By Will Robinson
Pete Motekaitis and his star pupil Scott Weltz — the former Aggie swimmer-turned-Olympian — have worked together for so long that each man can order the other’s favorite sandwich at Subway …
At least that’s how Motekaitis — a critical, enduring presence in the Davis swimming community — phrased it.
He understands Weltz’s journey more than anyone, and not just because the two have worked together for so long.
Motekaitis, 52, was once the UC Davis men’s swim coach. But that was before the school pulled the plug on his program in April 2010, and forced him to gravitate to the women’s squad, where he joined veteran mentor Barbara Jahn as associate head coach.
Since the demise of the Aggie men’s team, Motekaitis also has remained a director of the Davis AquaMonsters, helped with Davis High boys swimming and recently has been consumed with attention to Weltz.
The pair’s bond goes deep, as Motekaitis is even from the San Jose suburb of Campbell, which is just a short, 10-minute drive from Bellarmine Prep, where Weltz swam in high school.
Remarkably, Weltz didn’t received much college attention coming out of Bellarmine in 2005, but Motekaitis saw his potential and made him an Aggie.
Motekaitis has always had an eye for swimmers — and the pack he put together for that final pool party in 2010 went 8-0 in Big West Conference competition before scoring a record number of meet points at the season-ending conference championships.
Then the bad news came: Men’s swimming was one of four UCD teams eliminated due to financial difficulties in the athletic department.
“Losing the program feels like death and loss,” Motekaitis told the media at the time. “It’s devastating and final. We did everything that we were asked. We were hoping our excellence was a part of (the school’s) decision. I guess it wasn’t.”
Weltz’s ascension to Olympic competition showcases what a huge hole the loss of men’s swimming has left in Aggie athletics.
A veteran coach
But Motekaitis’ journey continues.
It started when he enrolled at San Jose Community College and moved on to Humboldt State before landing on the UCD campus.
A swimming and water polo team walk-on, he ended up setting school swim records. And years later, Motekaitis would mentor the most decorated male swimmer in Aggie history in Weltz.
Motekaitis’ coaching life began in 1983, a year after he graduated from UCD, when he was hired as Davis High’s swim coach.
Motekaitis believed he was ready to handle the prep swimmers. He learned a lot that first season…
“I thought I knew a lot,” Motekaitis recalled during a phone call from Knoxville, Tenn., where he’s training Weltz. “But after about a week, I realized that I wasn’t coaching the Davis High School men’s team; I was coaching the Davis High School boys team.”
The new coach made adjustments … something he’s been good at during his career in and around the pool.
“(High school coaching) is a wonderful opportunity to give back to the community,” said Motekaitis, who helped current DHS boys coach Tracy Stapleton in 2011.
High school swimming is Motekaitis’ favorite level, especially in Davis, he said.
“One of the great things about our community is that it all comes together under one high school,” he said. “When you take an individual sport and you’re wearing the Blue Devil cap — or in Scott’s case, the Stars and Stripes — it means a lot more. That’s when an individual sport becomes a team sport, and that’s when the efforts become extraordinary.”
His other experiences in town — Aquadarts, AquaMonsters and UCD men’s team — “to a degree, have been fill-ins,” Motekaitis said.
‘I learn a lot’
Despite all the gigs and responsibilities, he finds he is rarely stressed by work.
“I learn a lot, and I work very little. The only work I do is paperwork,” he said of his jobs, paraphrasing the old Confucius adage.
The first part is something on which Motekaitis dwells: how much he learns from his swimmers, from the flailing 5-year-olds in AquaMonsters to Weltz, Haley Cope (a 2008 Beijing Olympian whom Motekaitis trained) and Mark Barr (a former DHS swimmer, cancer survivor, record-setting Paralympian and an accomplished triathlete).
Motekaitis adapts quickly to what he learns from each athlete.
“I try to treat everyone as an individual to help them grow in the water and help them grow as a person,” Motekaitis said of his coaching philosophy. “I focus on what an athlete can do. Every swim meet has its own flavor, but it’s still just a swim meet.”
By that logic, Weltz’s Olympic qualifier was just another race. The biggest race in his career was no different from racing for the Aggies or Bellarmine. However, a prized spot on the U.S. swim team for the London Games was on the line. And after the UCD men’s swim team was discontinued, Motekaitis and Weltz largely worked one-on-one to make that goal a reality.
“It’s better to train with a group,” Motekaitis explained, “but we didn’t have a group. So (often) we became a team of two.
“Scott trained with the UCD women (occasionally), but it’s not the same. Though all of the women were very supportive, Scott had to race the clock … instead of flesh and blood.”
But the 200-meter breaststroke race at the Olympic Trials in Nebraska featured the best flesh and blood in the country as competition. Weltz’s opponents included former world record holder Brendan Hansen, current American record holder Eric Shanteau and NCAA champion Clark Burckle.
Though the deck seemed stacked against Weltz, halfway through the third of four 50-meter laps, Motekaitis knew his former UCD Male Athlete of the Year would win.
‘Still an Aggie’
Despite no home program to return to, Weltz wore a UCD cap during his winning bid. He and Motekaitis still represented their alma mater in Omaha, sporting Aggie gear, and they have both said they hold no ill will against the school as whole.
“I didn’t look it at like UC Davis cut the sports,” Motekaitis said. “I looked at it as a few individual people (cut the program) — I still feel that way. I’m still an Aggie.”
The next step for Motekaitis and Weltz is the July 31 Olympic 200 breast stroke preliminary heat. Weltz will try to qualify for a spot in the semifinals and then the final race, scheduled for Aug. 1.
With any luck, the pair will follow that up with a victory sandwich at a Subway in London.
Notes: Motekaitis left last weekend for a quick trip to France before heading to England. … The coach and his UCD Hall of Fame wife Koren — a former Sacramento City College coach and champion Aggie NCAA swimmer — have four children. … Motekaitis’ DHS teams won 23 consecutive league titles and 19 Sac-Joaquin Section championships. … He just finished his 17th season as a swim coach at UCD.
— Will Robinson is a 2009 Da Vinci High graduate and will be a senior at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is a senior sports editor of Neon Tommy, an all-online USC newspaper.