There is nothing Bob Jennings loves more than helping someone improve, seeing a change, and guiding them to do better than they ever thought they could. It’s the key to great coaching. It’s why he became one.
Jennings has been a mainstay in the masters swimming community, as both a multi-time medal winning athlete, and as a leader out of the pool with nearly five decades of experience as a coach. Most recently, he’s been leading one of the most dominant senior athletic clubs in the world as Head Coach of the Villages Aquatic Swim Team. But in early 2022, the Hall of Fame mentor announced he would be retiring.
“It will be bittersweet, but it’s time for new people,” Jennings explained. “We’ve got four new coaches, and three of them have already been working with the team. They’ll take over and come up with new ideas. They’ll have new enthusiasm. So that’ll be very good for the team. It’s time for a change, and I’ll miss it, but that’s the way it goes.”
Jennings is leaving a legacy for others to build from. His philosophy has revolved around something simple yet profound; that sports are just like life. As important as knowledge is, he realized that what athletes really need is inspiration.
“People always think of coaching as just X’s and O’s, but it’s so much more than that,” Jennings said. “You’re taking care of people, helping with stroke mechanics, listening to some of the older swimmers. Being organized and being able to get them ready for their meets is so important. And it’s understanding that there are other things in life also. You’re helping other people and you try to inspire them with your love of what you’re doing in the sport.”
One Swim Lesson Changes Everything
Jennings has been on the path towards helping others since he was a child. His inspiration came from an early swim lesson with his father.
“My Dad was in the military, on reserves, so he would go away in the summer,” Jennings reflected. “But he had us join a pool and he got us swimming. I was eight years old, and I couldn’t swim the whole length barely. I even had to pick my head up to breathe. And he was just very encouraging. My dad was an official and became head of a swim team and a league. He just inspired me to do the same type of things with United States Masters, with the Villages Aquatic Swim Team. It’s about giving back.”
Since those lessons Jennings has done more than his share of giving back. He began coaching various sports when he was in high school as a student and says it naturally led him into a career as a teacher. He would go on to coach high school swimming for 36 years, and soccer for eleven.
He’s won more awards than he can recall: Five High School Coach of the Year awards, an induction into his county’s Swimming Hall of Fame, service awards, and a Masters Swimming Coaching award in 2020. Not to mention the countless medals he has won as a competitor in multiple National Senior Games and U.S. Masters Swimming events. He has competed in countries like South Korea, England, Barbados, France and more, but instead of keeping a trophy cabinet, Jennings did what he has always done: He gave back.
“Over the years, I’ve donated most of my medals and awards to rehab centers, nursing homes, and to The Villages Adult ‘Learn to Swim’ program,” he explained.
Learning From All Ages
Jennings had the unique opportunity to work with athletes of all ages, from teenagers to centenarians. With nearly 50 years of experience leading practices, he points to one major difference between coaching younger adults and older athletes: desire.
“A lot of kids, they swim or they do whatever sport because their parents tell them to,” he said. “Older adults want to be there. They’re there on their own and that makes it more fun. I don’t care if they’re a superstar or the slowest in the pool. They’re in there trying, and that’s all that ever counts with anything in athletics, but especially in swimming.”
The swimmers on the Villages Aquatic Swim Team have an advantage beyond their desire to be in the pool. Their community is known for world-class amenities and countless clubs to help keep them active and in shape year-round.
“The Villages is an athlete’s heaven. We have a running club, a triathlon club, and biking clubs,” Jennings said. “We have about a hundred on the swim team. We are very close. I love the competition, but I love working out and being around the other swimmers more than anything else. The swim team and the athletes in The Villages are just inspiring. There’s always somebody much better than you and it just makes you work harder.”
Even though he is retiring from coaching, Jennings, 68, plans to focus on his own swimming, and looking ahead to running half marathons, competing in the Villages Senior Games, and the National Senior Games in May. He is motivated by the benefits of staying active to his physical, mental, and emotional health.
“What we get from swimming is your heart is stronger, and the bonds made with people are too. We take care of each other, we’re healthier and you just can’t beat that.”