John Naber was a junior in high school when he stepped onto the diving board and began bouncing up and down. The 16-year-old’s coach didn’t care too much for this brand of horseplay, not when the 1972 swim season was scheduled to begin the following day. Naber reluctantly prepared to end the fun by jumping into the water, but couldn’t leap forward because lane lines had already been strung across the pool, including one directly underneath him. So he aimed to the side, unaware that his antics were about to ensure that the wobbly board gave him an extra, unwanted boost.
Naber sailed through the air, overshooting his destination in lane one, and landed on the corner of the pool deck. He broke his collarbone and missed the entire season.
Yet this accident involved exactly the kind of springboard Naber needed to begin a journey that would culminate with four gold medals at the 1976 Olympics — an accomplishment that has since launched the current Pasadena resident into a variety of arenas, including broadcasting, corporate speaking and publishing.
Naber was born in Evanston, Ill., before his father’s management consultant job whisked the family everywhere from Texas to Italy to England. He lived in six different houses during the first 12 years of his life, eventually arriving in the Bay Area just in time for 7th grade. Most of his classmates had grown up playing Little League or Pop Warner football. But Naber soon realized that land sports might not be his calling.
“On the first day of high school P.E., I was the first kid picked for the basketball team because I’m so tall,” said Naber, who now stands 6 feet 6 inches tall. “On the second day of high school P.E., I was the last kid picked because I’m so bad.”
That’s when he instead turned his attention toward the pool and a classmate named Jeff Stites, who had just finished second in the Junior Olympics for swimming. Naber was intrigued with Stites and wanted to befriend him. He offered to buy Stites candy bars and decided to follow him into the pool one day.
“I really didn’t know who he was,” admitted Stites. “ … I said ‘Hey, if you’re really serious about swimming, you should come on over and join Ladera Oaks [Swim Club].’”
Naber accepted the invitation and began training with Stites at the Portola Valley pool. He joined the Ladera Oaks swim team, which regularly competed in local meets with other clubs. The pair quickly developed a friendship that was fueled by competition in the water — that is, once Naber agreed to learn Stites’ specialty, the backstroke.
“For the first year, I wanted to swim anything but backstroke,” said Naber. “I didn’t want to race him. But by the end of our sophomore years, we were even and I passed him in our junior year.”
“We pushed each other in practice, and I think to kind of reach your potential, you’re going to need that type of environment,” said Stites. “You’re going to need a group of teammates who are all working hard.”
Naber credits his coach at Ladera Oaks, George French, for encouraging him to master the backstroke.
“John was a standout in our program, obviously,” said French. “He was an outstanding role model and set an example for the other swimmers on our team.”
Naber’s ascension as a swimmer hit a snag when he hit the pool deck and broke his collarbone. Although he couldn’t compete that year, the time on the sidelines allowed him to view the sport from a different perspective. He mentally homed in on the intricacies of stroke mechanics, pace and drafting — garnering a more sophisticated understanding of what it took to become refined in the water. With these concepts in mind, a recovering Naber watched as a national hero brought them to life on television that summer.
“I got to watch Mark Spitz swim in Munich from my living room floor,” said Naber. “That was the first time in my life I realized ‘I can do this. I can’t win seven [gold medals like Spitz], but I can go to the Olympics.’”
Naber returned with a flourish and earned a swimming scholarship to USC. Under head coach Peter Dalan, he helped lead the Trojan swim team to back-to-back national championships during his first two years in Southern California. But Naber had bigger aspirations. He was thinking Montreal — the site of the 1976 Olympics — and once he qualified, everything changed.
“All of a sudden, my life just focused at that point because I didn’t want to get hurt, didn’t want to clown around, said Naber. “I was taking it seriously.”
A student of the sport, he knew that the two-time defending backstroke champion was Roland Matthes of East Germany. Naber studied past races and tried to calculate how fast Matthes was likely going to swim in Montreal. He wrote the time on a piece of paper for motivation during training, which usually began at 5:30 in the morning. Two hours and five miles later, Naber would dry off for breakfast.
“Took me about an hour to eat the number of calories I had to eat,” said Naber.” … Anything you want. I had honey on my scrambled eggs. I’d eat canned peaches and drink the juice. Anything to get calories in to stoke the furnace.”
