After 41 seasons as head coach of the Thunder men’s and women’s swim teams, Jon Lederhouse, a 1974 Wheaton alumnus and four-time All-American, will coach his final conference championship meet this weekend.
“It’s the right time for me to retire and let someone else do a great job — do a better job,” Lederhouse said. “I’m trying to savor my ‘senior moments,’ as I tell the seniors on the team every year. I’ve been working at that aspect of things and trying to enjoy the last one of this and the last one of that.”
Lederhouse announced in September that the 2016-2017 season would be his last; his 41-year tenure makes him one of the longest-serving coaches in Wheaton’s history. Wheaton’s natatorium will be renamed in his honor, officially effective at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.
“[Lederhouse] has established Wheaton as the major small-college swimming power in Illinois, consistently sending our swimmers to the NCAA Division III National Championship finals,” athletic director Julie Davis said regarding the decision to rename the facility. “Equally important … he has been an outstanding Christian leader and mentor to his many student-athletes. His personal devotion to Christ and his commitment to student discipleship has marked hundreds of lives.”
In Lederhouse’s time as head coach, the Wheaton men have swum to 12 top-10 national finishes, won 24 CCIW championships and produced 38 All-Americans. The women’s team has garnered 10 top-10 finishes along with 19 straight CCIW championships and All-American honors for 34 athletes. Lederhouse has been named Coach of the Year numerous times by both the CCIW and the Illinois Swimming Association and has coached a total of 84 All-Americans between swimming, diving and water polo.
According to Lederhouse, none of it had to do with him.
“It’s not my recruiting, it’s not my coaching,” Lederhouse said. “It’s the opportunities God has brought our way.”
Affectionately referred to by many of his athletes as “Coachie,” Lederhouse promotes a coaching philosophy which is based on equal commitment to both athletic and spiritual development.
“[I] try to coach the team so that each swimmer can develop their athletic potential while at the same time growing in their faith in Christ,” Lederhouse said. “Those two are not mutually exclusive, and both need to be addressed equally and effectively.”
For current senior Erin Bagley, this philosophy has been highly influential.
“I came into college with my love for swimming at a low, but [Lederhouse’s] view of swimming has entirely reshaped how I view the sport,” Bagley said. “Coachie has this mantra, ‘Free to Swim,’ [which] shapes the culture of our team. The idea of ‘Free to Swim’ is that our identity is found in Christ — Christ defines who we are, not the times we post or the points we score at the conference meet. In this truth, we are free to train and swim our races for the joy of competition and racing, knowing that it doesn’t define us.”
Jacob Clement is another senior who has enjoyed the benefit of Lederhouse’s guidance both in and out of the pool. “As my time in college has passed, I’ve learned that Coach Lederhouse is a fountain of wisdom,” Clement said. “In his 40-plus years of coaching, he has experienced so many things and has helped his swimmers overcome so many of their personal and physical problems. You can go and ask him about anything you want, or even tell him about a problem that you’re having, and based on my personal experience, he has probably already heard of everything that you can think of.”
Though Lederhouse has built one of the strongest and most consistently competitive small-college swimming programs in the country, he also leaves the Wheaton swimming program with a more personal legacy. It is conversations spoken in his office, stories told on drives to and from meets and advice handed out beyond the pool deck which compose the legacy that his swimmers talk about the most.
“One of the best things about Coachie is that he could be considered equally a counselor and a coach,” Bagley said. “He cares far more about the person we are when we finish our four years and walk away from the pool than the times we post while in the pool … That’s the thing about Coachie. He looks at each of us and sees us as children of God first, and swimmers of his second.”
Lederhouse’s athletes unfailingly mention his habit of responding to their stories with advice in the form of other stories. Perhaps fittingly, then, he describes his proudest achievements as a coach using the story of Seabiscuit, the famous racehorse who became an unexpected champion during the Great Depression era.
“Harv Chrouser was the athletic director when I was first working here and he had a saying to the coaches: ‘You’ve got to get the blue chips, because you can’t beat Seabiscuit with a mule,’” Lederhouse said, referring to process of recruiting talented athletes to compete at Wheaton. “But you know what? I’ve been fortunate to have some Seabiscuits, but in Wheaton swimming we’ve had lots of mules who have become Seabiscuits … That’s probably what I’ve enjoyed the most, is seeing the mules become Seabiscuits.”
After he coaches his last meet at NCAA Nationals this March, Lederhouse will be permanently stepping away from the pool which will bear his name.
“Whoever the new coach is, it has to be their program … You can’t have the old coach milling about and creating potential divided loyalties, so that will be hard. I won’t be able to watch what’s going on,” Lederhouse said. “Unless I get a remote camera.”
After his four years as a swimmer and four decades as a coach, Wheaton swimming is “very special” to Lederhouse. The only thing more special, he emphasizes, is being married to Wheaton education professor Dr. Jillian Lederhouse for 41 years. The athletic department’s decision to rename the natatorium came as a surprise and an honor for him. In his typical storytelling fashion, Lederhouse turned to Shakespeare to sum up his feelings about the event.
“It’s nice to have the name; that’s a significant honor and I’m very flattered by that,” Lederhouse said. “[But] I tried to make the point using a Shakespeare quote: a pool by any other name would still smell of chlorine.”