By David Mullen
You’ve got to get up early in the morning to pull a fast one on Jim Montgomery. Five-thirty a.m. to be exact. Otherwise, you are just all wet.
Montgomery, winner of three swimming gold medals and one bronze in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, was the first man to break 50 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle. Now, instead of competing, he is teaching all levels, ages and sizes how to swim or how to improve what they already know. And not all have to be early risers. Other time slots are available throughout the day for instruction.
“We’ve got people that maybe swam in high school or college all the way down to fitness swimmers that need some skill and a structured workout,” Montgomery said, from poolside at the year-old Highland Park High School facility on Douglas Avenue. He was standing watch over more than a dozen dedicated people wanting to improve their buoyancy and fitness level long before the sun had made an appearance in the Dallas sky. “Some have been with me for more than 35 years.”
The one-hour lessons begin with a five-to-10-minute warmup in the heated indoor pool. Montgomery uses a white board near the pool’s edge to diagram a workout plan of different swimming options, where he keeps a watchful eye. “They will do kicking, pulling, swim sets and interval training. I mix it up quite a bit and try to make it interesting and set some goals for them.”
He points to two swimmers in lane four. “These two couldn’t swim a full 25 [yards] a few weeks ago,” Montgomery said. “Now they are swimming at least a mile in a one-hour practice.”
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” said real estate executive Michael Hershman as he toweled off after a workout. “Four days a week, I started doing this for exercise. As I’ve gotten older, I would like the workout to be a little later, but it’s hard to get pool time exactly when I would like it. It’s worth getting up to do it.”
“I’ve been doing this in the Park Cities for about 40 years. It started out it out as a hobby,” Montgomery said, who also trains swimmers at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson. “They used to have six or seven pools around the city. We used to have the Tom Landry Center,” said Montgomery, who consulted on the building of the former facility located at Baylor Hospital in East Dallas. “But they decided to sell the building. It was the nicest indoor pool in the entire Metroplex. I guess [local fitness centers] Cowboys Fit came in and bought it and filled in the pool. It’s a crying shame.”
Montgomery rents the pool facilities from the school district for his coaching and workouts. Monthly fees are very reasonable, more in line with a gym membership, less than the hourly rate of some personal trainers. More information can be found at jmswim.com or by contacting Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“People starting out don’t have to swim the whole workout,” Montgomery said. “They can stop and rest at any time. I teach them practice etiquette.” Some swimmers share the 25-yard lanes throughout the workout. Props like boards and swimming fins are sometimes used for specific training exercises.
The number of active participants peaked at about 400 prior to COVID-19. The current field is around 75 and steadily increasing as people are putting their toe back in the water as pandemic restrictions loosen.
Montgomery grew up in Madison, Wisc., where he won six high school state championships. He went to Indiana University, which had a noted swim program that had earlier produced seven-time Olympic gold medal winner Mark Spitz. Competing in the early 1970s, Montgomery, 66, won a record five gold medals in the World Championships at Belgrade in 1973 and repeated with four gold medals, a silver and a bronze in Cali 1975 and Berlin 1978.
He moved to Dallas in 1979 to train for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. “I grew up in Madison and went to Indiana. It was the coldest winter ever,” Montgomery said. President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. team would boycott the games, ending Montgomery’s Olympic swimming career.
After his retirement from college and USA swimming, Montgomery went on to win 14 Masters World Championships from 1986 to 2002. He began competing in ocean races in the 1980s and, in 1986, he won the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim.
“So, I said, “What am I going to do for an encore?’ A buddy of mine said ‘Why don’t you start a masters swim group?’” Montgomery said. “So, I put up a flyer and the first night seven terrified people showed up at Highland Park High School in October 1981. Seven people turned into 50, then 50 turned into 150 and 150 turned into 400.” Montgomery, who was promoting Asics swimwear and “living the life,” decided to turn his hobby into a business and started Dallas Aquatic Masters Swim Club.
Montgomery still swims a few times a week and cycles White Rock Lake at least twice a week. His classes bond outside of the pool. “That’s part of the deal here. We do coffees on Saturday mornings after workouts,” Montgomery said, who is married with five children and has a school (in aquatic terms) of grandchildren. “I’ve taken groups out all over the world on competitions and open water swims. The younger crowd likes to get together once a month. We went to the Lakewood Tavern before Christmas.” It is important to hydrate after cardiovascular exercise.
“Before COVID and losing two to three pools, in the summertime, I had close to 500 to 600 swimmers. Even though we are based in the Park Cities, I had groups in Southlake, downtown at Baylor and in Richardson. Then a lot of people, well, they still aren’t back.” Many of the early swimmers are businesspeople. “We have people driving in for a workout, showering and going to work from here.”
Montgomery estimates that his classes are back to “about 70 percent” of pre-COVID levels, and that’s what drives him to get up before dawn. “I really enjoy coaching adults. I just love it. They’re the most positive, optimistic people to get up at five, get in the water, swim for an hour and let me coach them. It’s a great group of people that want to live life. I’ve never seen anyone walk out of here frowning or in a bad mood.” And he would know. You’ve got to get up early in the morning to fool Jim Montgomery.