Wright On: Coach Jon Sakovich’s career moving along swimmingly

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Born in Hilo, Jon Sakovich has carved out a formidable niche all his own as a swimming coach in Florida.

Born in Hilo, he grew up in a household with a famous swimming coach father and then, as far back as he can recall, he grew up swimming competitively. He won national age group and later, NCAA championships in college. He competed at the highest international levels, but he never imagined he’d be doing this as a career.

Jon Sakovich is a swim coach. Everybody else thinks it was an obvious choice, but not him.

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“I never thought about it,” he said the other day at the Kawamota pool, “it was never anything I even thought about doing. I was a swimmer, that’s all I focused on.”

When the time came, he made the conversion, and he remembers when that occurred.

“It was the ’96 Olympics,” he said. “I was 26 or 27, my times weren’t what I needed them to be, I looked around and thought, ‘It’s time, I’m done.’”

Just then he began thinking about coaching and that took him back to an association he made while competing in the 1988 Olympics. He wasn’t a gold medalist, but he attracted the eye of swim coaches at the University of Florida, and maintained contact with them over the years. He became a part time assistant with a club team in Gainesville, Fla., as he continued his competitive career, which turned out to be pretty impressive, if not Michael Phelps level impressive.

He competed for the Northern Marianas Islands in the Pan-Pacific championships in 1987 and ’88, and in ’87 he won gold, silver and bronze medals in the South Pacific Games. He was ranked in the top 25 worldwide from 1992-94 and was a three-time USA Swimming national champion in the 200 and 400 freestyle and the 15k open water competition after being a seven-time NCAA champion at the University of Florida.

“He took right to it,” said his father, Bill Sakovich, who coaches Waiakea High School. “From the very beginning, pretty much from 8-and-under on up, in Guam and Saipan, he was at the top of the ladder with a couple of others.”

Sakovich earned the bulk of his international acclaim as a coach in those Southern Pacific areas, some of which lacked a pool back in the early days. The United Nations officially recognizes Sakovich as the “Father of Swimming in the Pacific,” which followed his induction into the Northern Marianas Sports Hall of Fame.

He almost singlehandedly created swim clubs in that part of the world, introducing the sport and causing it to grow.

He took swimmers to meets throughout the Pacific, to Australia, New Zealand, across Asia, and they eventually competed at invitational and world championship levels. His swimmers — including son Jon — medaled in Micronesian Games and South Pacific Games, until the Sakovichs returned to Hilo in 2004.

Last week, Jon came home for a visit between coaching roles in Florida where he has carved out a formidable niche. He has coached both boys and girls teams in the Florida high school state championships for the past four years, and before that, coached over 30 USA High School All-Americans and 25 national age group champions.

The list goes on, national juniors and seniors champions, and 10 Olympic Trials qualifiers.

Whew. The list is exhausting, but when new levels of technology and metrics entered swimming, everything started to change. It’s a little like a revolving new job, with different teaching methods popping up continuously. Underwater cameras are now virtually as important in coaching swimming as a Louisville Slugger is to baseball.

“The change has been significant and it has been continuing,” Jon said. “From the time I started? There’s basically nothing we do that’s the same as we used to do back then.

“We’re still in the pool, we’re still swimming, we still have coaches, but everything else has changed.”

It used to be that swimmers jumped in and started going back and forth with instructions shouted from the side of the pool and later gone over during breaks. Now, strokes are analyzed digitally, tiny corrections to form are made and they go back at it.

“It used to be if you swam distance, you basically just kept going,” he said, “but now we break it down into sort of sub-workouts, with the 100, the 200 and we work on techniques that add to the overall effort. We go fast sometimes, we go for technique and stroke counts in other parts of the workout.”

His hometown isn’t recognized as a major breeding place for swimming, but Jon thinks that is probably a misinformed view.

“I live in Jacksonville and we have about a million people in the area, with about 1,000 serious, competitive swimmers” he said. “I’ve been impressed here, there are some talented kids here and if you look at it, I have to think the ratio of populations to competitive swimmers is about the same here as in Florida.”

That means there’s intensity and ever-present goals. In some countries, swim coaches need to go through government officials to be trained and approved for teaching, but here, anyone can start a swim club if he or she has pool time and swimmers.

We live in a form of a free market swim coaching system, which means everyone is trying to get involved, yet somehow, the United States is respected globally. Jon Sakovich puts it bluntly.

“We are the best,” he said. “The depth of the United States is unbelievable.”

Sakovich predicted the US will will dominate the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but he cautioned that doesn’t mean the same in the world championships next year.

“The way we do it, you qualify (for the world championships) a year ahead of time, so we will typically send teams that may not include the top swimmers. Sometimes when you qualify, swimmers take a breath and back off a little on training and others will pass them.

“When we have Olympic Trials? That’s when we send our best teams.”

And that involves his bucket list.

“I would love to be the US Olympic coach some day,” he said, “and I would love to personally — not as a member of a six-coach team — coach a gold medalist.

“There’s a lot left that I want to do.”

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And plenty of time left to do it.

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