Nov. 1, 2011
There were a lot of golden moments for 1988 Olympian Jay Mortenson and most of them did not involve his Olympic gold medal.
“When I think of swimming, the 10 things that are most important to me, all 10 come from Stanford,” said Mortenson, who will be inducted into the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame on November 11. “The Olympic gold medal is a good distance behind.”
Since head coach Skip Kenney arrived on campus three decades ago, he has instilled in his swimmers the team-first mentality. It is a centerpiece of the the storied program. The “recipe of success” is a combination of team leadership, team culture and embracing a certain model.
The most important of those qualities is winning as a team. Whether it was NCAA titles like Mortenson won in 1986 and 1987 or continuing “the streak,” now at 30 straight Pac-10 team titles. Each is paramount to building the team's culture.
“The sense of a team and a team championship is much more powerful,” said Mortenson.
It makes sense. Cardinal swimmers spend four or five hours a day with one another, for four to five years.
“Your Olympic teammates are largely your rivals. I was much closer to my Stanford teammates than my American teammates,” said Mortenson. “My buddies... they are genuine. (They are) who you work hardest for.”
As a high school junior in Wisconsin, Mortenson watched the events unfold in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympics. Americans racked up 34 medals in swimming. The U.S. won gold in 21 of 30 events. One of those medalists would be future teammate Pablo Morales, who won a gold and three silvers. Future teammates John Moffet and Jeff Kostoff also swam as ABC cameras rolled. His future coach was on the sidelines as an assistant.
Mortenson was well aware of the Stanford program. He watched in 1984 as the Cardinal, “the better team,” was beaten by Florida. He then watched Morales, Moffet and Kostoff in the Olympics. Those same swimmers, whom he admired, wanted him to swim at Stanford. The rest of the team wanted him as well. That experience took his “breath away.”
“For me it was a question of whether I wanted to be part of a winner and continue that legacy,” said Mortenson. “I said 'yes' on both counts. We had the capability to win and personally there were guys in my events that could crush me.”
Prior to Mortenson's arrival, the Cardinal won the first of three straight NCAA team titles in 1985. In the fall of 1985, Mortenson came in as the team's No. 3 100 butterflyer and the No. 2 100 backstroker.
During his freshman year Mortenson was introduced to one of the biggest influences in his life, Dave Bottom.
Bottom, one of Kenney's first big-time recruits, talked to the team. He taught the Cardinal how to race. How to turn. How to rest. How to approach a meet. He taught them everything. As Mortenson says “He is the author of Stanford's men's swimming culture... he's the guy.”
Mortenson became an “apprentice” under Morales, Anthony Mosse and Sean Murphy and passed his knowledge on to Jeff Rouse, Derek Weatherford, Brian Retterer, Trip Zedlitz. Rick Gould, Josh Mikesell and “a ton of other backstrokers that made All-American.”
There would be a lot of golden moments for Mortenson throughout his career. He did what was needed for the team to win. As a freshman he was a flyer behind Morales. As a sophomore he specialized in the fly and back. Junior year it was the butterfly and relays. By his senior year, following the 1988 Olympics, he was put anywhere the team needed him.
His greatest accomplishment came in 1988. Within 29 minutes the junior won the NCAA title in the 100 fly and then turned around and won the 100 back. It was an incredible feat that took strong legs to accomplish.
Presenting Mortenson with the medal was 78-year old Olympic gold medalist George Kojac. At the 1930 NCAA championships Kojac had won the 100 back and 150 individual medley under similar circumstances. He considered the gesture of one champion, presenting another, with similar achievements, a tremendous honor.
But Mortenson's favorite event was the medley relay. Especially in dual meets.
Recalling one of his hometown heroes, Mortenson described himself as the Paul Molitor of the Stanford swim program. Molitor was nicknamed the “Igniter” as a Hall of Fame leadoff hitter for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Mortenson did not have a nickname, but he thought the leadoff leg of any medley relay—the backstroke, set the tone for the whole meet and something he took very seriously.
“You needed to win that event to win the meet,” said Mortenson. “You were the guy on the A relay” It also put your team up 7-0 to start.
But it wasn't always so easy.
During his freshman year, he was getting his wish. He was getting “crushed” by his teammates. In late October, Mortenson was so tired, and so frustrated in the 25-yard pool, he asked Kenney if he could just get out of the pool and watch. It was something Kenney's swimmers had never done.
“Deeply frustrated” Mortenson said “If I can't get it done, I might as well just sit up here and watch,” he told Kenney. Mortenson spent the next 15 to 20 minutes watching his teammates. How they kicked. How they turned. What they did. What he wasn't.
“I creatively found a way to get better and I think I taught Skip an unconventional way to get better,” said Mortenson, who Kenney mentioned was more of a visual learner than anyone who he had had before. To this day,Kenney relays that story to future generations of Stanford swimmers.
After jumping back into the pool, it took Mortenson a up to 1 ½ years to “find his legs.” He would go on to win three-straight Pac-10 titles in the 100 back (1987-89) and 100 fly (1987-89). He was also a part of three-straight 400 medley relay titles from 1987 to 1989.
Continuing Morales' streak in the 100 fly, he won NCAA titles in 1988 and 1989-- a string of six in a row won by Cardinal greats. He would also lead off the 1987 400 medley relay team en route to a title. When he completed his career in 1989, he was the school's fastest 100 backstroker (47.94) and second only to Morales (46.25) in the 100 fly (47.09). He was also No. 4 all-time in the 200 fly (1:47.38).
When the call came to join the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame, he was coming home from a swim workout with two of his four children, Nina, 14, and Katrina, 9. He didn't recognize the phone number, but picked it up anyway. It was the call he was waiting for.
“I've been hoping for this for a long time. I was aware of it. It was something I was anticipating,” said Mortenson.
Three or four minutes later he got home and told his college sweetheart, Karen. They'd met in the Manzanita Trailer Park and married in 1995. Karen threw a party, as his swimming clan of four children-- Nina, J.P., Mitch, and Katrina – joined friends to celebrate the occasion.
“It's a terrific honor. I'm so pleased. I loved my time there and I love it today,” said Mortenson. “It's the frosting on the cake.”
For the past few years Mortenson has been driving down to Long Beach to watch the Cardinal at the Pac-10 championships while working as an investment banker in Los Angeles. Stanford continues to pile up Pac-10 victories at the Belmont Plaza Pool, joined each year by similar athletes, across generations.
“The coolest thing is not only the 30 straight championships, but the coaches are the same as when I was there.” said Mortenson. “These are the same guys I swam with.”
And that's what makes Stanford golden.