Dave Robertson

- from the archive of New Trier High School Swimming.  The school is located in suburban Chicago and is frequently named to the 'top high schools in the country' list.  While this is mainly a recounting from a competitive swimming perspective, it gives insight to nature and accomplishments of Dave Robertson.

Of all the history that accompanies New Trier swimming, none is more profound than the era of Dave Robertson. During his 30 year reign as Aquatics Director and Head Boys Swim Coach, Dave Robertson created the true legend that is New Trier swimming. When you view the State Championship plaques and All American certificates from the balcony, you're mostly viewing the products of the extraordinary direction of this coach, one of the great architects of the New Trier Swimming tradition.

Dave grew up in Wilmette, where he enjoyed sports, was an avid Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and, eventually, an Eagle Scout. He began swimming early in his life and by high school, was a member of Edgar Jackson's Boy's Varsity Swim Team at New Trier. But this was not just any New Trier Swim Team -- Dave was a member of the 1942 State Championship Team which managed to win every event in the State Meet but one. Robertson's personal contribution to that meet was to become State Champion in the 100 Back.

The Making of a Coach

But beyond becoming a State Champion, Dave's high school years marked the beginning of the making of a great swimming coach. During his junior year, Robertson chose as his topic for the big Junior Theme research paper, the subject of "Occupations." And, in the paper he went on to describe how he would one day become a swim coach. Or, more specifically, the swim coach, at New Trier High School.

Part of what propelled Robertson in this direction was New Trier Coach Edgar Jackson. Not only did Dave swim on Jackson's team, but he was also Head of Jackson's invention, the New Trier Guard, and worked for Jackson during the summers. Jackson became something of a mentor to Robertson, fueling his desire to make New Trier swimming his career.

Upon graduating from New Trier in 1944, Dave served in the Navy and then went on to the University of Michigan, where he continued to swim, placing 6th in the Big Ten in Backstroke. the Illinois State Meet, which was, for the first time, held at New Trier. But his college days were short-lived. In 1946 he received a call from Edgar Jackson, who convinced him to leave Michigan and take on the swim coaching job at New Trier. Though he later finished up his studies at Northwestern, Robertson arrived at New Trier with only a year and a half of college under his belt. To this best of his knowledge, he is the only non-degreed teacher ever hired by the school.

Builder of Champions

Upon arriving at the school, Robertson threw himself into the work of being a coach. With his mentor, Edgar Jackson, still in residence, he received excellent on-the-job training. According to a Pioneer Press interview in 1989, Robertson said of Jackson:

"Edgar B. taught me that to be successful, you have to learn how to organize first, and that to be organized you had to run your program with discipline."

And discipline he did. By the mid-1950's, New Trier had garnered a reputation as having one of the most organized, disciplined, well-coached and successful high school teams in the nation. Upon Jackson's retirement there was a seamless transfer of power to Dave Robertson.

The Method Behind the Magic

But the success of Robertson's teams was not built on discipline and organization alone. What really drove them to accomplish what they did was Dave's interest in finding new ways to make swimmers go faster, coupled with a serendipitous observation.

That observations was Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954. Sensing a correlation between track and swimming, Robertson began to examine how Roger Bannister trained. What he learned was that Bannister rarely trained in miles, but rather in quarter mile increments run almost to perfection. This led Dave to come up with the idea of substituting shorter distance but higher quality workouts in swimming for the traditional long yardage workouts that were popular in those days. As he told the Pioneer Press:

"The idea was more intense workouts with almost perfect form. You swim three good lengths as opposed to thirty lousy ones and then rest. I remember yelling myself hoarse over proper technique."

And so, the Interval Training Method was born at New Trier. It quickly became adapted by teams of all levels throughout the world as the new swim training standard.

The Dream Teams

The rewards of Interval Training were almost instantly obvious. The long yardage five-in-a-row State Championship teams of the late forties and early fifties had been Dave's successful debut into the sport. But the interval trained teams of the later fifties and sixties were the ones that made forever rendered him famous. The 1961 team, in particular, has gone down as perhaps the best high school boys swimming team ever assembled. Not only did they sweep the top spot in every event in the Illinois State Championships that year, but they went on to attend the national AAU meet, at which they finished third in the nation behind Yale and USC! Members of that team also set five national high school records. At the end of the season, Sports Illustrated chose the New Trier Swim Team for a story about the greatest high school sports accomplishments in the nation. New Trier netted a 5-page photo spread and write up.

And The Fans Went Wild!

Fans were also frenetic in those days. Swim meet attendance sky-rocketed, and an evening at the New Trier pool became a coveted ticket for many North Shore residents. So big was the demand for viewing even dual meets, that the New Trier Pep Club had to deal with rationing the limited student seating. This situation was only worse at other pools with less spacious arrangements when New Trier came to town. Dave Robertson recalled in his Pioneer Press interview:

"I remember they invited us to Waukegan for a dual meet. Fans packed the stands in the pool, and there were just as many fans who couldn't get in. So we swam one meet, cleared the place out, brought in a new crowd and swam again."

For the Record

It's no wonder this happened given the kinds of teams that Dave Robertson produced. In looking through the records there are only rare mentions of the statistics you normally see -- Dual Meet Wins, League Championships, etc. Instead, Dave's accomplishments are reflected on the higher plane of State Championships, National Records and All Americans, and it is an impressive list.

Dave retired from New Trier in 1976. Thirteen years later, he became the second high school coach ever to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.