It’s possible that Brad Schumacher never slows down. Once one of the fastest swimmers in the world, the 43-year-old Schumacher now races around the globe as president of Kap7, one of the world’s largest suppliers of water polo equipment.
It’s a far cry from his youth in Bowie, Maryland, 20 miles west of Annapolis where he grew up swimming and playing water polo under the watchful eyes of coaches Carol Chidester and Mike Schofield. Their guidance led Schumacher to an All-American career in both sports at University of the Pacific where John Tanner—now head coach for the Stanford women’s water polo team—helped prepare him for one of the most challenging double plays in the Olympic Games. In 1996 he qualified for the Olympics in Atlanta as a member of USA Swimming Men’s National Team, where he won gold in both the 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 freestyle relays. He again qualified to swim in 2000, but also made the U.S. Senior Men’s Water Polo Team. Sticking to polo, he helped Team USA to a 6th place finish at the Sydney Games.
Prior to a trip to China for Kap7, Schumacher spoke to Total Water Polo about how his passion for both swimming and polo give him a perhaps unique perspective on both sports, John Tanner’s plan that made what seem an impossible task a reality, his opinion that U.S. men’s water polo coach Dejan Udovicic must find the right formula to deliver results in 2020 and how Kap7 has enabled him to give far more to the sport he loves then he ever dreamed possible.
How did you get your start with both swimming and water polo?
I grew up swimming in a local club, Whitehall Swim and Tennis Club, right down the street from my house. I fell in love with swimming and discovered water polo at the Naval Academy at a club called Navy Juniors. It was unique because I could swim and play water polo, and the coaches worked well together because they were under the same roof.
Certain parts of the season focused on swimming but I always did both, based upon the championship we were playing for: Junior Nationals [for swimming] or Junior Olympics for water polo. I developed a love for the game and a love for swimming and they supplemented each other.
On the water polo side of things, I loved the team atmosphere and it gave me a real edge on the swim side. Just because I wasn’t spending so much time in the swim lanes I was still in the pool. I loved to race and compete and I had a lot of success at an early age which brought me to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. I trained under one coach for both sports, which was unique—I don’t know if that’s even happening anymore.
John Tanner, who’s now the head coach for Stanford women’s water polo, happened to see me at a water polo camp on the East Coast. Mike Schofield, the Naval Academy water polo coach, had a huge influence on me and I’m in touch with him today on a regular basis.
One of the things that is cited is that swim coaches don’t want their athletes straying into water polo. How did you find the support to do both at the same time?
I was fortunate to be in one club where Schofield was my water polo coach—and the director of the club—and I had a fantastic swim coach, Carol Chidester. It was great because behind the scenes they worked out my training schedule and they didn’t have to [deal with] the tugs and pulls that can happen to an athlete these days.
Because of my success in both sports I get asked this all the time. Swimming and water polo are uniquely positioned to benefit one another. Unfortunately, with coaches in general, when you get an athlete who’s thriving in a certain sport and happens to be thriving in another sport, sometimes the mantra is: if you focused all your time on this one sport, whether it be water polo or swimming, you’ll be better at that sport.
I think there’s a natural synergy between the two sports but I think it’s important to understand what your focus is. For me that was handled by professional coaches. They kept me in a training regimen that allowed me to stay focused on whatever the championship that was coming up. If I was training for junior nationals for swimming, I would be three to four trainings a week of swimming and two to three of water polo.
The great thing about it is that I was always developing my fundamentals in both sports. It gave me a natural break from each of the sports. That balance was exceptional and what we’re seeing with the growth of water polo is that swim coaches are starting to look at the athletes and say: “Okay, I have this older group of water polo kids who can also help our swim team.”
It’s crazy that they wouldn’t be part of the swim team, especially at the high school level. They’re starting to recognize that, so they’re opening their hearts to the water polo kids. That’s happening on the water polo side as well.
Do you see this as a phenomenon out in California? Or, is this a trend nationally?
I think it’s taking shape all over. A large-scale example is in Texas [where] the wheels are in motion for water polo to be an official state sanctioned sport in the coming years. The swim coaches had to sign off on it first.
Here in Southern California with what I’m around, a lot of the programs are utilizing both athletes and letting them cross over because the kids thrive in that atmosphere and environment.
