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How Queens swim coach won 14 national titles: Start with a goal that makes you sick to your stomach

Jeff Dugdale and Queens swim team
Garrison Johnson
Queens University News Service
Queens Coach Jeff Dugdale strategizes with the team at the 2022 NCAA Division II National Championship.

When Jeff Dugdale was an assistant coach for Duke University’s swimming program in the 2000s, his day job was in pharmaceutical sales for GSK. It was a combination of experiences that shaped his approach to coaching.

High-performing leaders in business aren’t very much different from high-performing swimmers.

Banners around the campus at Queens University of Charlotte, where Dugdale now leads the swimming program, celebrate seven straight national titles. It’s actually an understatement. Both the men’s and women’s swimming teams have won the NCAA Division II championship seven years in a row. That’s 14 national titles.

Dugdale lists seven characteristics of great leaders and swimmers. “They don’t blame others — they take responsibility. They love feedback. They are all about the process versus the event. They can perform on demand. They invest in their performance. They crave the purpose or why. They outwork and work smarter than others.”

It’s all about knowing what greatness looks like, Dugdale said in a recent interview. A great goal is one so big that it makes you sick to your stomach.

“When you have a vision of what greatness looks like, work backward from that, and surround yourself with good people,” he said.

Starting with a Five-Year Promise

Dugdale came to Queens in 2010 with a promise to deliver a national championship within five years. Current Queens women’s rugby Coach Katie Wurst points out that the university didn’t even have a swimming pool at the time.

When Dugdale mentioned the five-year goal to the first group of Queens swimmers, Nic Eriksson couldn’t believe it. Now an assistant coach, Eriksson recalled recently, “we thought there were other people he was going to bring in that weren’t us. But eventually, in four years, he put it all together and we achieved the excellence he saw with us.”

Learning the Ropes at Auburn

Dugdale fell in love with swimming as a kid — he said his mother wanted to keep him busy despite his ADHD — and soon success came his way. Dugdale was a student-athlete at Auburn University from 1989-1991, then joined David Marsh in coaching the Tigers to win their first national championship in 1997.

Marsh, now assistant head swimming coach at the University of California at Berkeley and a mentor to Dugdale, describes Jeff as a Cinderella story athlete and coach. Marsh started as Auburn coach in 1990, and Dugdale served as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the program.

“In 1997 they won their first national championship, with Dugdale being instrumental in the win,” Marsh wrote in a recent email. Seeing the potential for Dugdale to make others better, Marsh brought him to the Team Elite swimming program for Olympic-level athletes, then located in Charlotte. Dugdale was later offered the position as head coach for Queens.

Avoiding Tunnel Vision

A connection to something bigger than yourself is important, said Dugdale, who provides an example from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“Australia in 2016 was supposed to blow the U.S. away at the Olympic Games,” he said. But they didn’t. “One of the things the U.S. team did versus the Australian team was not dedicating your life to swimming. Australia’s team is government-funded and only eats, sleeps and swims.

“To succeed in athletics it’s important not to dedicate your life to the sport. Instead, you have to make something bigger than yourself so that you can thrive in what you’re doing,” he said.

“If all you do is eat, sleep and do your sport you will fold under pressure. You need to occupy your brain with other things like giving and serving and make something bigger than yourself. That's what a champion looks like.”

Transitioning from Division II to Division I

As Queens embarks on a transition from Division II to Division I, Dugdale sees new challenges and opportunities. “If we get the scholarships to compete in the DI area, then we can be very competitive. Our Power Rankings make us 21st in DI rankings.”

Multiple Queens swimmers can be in the top 16 already, he said, and additional scholarships would help. Swimming is expected to be one of the programs that lead the university’s transition into DI, Dugdale said.

At a May 10 news conference to announce new membership in the ASUN Conference, Queens President Daniel Lugo reminded reporters that the Queens swimming program currently holds the longest winning streak of any sport in any division of the NCAA.

At poolside, Queens Coach Jeff Dugdale (center) cheers at NCAA National Championships.
Garrison Johnson
Queens University News Service
At poolside, Queens Coach Jeff Dugdale cheers at NCAA National Championships.

Where Love Fits in an Athletic Program

The word “love” is a component of Dugdale’s coaching strategy.

“Athletics is just a platform to practice in order to perform in the classroom, in our job interviews, grad school interviews, and med school interviews.

“I have a sister, I’m a girl dad and I have a big women’s team. I feel that it’s important to be strong, but also to love and to say I love you.”

Palmer Magri is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.

Corrected: May 21, 2022 at 4:51 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story stated that Auburn University's swim program began in 1990.