Never Stop Learning
This feature originally appeared in the 2021 Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
David Durden's path to Tokyo began in a hot tub in Irvine, California.
Cal's decorated head men's swimming & diving coach, who will serve as the head coach for the U.S. men's swim team at this year's Summer Olympics, was a student-athlete at UC Irvine in the 1990s, winning the Big West championship in the 200 butterfly in 1997. As his collegiate career progressed, Durden and roommates/teammates David McGlynn and Rich Sarkisian spent countless nights in a hot tub brainstorming how to improve Anteater swimming.
"We would have conversations about the program, looking at ways to make it better," Durden said. "I had a great swimming experience in college, but I also thought that it could have been better in certain areas. Of course, I was 20 years old and not stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. As you get a little bit older, you get a little more perspective. But that's where it started."
Durden's quest to improve the UC Irvine program is rooted in the same curiosity that has allowed him to excel as a coach. The thirst to learn that resulted in a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering has also been behind his development into one of the most respected swimming coaches on the planet.
"I think what has set him apart from a lot of people is that he's curious," said former USC head coach Dave Salo, who mentored Durden early on as the director of NOVA Aquatics in Irvine. "Curiosity is so important in coaching. He's never stopped learning. He was very, very inquisitive and curious, and I think that was really critical to being able to absorb what he could from all of his experiences. It's positioned him really well to be able to work with athletes."
Durden wasn't thinking about becoming an elite coach when he stopped swimming his senior year to begin working at Western Digital, an innovative tech firm in Irvine. But the conversations with McGlynn and Sarkisian continued, and a year after graduating Durden started shadowing Salo at NOVA Aquatics.
"I remember Dave called me and said, 'I don't want to be an engineer anymore. I want to go back and coach,'" said McGlynn, now an author and English professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. "There was just something in his voice that was kind of equivalent to someone telling you they've met the person they are going to marry. He knew what he was after, and he never looked back."
At the suggestion of Salo, Durden sent emails to five college coaches inquiring about graduate assistant coaching positions. The next day, he received a response from then-Auburn head coach Dave Marsh. That fall, Durden was on the Tigers' staff and enrolled in Auburn's Master's of Exercise Science program.
While Durden learned plenty from Marsh – another top-level coach who served as the head coach of the U.S. women's swim team at the 2016 Summer Olympics – it was the teachings in the exercise science program that really made the biggest impact on him as a coach.
"I did very genuinely want to learn about what I was giving the athletes," Durden said. "I wanted a little background on how the body moves, how to look at things from a mechanical perspective to generate more force, more power. I wanted that from a science background and not just take someone's words for it or take a coach's word for it. There is the physiology behind what I am doing, the mechanics behind what I am talking about. It was education that I did not necessarily have as an electrical engineering major."
Durden ended up forging an impactful relationship with exercise science and kinesiology professor Dr. Wendi Weimar, who also is the director of Auburn's Sports Biomechanics Lab. Durden invited Weimar to join the team on the pool deck and the two engaged in regular discussions about the physiology of swimming outside of the classroom.
"Dave was an advocate for including us," Weimar said. "Because of his science background, because of his love of swimming, he could make the connection between what we were doing and how to talk to the athletes and Coach Marsh. I'm proud of him because he has grown into truly a well-rounded coach."
Within a year of arriving in Auburn, a full-time assistant position opened up on the coaching staff and Durden got the job. He ended up helping the Tigers win six NCAA championships in five years – three on the men's side and three for the women.
Durden moved on to become the head coach at Maryland in 2005 and had a long-range vision to bring the Terps to national prominence. But less than two years later while attending the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, he was approached by Cal women's head coach Teri McKeever.
"She pulled me aside and said her athletic director was there and wanted to talk to me," Durden said. "I went on a very informal job interview with Sandy Barbour. All I had were Maryland polos. That's all I had to wear, so I wore a Maryland polo and we met in a hotel conference room."
Two weeks later, Durden flew to the Bay Area for a round of interviews. By the time his plane landed back in Maryland, Barbour had left a message on his voicemail offering him the job.
"I remember having dinner with (then-Cal deputy athletic director) Theresa Gould at the Paragon out on the balcony," Durden said. "She strategically got the right table where I sat looking out at San Francisco. She knew exactly what she was doing."
So did Barbour. Since hiring Durden in 2007, the Bears have won four NCAA team championships and he's been named National Coach of the Year five times. Cal has won 48 individual NCAA titles (including 16 relays). The Bears have finished either first or second at NCAAs for 11 consecutive seasons.
"I didn't know where his future would land, but I'm not surprised at all," Marsh said. "And I don't even think he is at the high-water mark of his coaching ability. I see even better development out of Dave for years to come."