April 26, 2012
By Anton Malko
As defined by conference titles, NCAA championships, Olympic medals, academic achievement and character, Cal Aquatics can be considered the epitome of excellence.
Support for Cal Aquatics - which includes men's and women's water polo and swimming & diving - has also been the gold standard within Intercollegiate Athletics, built upon the support of four heroic donors known as the Big Four.
Rick Cronk '64, Don Fisher '51, Warren Hellman '55 and Ned Spieker '66 were successful businessmen, great supporters throughout the University and former student-athletes when they launched the Bear Splash Club in 1987, which expanded into the Friends of Cal Aquatics in 2002.
In 2005, the group made a $12.5 million leadership gift to the aquatics programs. An immediate goal was to add as many scholarships as the NCAA allows while creating an atmosphere where excellence could be pursued.
"What we visualized was creating an environment for all four sports that were in pursuit of world class," said Cronk, "not only in terms of performance in the pool but the character of the people involved and their academic performance."
"If it were not for all four families' generosity, Cal would just be another school with swimming, diving and water polo teams," said women's water polo head coach Richard Corso. "Because of their support, and I use 2010-11 as an example, our aquatics programs are the best in the country and maybe the world."
This year, women's swimming & diving won both the Pac-12 and NCAA titles, while the men's team finished second in the conference race and captured another NCAA crown. Men's water polo was ranked No. 3 in the nation at the end of the fall, while women's water polo is among the top 5 in the country this spring.
In the classroom, a dozen members of the men's swimming & diving team earned conference all-academic honors in 2011. Thirteen women's swimmers & divers earned that distinction, while the team earned all-academic honors from the College Swimming Coaches Association of America.
In water polo, the Cal women placed eight on the 2011 all-academic team in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, and this March, seven members of the men's team were noted for their academic excellence by the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches.
But amidst all this excitement, the University and community at large have suffered the loss of two members of the Big Four, Don Fisher and Warren Hellman, who were taken by cancer over the past two years.
"I'm sad that my dad didn't get to see how unbelievable Cal Aquatics was during 2010-11 in particular," said John Fisher.
"It's been a huge loss," said Teri McKeever, head coach for women's swimming & diving. "Both those men, along with Ned and Rick, have had such a passion for Cal Athletics, aquatics in particular, and the growth and the development of young people through sport and university."
Set to represent the United States at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games as the first woman to coach the U.S. women's swimming team, McKeever said the Big Four has "given me the opportunity to be on the national staff and ultimately be the head coach leading into London. I'm very appreciative of what they've done for our programs, our student-athletes and me personally."
"We would not be where we are today without their support and foresight," added men's swimming & diving head coach David Durden.
Vice Chancellor of University Relations Scott Biddy said that Fisher and Hellman "typified the values of Cal Aquatics. They not only loved the meaning of the experience in their own lives, but also wanted that experience for generations to come. They generously allowed their extraordinary personal success in life to be associated with our aquatics program, and our coaches' and students' ambitions and values are raised immeasurably by that."
Now just two of the original Big Four, Cronk and Spieker, both former water polo players under legendary coach Pete Cutino, continue to pursue the goals for excellence outlined in their $12.5 million gift.
A second objective of that gift was to cushion the programs for a number of years until the aquatics and athletic communities could be better educated on the need to give back to these programs. The Big Four hoped their gift would spur giving among all aquatics alumni.
With the gift's estimated 10-year lifespan set to end in the next few years, the time is now for the next large group of donors to step forward.
"We need more people to join us, whether to become part of the Big Four, Mighty Six or Army of All," explained Cronk. "We need people to understand that everyone is needed."
Alicia Rowell, the director of athletic campaigns at Cal Athletics, said, "We need a large group to step up and commit to support Cal Aquatics in any amount that is meaningful to them - they just need to start, sustain or increase giving. As a former swimmer myself, I am a proud donor to the Friends of Cal Aquatics."
In addition to the Annual Fund priority, another need facing Cal Aquatics is "more water." The lone pool at Spieker Aquatics Complex is shared among the swimming, water polo and diving teams, as well as the University community.
"What Cal has been able to achieve with one pool that serves four programs as well as recreational swimming is crazy," John Fisher said. "They have to make do with far less water available to them, and it's a real credit to the coaches that they've been so successful in recruiting and coaching their teams, achieving greatness in spite of it."
Nor does the programs' pool include a diving tower. "We have one- and three-meter diving boards but we don't have a tower, and we need that," said Cronk. "A second pool is definitely a goal."
McKeever praised diving coach Todd Mulzet, who "has really done a phenomenal job. They train in the middle of lap swimming and they drive over to Stanford two days a week, sacrificing their Sunday and Wednesday nights."
Men's water polo head coach Kirk Everist, who has been both a national champion player and coach, believes that alumni are ready to ramp up their support of Cal Aquatics.
"We have an incredible legacy in aquatics at Cal, and the impact the programs have had on our alumni is profound," Everist said. "I believe the Cal community will ensure that the next generation of student-athletes gets the same opportunities that we received when we were competing here."
"More than ever, it is critical for 100 percent participation," added Corso. "Everyone who has worn a Cal swimsuit or polo cap needs to do their part, just like the Big Four did after they were student-athletes here."
Over 110 years of collective history, Cal Aquatics has a tradition of achievement. With the support of the Cal community, ongoing excellence can be "Aquatomatic."
This story originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Cal Sports Quarterly. To become a Bear Backer and receive CSQ, contact the Office of Athletic Development at (510) 642-2427 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.