I had one coach for both sports [in college]; we did ten sprints at the end of every single practice. That was because most the guys on the water polo team were also on the swim team. We had to be ready to swim at our first meet in December. We’d play our whole season and get lots of great fitness but we were also doing sprints from every training of water polo—not just for polo but for our swimming preparedness—to get us ready for that next season, which we’d roll right into December from NCAA.
You must have been incredibly fit for both sports.
I was very, very, very fit [Laughs]. JT had me training and he was getting peak performance from me—multiple multiples. Because he’s so cerebral and such a planner, he understood me personally and as an athlete, and he modified how he trained me to set me up for the opportunity to swim at both relays in the finals at night.
In 1994 I was solely focused on water polo. I was swimming at the NCAA level and doing well but my goal was going to the ’96 Olympics for water polo. It wasn’t until I was training down in L.A. with Rich Corso, the Olympic water polo coach, and I asked him: “Are you going to take me to [FINA] world championships in Rome ?” He said: “Brad, we have you slated for ’98. You’re going to be part of the next generation.”
Right then and there I knew I wasn’t in the mix; I was in the top training group but I wasn’t going [to Atlanta] for water polo.
I left training camp, went back up to U of P and sat down with JT and told him I wasn’t going to the Olympics for water polo. He said: “Let’s make a run for swimming.” And he set up a two-and-a-half-year plan to make that a reality.
In ’94 I had never really swum long-course at all. We went to nationals—I had all the cuts and everything—I had to have been 24 – 25 in the country in the 100 free and probably 30-something in the 200 free. I was a long-shot, to say the least.
Having JT in my corner with his planning and his expertise as a coach, he put together a plan and I just had to show up for training.
Your combined efforts produced spectacular results at the 1996 Olympics.
In [Olympic] trials I was sixth in the 200 free by 1/100th of a second, so I was the last guy on, and in the 100 free I tied for third with my good friend Josh Davis. Went to Atlanta, swam the 4 x 200 freestyle relay first. I had a great swim in the morning and got to swim at night. JT had me prepared mentally and physically—the preparation was so spot-on that I never felt nervous.
I got to swim in both relays at night and won both.
Then your plan was to go to the Sydney Olympics for water polo.
Literally the day after I won my second medal we sat down at the Olympics and JT said it hasn’t been done in a while so why don’t I try to swim and play water polo. You have to make the men’s Olympic team, which I was already well on my way to doing. I said yeah, that’s great, let’s repeat what Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller did.
We started on that path and in ’98 I did both at world champs—but that was my test. It was a big political thing because I had to miss some of the training camp for swimming and missed some stuff for water polo. [Coach] Vargas was understanding with what I was trying to do personally but also I was a big part of the team. We had won the ’97 FINA Cup, which is the odd year championship for water polo.
Vargas was supporting me but on the swim side there was one national team director that—and no fault of his own—he wasn’t supportive. It made them uncomfortable that I wasn’t going to be at the training camp, which was weird because on the swim team, everybody’s an individual. We’re a team and we support one another, but we all have our own professional coaches, we’re all doing our own programs.
I went through a sort of “sport court” situation to get the opportunity because I qualified for both, and the USOC allowed me to do [both sports] at worlds. When we went to worlds we quickly realized it was nearly impossible at this day and age and this level to do both.
Because they’re polar opposites, it was nearly impossible to rest properly for swimming and also compete at the highest level at water polo. I’m wrestling with all these Italians and Serbians and then I go back to a peak performance sport, where I would rest for three weeks.
I had a good result—I won a gold medal on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay—but I didn’t swim at night. I only swam in the morning.
JT and I revisited and I decided to focus on water polo only. I trained with them and stayed with that all the way through. I went to ’99 [Pan-Pacific Games] in swimming. I focused on water polo—we got sixth place in Sydney, which was disappointing, but a fantastic experience nonetheless.
I stopped playing water polo in 2001 and then went back and trained for the 2004 Olympic [swim] trials. I did not make the Olympic swimming team in 2004.
For the period of 2000-2001 you trained with Ratko Rudic when he was the U.S. coach.
I had one year with him. He’s arguably one of the most successful water polo coaches of all time. He was a really hard worker. He came in and worked harder than anyone. He was a great fit at the time for the program.
We didn’t hit it off. When I was looking at where I was in my career—and I’ve got to know him because of what I do with the company—I knew it was an eight-year plan.
At that time in 2001 I was 27, 28 and had been a professional swimmer and water polo player for nine years. My focus had changed and I knew there was just no way—as much as it sounds great to compete in four Olympic games. I was always trying to stay one step ahead of the things that I wanted to accomplish, one of them being to get my MBA.