Naber attended class during the middle of the day and then tackled another two-hour swimming session in the late afternoon. He’d scarf down a big dinner, then finish up any homework before going to bed.
Six days a week. Rinse and repeat.
“George French taught me that if you can treat every workout like it’s the Olympics, when you go to the Olympics, it’ll seem like just another workout,” said Naber. “His goal was to downplay the significance of the games so that you don’t get psyched out.”
Even with this concentrated mindset, Naber couldn’t help feeling the weight of one particular moment. It was the night before the championship race in the 100-meter backstroke. Naber had just broken Matthes’ world-record time in a separate heat, but the two had yet to face off against each other. That would change in less than 24 hours, and now they found themselves in the same training pool, both getting in one last workout before the big race.
“He was to backstroke what Tiger Woods was to golf, what Michael Jordan was to basketball,” said Naber. “ In the warm-down pool the night before we were to meet face-to-face in the championship final, he swims over to me — he doesn’t speak English — he chucks me under the chin and he goes ‘very fast.’ Two English words delivered by my role model in backstroke.”
Despite wily attempts from Matthes to throw Naber off his game with intentional false starts, the young American remained composed and dethroned the vaunted East German in world-record time to capture the gold. Naber also earned gold medals in the 200-meter backstroke, 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter medley relay and 800-meter medley relay as well as a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle. He set a total of four world records in the process.
“When you stand at the top podium at the Olympic Games, it’s like standing on top of Mount Everest because on that day there’s nobody in the world who’s as good at that skill as you are,” said Naber, who was the most decorated American at the 1976 Games. “On that day, you’re the tallest man on the planet.”
Naber’s success carried through to the end of his college career as he came home and won two more national titles at USC, finishing his Trojan days undefeated in the backstroke. The five-time Olympic medalist and four-time collegiate champion had no plans to continue his swimming career upon graduation in 1977, instead landing a position in Disney’s promotions department. Although he was required to shave his trademark mustache, Naber believes his time at Disney provided him with a helpful transition from the sports world into the business sector. Still, he couldn’t shake an Olympics-related thought that kept floating around in his head.
“I realized that I’ll probably never be as famous for anything again in my life. I don’t think there’s anything I can do that’ll change the first line of my obituary,” said Naber, who has lived in Pasadena since 1978. “I know that what I did has limited significance, so I said ‘How do I become significant?’”
Opportunity presented itself when NBC reached out to Naber because the network wanted a former Olympic medalist to join its team. He worked as the expert for all swimming broadcasts and the play-by-play man while covering other sports. This job sparked a deep interest in Naber, and the man known for swimming went on to cover nearly 40 different sports and eight Olympics. Some of his more obscure work includes underwater hockey, paintball and indoor motocross.
Naber has also spent the past few decades as a Rose Parade correspondent for ABC, and was a member of the board tasked with building the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center — where he swims to this day.
Another path of Naber’s materialized as his broadcasting career was taking off, when several local rotary clubs invited him to speak about his Olympic triumphs.
“They really wanted to know, not ‘John, how did you swim so fast?’, but ‘John, how can I sell more insurance? What can you tell me that can help me be successful?’” he said.
It was then when Naber realized that sharing his and fellow Olympians’ experiences to help others was the “significant” something he had been pursuing for months. He left Disney shortly thereafter to establish Naber & Associates and has been self-employed ever since. The business aims “to bring to the corporate world the same lessons of productivity and gold medal performance he learned during his quest for Olympic gold.”
Naber has made more than 1,000 public speeches over the years, infusing humor into messages centered around goal-setting, team-building and problem-solving. His audiences have ranged from groups of 25 to crowds of 25,000.
“A lot of Olympians are into motivational speaking. They love to tell their own story and the public loves to hear it. I don’t tell my story. I tell the story of how to do great things using other Olympians’ stories,” said Naber, who compiled many of them in a book called “Awaken the Olympian Within,” one of four that he has published. “I didn’t hit my head on a diving board. I didn’t twist my ankle on a double-twisting dismount. But I know those who did and I ask them ‘How do you deal with that?’ They tell me and I tell that story to the audience and the audience relates to that.”
“I don’t consider myself a motivational speaker. I’d like to consider myself an inspirational speaker. Motivation is teaching somebody to do something whereas inspiration is teaching somebody to be something. In my mind, I’d like to transform my audience rather than get them to do something.”