FAMILY- Bean's team: Coach touts swimming's lessons

J.J. Bean spends almost every waking hour poolside.

If you have to work long hours, you'd better like what you do, right? Well then, it's a good thing J.J. Bean loves his job because he works, by his own estimate, about 100 hours a week as coach of the Virginia Gators, the Charlottesville arm of a traveling swim team.

Bean arrives at the Fairview Swim and Tennis Club off Rio Road by 5am every morning and stays until 10pm, when the last practice wraps up under the removable heated "air bubble" that Bean had built over the pool to allow winter swimming. Weekends find him either back at the pool both days for home meets or on the road with the sister team from Roanoke for away competition.

Bean's not planning on cutting his hours, though.

"I don't have any trouble getting up in the morning even though I get only four hours of sleep," he says, "because I'm excited to get here and see who's coming to practice and what they're going to bring."

That devotion is appreciated by his swimmers.

"He's like a second father," says 14-year-old Holly Harper (profiled on page 10.)

Sports is a lifelong passion for the 52-year-old Bean, who wrestled as an undergraduate at UVA before his graduation in 1973, then coached there during his graduate studies in sports psychology. Before starting the Virginia Gators in 2000, Bean coached no less than five sports at area high schools– wrestling, volleyball, swimming, diving, and lacrosse– then was head coach of the Charlottesville YMCA Aquatic Club's swim team.

Swimming, he says, is different from other sports.

"It's like a family," is how he describes the relationships he builds with swimmers over the course of years. As coach, he says, he helps swimmers improve not only their strokes but also to "develop psychologically and emotionally."

That development happens not only during the many practices– the older advanced swimmers can practice as many as nine times a week– but also on the road at away meets, where the team and their families often stay in the same hotel and share some non-swimming fun.

"On most big trips we take, we do something on the side," he says, citing forays to Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio and to Orlando last year. The most memorable trip? A meet in New Orleans two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. 

"They'll always remember that," he says.

Trips to Orlando, New Orleans, and Ohio?  Swimming takes not only a family's time; it also takes a bite out of their wallets. Bean admits the travel schedule can be pricey, but he insists swimming is not just for the wealthy. Team members who can afford it pay full price for membership– which can cost more than $1,000 per child– and travel. Less affluent members can help pay their way by volunteering their time at the pool and through fundraising.

Bean says anyone with a desire to swim can do it with the Gators.

"We can help people to swim even if they don't have any money," he says. "We can figure out a way to make people fast even if they're not that talented."

He can't guarantee everyone will be a champion, but that, he insists, is not what swimming's about anyway. 

"We try to teach a good attitude and how to get the most out of yourself," he says. "It's silly and corny, but we believe in it."