The reason the team had a successful result in 2008 was all the work that core group of guys put in from 2000 to 2004. When they ended up with a silver medal in 2008, albeit with a different coach, [Rudic’s] imprint on the program was definitely felt.
When you train as hard as he trained us, you feel like you can do anything. It doesn’t matter who you play. There’s nobody in better shape than you because he made sure you were seriously fit.
Do you see parallel circumstances for where the U.S. men’s team was in 2002 under Rudic and where they are now under Coach Udovicic?
We have a couple of things going on here. the women’s program is in a phenomenal situation. The pipeline’s super dialed in from the age of 10 up. The number of athletes being produced in the club ranks is astounding. You look at the results of world championships; they’re dominating teams. The women are at a whole other level.
On the men’s side, there’s some things that are pushing against Dejan. He’s a very good coach who’s won at every level—professional, club. He knows his stuff.
I think he’s got some things working against him. In the college ranks, some of the major coaches aren’t 100% supportive of him. That’s obvious based on this world championship, getting guys released five days before the tournament.… If the college coaches don’t support the national team, then it’s a failing prophecy.
The fortunate thing that we have going for us is [what John Abdou] is doing. He’s got his hands around creating the platform for the men’s side [as] the Chief High Performance Officer for USA Water Polo. That’s his job—really, if the technical platform is built. the pipeline is built correctly and we’re identifying athletes early and getting them experience internationally, you can argue that it doesn’t really matter who sits in the head coaching chair at the national team level. The pipeline should never change; you just have to pull out the head and put in another [coach]. They have to be competent at the highest level and be able to produce results on a continuing basis.
What you’re starting to see with our youth team in Serbia is they won the whole thing [at the Darko Cukic Cup].
Having gotten to know Dejan, I’m sure he’s waking up every day trying to figure out how he can get on the right side of the political battles and make sure he had a team that’s ready to get results.
In the end, there’s one result in the U.S. and that’s a gold medal. Any medal would be great but the bottom line is he has to get a result soon. We got 10th at the Olympics; 13th at World Championships; you can say all the reasons why he didn’t get a result but you’re the coach and you’re responsible.
John Abdou has spoken about creating realistic expectations for our men’s team. What do you think these should be?
I’m obviously invested in the success of the program. One thing I would disagree with John on—and he’s a good friend so we talk often—the expectation is that we always have to win a gold medal. Always, always, always. That’s just the expectation.
If the hockey team in 1980 can win the gold medal, then we can win a gold medal. We have the athletes, we have the greatest pipeline, we have all the tools in the world. We have to take a step back and think about the model of how we’re getting this kids prepared. And, we can for sure have a result in Tokyo.
You watch the game of water polo; the X’s and O’s are nothing. Can we instill a work ethic and train a group of guys, that their sole focus in life is to train for water polo? Can we give them the resources to do that? And be the most fit team in the world?
That’s more than doable. It’s not pretty but it requires eight hours a day in the pool. You have to be willing to do more than other teams are willing to do.
It sounds crazy but having been around this now from both sides and seeing the administration side and the political side and how people prepare their teams and what they’re doing, for me, the reason Ratko’s been so successful is he has his model.
Look what he did with Brazil. That’s the best example. He went [there] and said: “This is what we need to do.” Boom, boom, boom—you bring this player in, that player in. They were literally one player away… If Tony Azevedo had switched to Brazil, they would have been in the gold medal game. It’s incredible.
What that does is it shows me the playbook for how you can be successful at the highest level. You need eight years, you need relatively the same group of guys—two or three group of guys come and go—but you need people who are committed to one another and will fight for it.
Kap7 sponsors the Hungarian Water Polo Federation, so I’ve gotten to know Denes Kemeny, the three-time Olympic winning coach. To sit down and talk with him is incredible because of the decisions that he made to maintain that dynasty [Hungary won gold in 2000, 2004 and 2008].
I asked him how he kept that competitive excellence. He said: “We celebrated for one week then went back and trained.” The other thing he told me: “The second I saw a guy wasn’t committed, I replaced him. It didn’t matter if he had two Olympic gold medals or one or was a very important part of the team—I’d replace him with somebody who is hungrier.”
We can’t finish this interview without talking about Kap7, which has dominated your life since you retired. How did you go from an Olympic gold medalist to co-owner of one of the world’s largest suppliers of water polo equipment?
