Longhorn Hall of Honor: Neil Walker
Nov. 14, 2009
Katie Bridges, Texas Media Relations
You would never guess he is an Olympian and one of the most decorated swimmers in UT history. Neil Walker is unassuming, humble and honorable.
He has accomplished so much but won’t say a word unless asked. And if Walker does talk about it, he never takes all the credit.
“There is a certain way that Neil carries himself and how he converses with people,” says former Longhorn swimmer and friend Garrett Weber-Gale. “Everyone I ever saw come in contact with Neil, they just loved Neil. The way he helps people -- he just has this nature that he is really down to earth. He realizes that he is just one person like everyone else.”
But Walker is not like everyone else. He’s a member of the 53rd Longhorn Men’s Hall of Honor class. The Wisconsin native set numerous swimming records, and is known worldwide for his accomplishments and leadership. He’s even earned the nickname “The Godfather” in some swimmers' eyes.
It’s his experience at Texas that Walker says changed his life. The lessons he learned from coach Eddie Reese became invaluable.
“He taught me the value of confidence and being aggressive, and the value of being humble in the defeat and victory,” said Walker. “That is really an important thing as a professional. I think Eddie taught me how to carry myself and how to compete with dignity and respect, and I carried that on in to my professional career.”
Under Reese, Walker earned 25 All-American awards, back-to-back NCAA individual titles and six Big 12 conference titles. He set an NCAA record in the 50-yard freestyle and swam the 100-yard back in 44.92 seconds, setting an American, U.S. Open and NCAA record.
Amazingly, Walker says a major setback in college is what fueled his swimming career. During his sophomore year, Walker qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials but missed making the Olympic team by one-one hundredths of a second.
“I wasn’t predicted to make the team,” he said. “I was just one of those Cinderella stories where you just get in and didn’t realize you had the chance until you were there. But I missed the team and was devastated. I missed the team and who knew if I was going to have that opportunity again.”
Reese and assistant coach Kris Kubik told Walker his time would come and to have patience -- the Longhorns were still striving for a team title in the 1996 national championships. But Walker didn’t want to hear it. After a team captain told Walker to “pull his head out of the ground” and swim for his team, Walker completely shifted gears.
“That really sparked a fire in me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I am going to do this for Texas.’ So I got up just like everybody else and swam lights out, and we won the championship.”
Not making the 1996 Olympic team changed his entire perspective on swimming.
“It is the best thing for your career to have a failure like that,” he said. “A profound failure at least in a swimmer’s eyes just motivates you that much more. You can’t give up no matter what life throws at you. You can’t give up and you got to keep pushing forward and stay positive.”
Now an Olympic gold medalist, Weber-Gale experienced the same frustration in 2004 when he missed making the Olympic team. He found guidance from Walker.
“Neil has truly been one of the most special people in my life,” Weber-Gale said. “I credit a lot of my success truly to Neil because he was such a big influence. He always helped me.”
Walker made the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams winning two gold medals, and a silver and bronze medal. He was the United States team MVP for four years and elected the U.S. team captain for three. He’s known around the pool as “The Godfather” because he’s quick to impart wisdom.
Most of the time, Walker was sent as the team’s representative to ask Reese for easier workouts.
“The only reason is because I am old,” Walker laughed. “It was always up to me to try to convince him that we shouldn’t be doing that stuff, which was kind of true because I was doing it with them. I was still in the mentality of ‘I don’t want to go through that pain,’ so I would do my best to rearrange the workout. It didn’t work that often.”
Walker founded the Ian Crocker Swim School with UT Longhorn swimmers Ian Crocker and James Fike, and runs the Dallas division in Rockwall, Texas. He also found his own club swim program called the Rockwall Aquatic Center of Excellence and coaches swimmers of all ages. He uses the acronym R.A.C.E. because that’s what Reese taught Walker while at UT.
“He did teach me to race and that’s why I became good,” he said.
Walker’s full circle experience from collegiate swimmer to Olympian to coach wasn’t part of his plan. He did not want to coach, but realized he had a knack for teaching young swimmers.
“I can see me in them, in all of them,” he said. “Every one of them has issues that I had as a kid. Now I am trying to bestow what I have learned over the decades of swimming to the youngsters here.”
Texas is proud to have a fine role model represent The University. Walker will continue to impact swimmers and athletes for years to come, and “The Godfather” will always be a source of inspiration to his old teammates and others.
“He is just incredible,” Weber-Gale said. “He is a super big hero of mine.”