joined.”

“I met her in my gym class, and it took me three years to say her last name,” Dick Shoulberg said of Aemisegger. “I said to her in fifth grade, your backstroke is not good, your freestyle is not good, but your breaststroke is beautiful. Stay wherever you are. Have fun with swimming, and in seventh grade if you want to swim for the school team, I’ll coach you.”

HIGH EXPECTATIONS AND STANDARDS

Shoulberg had established himself as a coach who did a lot of long and strenuous sets. Some thought he was crazy, but his philosophy worked. Between 1980 and 2000, he had a swimmer on every Olympic team in the 400 IM except one.

Some of his sets would include a 16,000 IM for time as done by two-time Olympian Dave Wharton. He had 14-year-old Trina Radke do a 15,000 butterfly for time Thanksgiving morning. His swimmers swam seven days a week and would do 10,000s for time on many occasions. Maybe it was crazy, but it worked, and the athletes bought in. Karin LaBerge, Sue Heon, Erika Hansen and Maddy Crippen were all Olympians under Shoulberg’s watch in the 400 IM, along with many other great swimmers.

“I loved the base of the 400 IM because it taught the kids how to do every stroke,” Dick Shoulberg said.

Wharton congratulated by co, Australia no date by Live Actions (1)

David Wharton & Dick Shoulberg celebrate a world record in the 400 IM at the 1987 Pan Pacs as printed in the October 1987 issue. Photo Courtesy: Live Action / Swimming World Archive

One of his most memorable pupils was Maddy Crippen, who was sixth in the 400 IM at the 2000 Olympics. All three of her younger siblings—Fran, Claire and Teresa—swam under Shoulberg and were all great distance swimmers in their own right.

“I still stay in touch with the entire Crippen family to this day. Teresa, she is one of my heroes.”

Teresa, who is now a project engineer for a construction company in California, recalls, “We met (Shoulberg when we were) really young, and he would let Claire and I come to the summer club pool and swim for like 10 minutes and then go play on inner tubes for an hour-and-a-half while Maddy and Fran finished practice. I thought he was such a fun and nice guy.

“I knew what the expectations were going to be that Shoulberg held everyone to a really high standard. My expectations were sort of formed by Maddy and Fran and the hearsay of what they did and knowing they were gone all day swimming while I was growing up.

Maddie Crippen and Dick Shoulburg 2000 by Peter Bick (1)

Maddy Crippen and Dick Shoulberg at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I was 10 when Maddy made the Olympic team, and she was swimming with Shoulberg back when the team was called Foxcatcher, and I knew there was a high expectation and elite-level history behind the program,” Teresa said.

“Shoulberg, as soon as you started, would start telling you stories of his past swimmers and how great they were and everything they did for their dryland or swimming as a way to motivate you to also go to those standards.”

“Swimming for Shoulberg was truly amazing,” Aemisegger added. “He really taught you and embedded in your life what it is to work hard and be dedicated and how to become mentally tough so once you came to a race, it was almost considered easy compared to all the other things you had to accomplish in practice. He had a method, and it created a lot of success.

“He brought a lot of success out of me and was good at knowing what to press on for each swimmer—how to inspire them, what motivated them—and I felt that he was very dynamic in the way he did that between people.”

KNOW YOUR SWIMMERS

Richard Shoulberg and Maddy Crippen 2000 by Peter Bick (1)

Maddy Crippen & Dick Shoulberg. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The secret to Dick Shoulberg’s success? Talk to every swimmer every day—a technique he learned from Hall of Fame coach George Haines.

“A power walk with George for 45 minutes was better than a weekend at ASCA,” he said.

He would learn the swimmers’ outside interests, how they were doing in school—all to help them be better swimmers.

“I used to find out what music they liked. So let’s say this swimmer likes John Denver, and we have a little spat on a Monday night. We weren’t happy with the training. But when the swimmer walked in the next morning, he heard John Denver on the speakers. I always did that.

“I always try to communicate with kids in a different way so I think my communication skills enhanced my coaching 100%…and I would pass that onto any young coach—treat your kids fairly. Raise the bar every day and talk to them!”

TEAMWORK

In 2006, Aemisegger and Crippen teamed up with Katie Riefenstahl and Sara Coenen to set the national high school record in the 400 yard freestyle relay with a 3:22.34, breaking the record that had stood for 10 years. The time had stood as the overall national high school record until 2013. Not bad for a bunch of distance swimmers.

alicia-aemisegger

Alicia Aemisegger while at Princeton. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“It was really awesome,” Aemisegger said of the relay, who is now a mother of two. “It was at a meet called Eastern Championships, which was our high school championship meet and the only high school meet for which we got to taper. The way the pool was set up and the way the crowds were and all the teams that were invited, it was just one of the most exciting meets even throughout my whole entire career.

“We got a chance to break that record, and (Shoulberg) let us know that that was the goal, and he knew we could do it. It was the only year we were all in school together because Katie R came sophomore year and Teresa and I were two years apart, so it was the only year we were all there at the same time even though we all trained together. It was just a really fun race.”

teresa-crippen

Teresa Crippen repping Germantown Academy. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Teresa added, “We had known about the national record before and obviously wanted to break it and wanted to beat our rival, Peddie, and they were always really good. We wanted to be able to beat them, and they had some good 100 freestylers, so we really just wanted to beat everyone as much as possible.

“Alica was awesome, and we knew we had a really awesome leg, she could do anything. Katie R had come over and was a ‘sprinter,’ so it was super exciting. While the race was going, we had no idea we were on track to beat the record, but we did once we touched the wall and finished and saw our time. Easterns gathered so many fans and it was so loud and everyone was cheering for us, so it was really fun to jump in the pool and celebrate with everyone afterward. It was our last chance to get that record since it was Alicia’s senior year, so it was nice to finish off their high school careers like that.”

LIFE LESSONS

All in all, Shoulberg’s distance training helped his swimmers be well-rounded in every event, and it helped them achieve great success in life beyond the pool.

“I was raised there and swam at GA since I was in fifth grade,” Aemisegger said. “(Shoulberg) really shaped my life. I still do things that are habits from Germantown—I wake up early and get my workout in. Some of that discipline was really great, and I continue to use that and the mental toughness.

“I just recently had my second kid and it was during the time of COVID when your spouse wasn’t allowed in the room with you, so I was in that period and was like, ‘If I can do a 10,000 fly, I can totally get through this.’ Just think of it as a workout, if I have to be alone, this is just like a workout set for me, and you just circle back to those days where Shoulberg was like, ‘You can do it!’ And I just put my head down and had a baby!”

“He had an expectation that if you signed up for the swim team, you were committed to be there, you were going to train hard and show up to all the practices, and you were going to work and be on time,” Crippen said. “He didn’t let you slip no matter who you were. He would call you out if you weren’t living up to the agreement you made with him and with the rest of the team to show up every day and be there.

“And that has definitely really carried over to my life today, and it also taught me a sense of family and looking out for your teammates and making sure everybody is doing OK. It was a super challenging program and can take its toll mentally, and there were definitely days none of us wanted to be at practice or do what the practice said, or we were mad at Shoulberg for whatever. Everybody had each other’s back and helped each other get through it, and it led me to my greatest friends that I have today, so it definitely taught me that sense of family and being there for other people.”

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