Sept. 11, 2009
BERKELEY, CALIF. - By Scott Ball
The University of California men's swimming program has a national and international reputation that rivals any school in the nation, featuring 18 Olympic medalists from five different countries and numerous NCAA champions on its all-time roster. The genesis of the Golden Bears' swimming supremacy dates back to the 1970s with the early accomplishments of two legends of Cal Aquatics, head coach Nort Thornton and standout backstroker Peter Rocca.
Now, 30 years after Cal captured its first national swimming title in 1979 during his senior season, Rocca remains very much involved in Cal Aquatics. Despite making his residence in Minneapolis, Minn., where he works as a money manager for Palisade Asset Management, Rocca, who has been described by many as Thornton's first superstar, has been instrumental in establishing the Nort Thornton Scholarship.
What better person than Rocca to instigate a scholarship in honor of his former coach? Listed in the Bears' 1978-79 swimming media guide as "the foundation on which Thornton built the Cal swimming program into national prominence as he was the first big recruit to agree to come to Cal," the Orinda native was a three-time All-American for the Bears. After his freshman year in `76, Rocca shined at the Montreal Olympics, capturing the silver medal in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke.
From there, Rocca took his tremendous skills to help form the Bears into a championship-caliber team. In 1978, the Campolindo High School product won the NCAA 200 back in a time of 1:47.48 and swam the backstroke leg on Cal's winning 400 medley relay, helping the squad to a third-place national finish.
The next year in Cleveland, Ohio, proved even better for Rocca and the Bears when they achieved the ultimate prize in college swimming - the NCAA title. Powered by team captain Rocca's victory in the 200 back, Canadian Graham Smith's wins in the 100 and 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley, Swedish butterflyer Par Arividsson's victories in the 100 and 200 butterfly, and finally Cal's repeat triumph in the 400 medley relay, the Bears upstaged USC to win the school's first NCAA crown in swimming.
"Nort really helped put it all together," said Rocca, whose father, Louis, attended Cal and whose son, Nick, is now a freshman in Berkeley. "He was the kind of coach who could get you to believe in yourself. We were a very unselfish team and all on the same page. I think we were also one of the best trained teams. The talent level in practice was so high that it brought out the best in everyone. We just believed.
"One thing about Nort is that his ego has always been in check. He treats everybody equally. He was that way 30 years ago and he is that way today."
And, appropriately so, the Thornton Scholarship has been established with the help of Rocca, with the first recipient junior breaststroker Sean Mahoney.
The wording of the scholarship is a perfect summation of the values instilled by the Bears' first national championship squad of 1979, "The Nort Thornton Scholarship will be awarded annually to the swimmer who exemplifies the qualities of Discipline, Responsibility, Leadership, and Hard Work, and to help Create an Environment Where Champions are Inevitable."