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Midweek Musing: Richard Sybesma - A Living Legacy

Honoring the career of a TCU legend.

Michael Clements/TCU Media Relat

Richard Sybesma is the longest tenured head coach of any athletic program in TCU’s history. Sybesma coached both the TCU men and women’s Swimming & Diving teams for an incredible 38 seasons spanning from 1979 to 2017.

Even though he was with the Horned Frogs for over three decades, Sybesma began his swimming career as a Red Raider of Texas Tech. Originally, swimming began as a form of exercise for Sybesma but it soon became a lifelong passion. Sybesma was a swimmer for Texas Tech in the 70’s and had his career path planned out ever since he was a junior in high school: he wanted to be a coach.

Upon graduating college, Sybesma began his career coaching high school and club swimming at Monahans High School. Things escalated quickly for the new coach considering he interviewed for and landed the TCU head coach position just four years later. This would make Sybesma the youngest Division 1 Swimming & Diving coach in the country at the time being, only 25 years of age.

Sybesma describes his path to TCU as “being at the right place at the right time,” as everything seemed to have fallen in place for him to try for the position. Ironically, Sybesma took a significant pay cut when moving from high school to college level coaching, though he was happy to make that sacrifice to reach the next level.

“​The hardest thing to do is to get into college coaching, but once you’re there you can move around,” said Sybesma. As true as this statement is, Sybesma ended up dedicating his career to one university; things seemed to work out.

Moving from high school swimming to college swimming seemed to have been in Sybesma’s best interests considering he went on to lead TCU to ​7 team conference championships and 16 individual league titles all while earning 5 different coach of the year honors, one of which being the 1992 CSCA Master Coach Award.

In 2008, Sybesma was awarded the TCU Teammate of the Year, an award voted on by fellow coaches at TCU. Sybesma said that winning this award meant just as much if not more than winning Coach of the Year considering it was decided upon by his peers.

On an individual level, Sybesma produced 7 national champions, 18 All-Americans, and 4 Olympians​. In fact, during his time coaching at TCU, Sybesma was granted the opportunity to coach the Nicaraguan swim team in the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta, Georgia. This opportunity came thanks to one of Sybesma’s most accomplished swimmers at TCU, Walter Soza. Soza was the only swimmer to represent his home country of Nicaragua, and because of this he was granted the privilege of choosing his coach; he chose Richard Sybesma.

“We all dream of going to the Olympics as an athlete,” said Sybesma. “To go as a coach, there were so many unbelievable experiences that just don’t come around every day.” This was just one of numerous honors during Sybesma’s long tenure, many of which were granted to him based on his skillset as a coach and ability to mentor athletes like Soza.

(Coach Sybesma in action during a TCU swim meet | gofrogs.com)

To this day, many of his former athletes still show praise for what they did for them during their time at TCU. “He was always a friend to us and easy to talk to, but when he needed to he could be firm and get his points across,” said Brent Bunnell, former TCU swimmer and 1986 Dutch Meyer award winner under Sybesma.

Another one of Sybesma’s former athletes and short-term assistant coach, Dale Pulsifer, expressed the idea that Sybesma has a unique ability of mastering people and bringing them together. “I​t’s really hard to explain to people that for as young as he was when he came in, he was able to get a team that was just 7-8 years younger than him gelled together and work as a unit going forward with a goal,” said Pulsifer.

Not only did Sybesma push his athletes in the pool, he strived for academic excellence from all of his athletes as well. The TCU women’s swim team was named the scholar All-American squad for 45 straight semesters through 2017 under Sybesma. “It had to do with recruiting the right type of kids,” said Sybesma. “We had kids that wanted to be student-athletes, not just athletes.”

Throughout Sybesma’s tenure, the Swimming & Diving team typically had one of the highest cumulative GPAs across all athletic departments. Pulsifer stressed that anytime he presented his coach with an issue — such as an upcoming exam or falling behind in class —Sybesma would always go above and beyond to help by arranging tutors for him or giving him extra time to study during morning workouts. Bunnell also expressed that no matter what was happening in the pool, Sybesma would always be there to encourage him in his academic endeavors.

Because of this selflessness, Sybesma has been able to maintain numerous relationships with former athletes as well as their families even. Bunnell and Pulsifer are both great examples. “Richard is a member of my family, that’s just how it is now,” said Pulsifer. “We became very good friends because we cared about each other’s careers and cared about where eachother was going.”

(Coach Sybesma gathering the team in a huddle | tcu360.com)

Sybesma expressed that developing relationships with his athletes and seeing them grow is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a coach. “I graduated in 1986 and I feel like I can still text him to ask him anything or go out with him to catch up,” said Bunell.

One of the main ways Sybesma stayed in touch with the TCU Swimming & Diving family was by hosting an annual alumni swim meet where former athletes and current athletes went toe-to-toe in a series of races and events. Considering Sybesma was with the program for 38 years, he was the magnet that attracted alumni to come back for this yearly event.

“For all of us alumni, Richard was something we had in common for over 30 years which expanded through multiple classes of swimmers to give us something in common,” said Bunnell. Whether an athlete swam for TCU in 1980 or 2010, they could relate to other swimmers simply based on the fact they were coached by Richard Sybesma.

After the alumni swim meet, Sybesma always organized some sort of​ ​gathering for the athletes whether it be at a restaurant or even his home — the purpose was to connect students with the alumni.

“What Richard did after those meets was maybe more important than the gathering of everybody and so forth,” said Pulsifer. “Richard was always working connections between alumni and students, keeping the TCU Swimming & Diving community strong.”

Sybesma said that this is one of the reasons he loves TCU, the networking and connections made in Fort Worth are unlike any other. Eventually, the alumni swim meets came to an end when Sybesma retired from coaching in 2017.

After 38 years at the helm, it’s not an easy task to walk away. “Everybody says you’ll know [when it’s time to retire], and I kind of knew it was time for me to slow down,” said Sybesma. Division 1 coaching is an incredibly time-demanding job, and with it comes some sacrifices to be made. Retiring was never about the work for Sybesma, he loved the daily grind, but once you have a family things start to change.

Sybesma said the only thing he won’t miss about about coaching was having to miss family functions or school events for his daughters while he was with the team. He has had two daughters graduate from TCU and now has 9 grandchildren, he intends to spend more time with his family now that he is retired.

If you know TCU sports, you know Richard Sybesma. His career at TCU impacted thousands of student-athlete’s lives, and even though he is retired, Sybesma remains active in the Horned Frog community.

Pulsifer said that nearly every time he is within a 4 to 5 mile radius of Fort Worth, at least one or two people recognize Sybesma. This speaks volume on how Sybesma connects with people and his loyalty to TCU.

Sybesma said that his relationship with TCU means everything to him, to the point where “if you cut me [Sybesma], I’ll bleed purple.” Richard Sybesma more than paid his dues at TCU, and left an impact on the university that will last forever.