After I stopped playing in 2001 I finished my MBA and was preparing to drop into a consulting gig with one of the big four or five consulting firms. As I was doing my MBA I had lots of free time so I started to do camps and clinics. I had done them on the swim side but that market was crowded—a lot of my buddies were already doing a lot of these. But nobody was doing this on the water polo side.
While Wolf Wigo was getting ready for the 2004 Olympics I teamed up with him to organize clinics. They were wildly successful. We were doing three-hour clinics to high schools all over. Because we weren’t affiliated with any club we were the national team Olympic guys—and anybody would have us in. We were just booked like crazy.
I finished my MBA and was going back and forth between Stockton and Orange County while Wolf had taken over SET Water Polo Club. He had moved his family here and this was going to be his place. Long story short the UC Santa Barbara job came up and he decided to do that. This is all happening while we’re doing the clinics. We were sponsored by Mikasa and we would take this ball—it’s called the Fargo Dry Ball—and sell them out at every clinic.
We started to see the trend. We were driving back from a clinic in San Diego and I asked: “What are we going to call this think?!” Wolf said: “Cap 7! Everyone’s always fighting over number seven.”
I had a buddy who I swam with in college who was a designer. He created a logo, and at the time, our first warehouse was Adolph Kiefer, the first online catalog company. When we made our logo it just looked better with “K.”
We spent a lot of time and effort in creating a ball that we would want to play with. And we developed our ball to a level that nobody else had reached. Then we went grass roots and sold them out of our garages for a couple of years and then shared warehouse space with an LED company.
We slowly started knocking off contracts and here we are today—we’re the official ball of LEN, which is all of Europe. NCAA, junior college, seven sections of CIF, we have contracts for all of that. We have Texas, we have Florida, we have Pennsylvania. Oregon, Washington—if you’re playing under a sanctioned, governing body, we have the contracts. We have 50-something contracts from all-across the world. Now we have the Greek Federation, the Hungarian Federation—soon to be the Serbian Federation.
It’s a byproduct of sticking to the quality of things and being ultra-focused on water polo. Our goal is to be the leading global water polo brand. We are not a swim company, we’re a water polo company. We’ve stayed true to that from the beginning, and it’s something we’re committed to every day.
You’re returning to your roots! You’ll be back at the U.S. Naval Academy for a water polo clinic on November 18th. How is it to come full circle?
The reason I started coaching is because Wolf chose to go to Santa Barbara, and he asked me to take over and coach [the SET] kids until we could find someone else. To this day I still run the club.
My team was 18 and under girls and when I was developing the club—which is when I was developing Kap7 with Wolf—so much of why we’ve been successful, and the reason why we both do a ton of this stuff in the community, is that it’s done so much for us personally.
I love being on the deck. For me that’s something I’ll never step away from. I have two young children myself—a three-year-old and a 21 month-old—and I took this last full year off of coaching. I’m a support coach now not a head coach.
I want to help them understand that if they put their minds to something, it doesn’t matter where you come from—and Wolf and I being two East Coast guys who ended up on the Olympic team—it about your commitment to working hard.
I’ve known Dan Shardin [Commissioner of the Collegiate Water Polo Association] since I was a little kid and he coached me; we made an East Coast team that ended up winning Junior Olympics, the only Eastern team ever to do that. When I think back on starting the company in 2004 and now 13 years later, the contract that he took a chance on with us was because we were relevant in the sport to go out and help develop it. That’s always been a huge mantra of his.
That was a big part of our contract; not only were we going to supply the balls, but we’d also be part of doing clinics. Through them I’ve met athletes who love water polo but don’t have a regular team to compete with. I tell them: “If you’re willing to come out [to California] a couple of times we’ll find a spot on our team.”
A few years back I did a clinic I did at Harvard. I’m in the water and we’re playing, doing all the drills, skills, fundamentals and there’s this athlete and she’s from Colorado. Kalina Grabb was incredibly athletic but was in a place where water polo hadn’t developed enough. I told her: “You can really play!” and invited her out for the summer.
Her dad was a United Airlines pilot—they had like the ‘buddy pass”—she would come out and play with us in the summers. She went on to play water polo at Harvard for four years.
Had I not gone to that clinic at that time—she probably would have ended up at Harvard anyway, she’s such a bright kid—but she went there and had a great experience.
Here I am at 43 still deeply involved in the sport; I’m able to impact a kid to play. I’m very fortunate that I get to do what I love every day.