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Sports / Recreation

Longtime coach Mattos cruising into retirement

June 24, 2011
By Tony Phifer

John Mattos is retiring after serving 31 years as coach of the CSU's women's swimming program. He leaves behind a legacy of enduring success.

John Mattos, a former All-American swimmer at CSU, is retiring after serving 31 years as head coach of the women's swimming and diving team. Friday, on his first official day of retirement, John Mattos plans to be astride his favorite surfboard, riding the waves near Dana Point, Calif.

Surfing is just one of the many activities Mattos has planned for the next phase of his life. An accomplished golfer, he plans to spend more time on the links, ski Colorado’s mountains on every fresh powder day, do some fishing and read “good books.”

“And I want to organize my garage, clean up my yard – all the things I haven’t been able to get to for 31 years,” he said. “I’m not sure what all I’m going to do, but retirement is going to be really, really cool.”

Time to move on

Those words might come as a surprise to some observers, who undoubtedly believed that Mattos would continue coaching women’s swimming and diving for eternity. Mattos, you see, has been the Rams’ coach since 1980 – a span of 31 years.

But this spring, after spending six days each week at the Moby Pool for as long as he can remember, the 62-year-old Mattos concluded that the time had come to step aside.

The Rams finished a disappointing seventh at the 2011 Mountain West Conference Championships. For years, the Rams had been a powerhouse, winning six conference titles and rarely finishing below second.

“The last three years we have finished fifth, sixth and then seventh,” Mattos said, emphasizing that the decision to step down was his alone. “That’s three years in a row of not competing for the championship, and I can’t do that. The kids deserve better, and the program deserves better.”

Leaving a legacy of success

Despite his assessment, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who wanted to see Mattos step down. He is, quite simply, one of the most successful coaches in the school’s history, posting a dual-meet record of 221-103 while coaching 13 All-Americans, nine honorable-mention All-Americans and eight Academic All-Americans. He produced 25 individual conference champions and 66 NCAA qualifiers, and won numerous “coach of the year” awards.

Of course, Mattos will forever be linked with Amy Van Dyken, one of the greatest swimmers in Olympic history and a CSU legend. Van Dyken, who grew up in Englewood before attending the University of Arizona, transferred to CSU and produced one of the greatest seasons in the history of Ram athletics, winning the 50-meter freestyle and finishing second in two other events at the 1994 NCAA Championships. Van Dyken, who set NCAA and American records in the 50, was named NCAA swimmer of the year, beating out heavy favorite Jenny Thompson of Stanford.

Star pupil: Amy Van Dyken

Van Dyken then left CSU to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She became the first American female to win four gold medals in a single Olympics and was the unquestioned star of the Games.

Former CSU standout Amy Van Dyken credits John Mattos with helping her win six Olympic gold medals.Van Dyken, now a radio personality in Phoenix, said she owes all of her success to Mattos. She was ready to quit swimming after her experience at Arizona, but said everything changed when she started working with Mattos.

“If John had not come into my life, I probably would be a high school teacher,” she said. “I never would have won an NCAA title, never have set an American record or a world record, and I certainly would not have gone to the Olympics. I would have retired at age 19.

“John was my coach, my second father, and an amazing mentor. He’s someone I look up to and still consider one of my very best friends.”

While Van Dyken is his most famous pupil, he also deserves credit for working with Erin Popovich, a CSU student who has won a remarkable 14 Paralympic swimming gold medals since 2000.

Brought water polo to CSU

Mattos, an All-American swimmer himself at CSU in 1969 and ’70, was both a successful coach and a savvy businessman. It was his innovative idea to add women’s water polo at CSU that helped the school’s athletic department stay afloat. The NCAA had instituted a rule that required schools competing in Division I-A to field 16 sports, and CSU had just 15 sports at the time.

Mattos, who coached both sports, saved the university tens of thousands of dollars with his plan.

Mattos knows leaving will be difficult, which probably explains why it has taken him several weeks to clear out 31 years of memories from his office. He leaves with a bit of sadness but also a great sense of satisfaction – and many great memories.

“Of course, working with Amy and watching her win those gold medals was incredibly special,” he said. “My greatest memories are of seeing the face of a young lady after she touches the wall, looks at the scoreboard and realizes she has done something she had never done before. That look – that’s what made it special.”

Always a Ram

When he’s not surfing or skiing or golfing or rearranging his garage, he plans to enjoy life with Connie, his wife of 39 years, and daughter Marissa, who recently graduated from Fossil Ridge High School. He’s really hoping he and Marissa can continue their tradition of spending autumn Saturdays at Hughes Stadium, watching the Rams play football.

“I don’t know what retirement will be like, but I’m really looking forward to this next chapter in my life,” he said. “I never intended to be a swimming coach, but it just happened to be the next thing in my life at the time. I still love it, but it’s time to move on.”

Mattos will be replaced by Chris Woodard, a former CSU assistant who worked with both Van Dyken and Popovich. Mattos is thrilled CSU chose “Woody” to replace him.

Van Dyken, who enthusiastically endorsed Woodard, said CSU is losing an irreplaceable treasure. It won’t be the same, she said, entering the Moby Pool area and not seeing Mattos.

“When I won my first gold medal in 1996, John was one of the first people I wanted to hug,” she said. “He’s just such a special person – one of those people who comes along once in a lifetime. If everyone was like John Mattos, the world would not have any problems. He’s just that special.”