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Breaststroker Designs Future

John Hencken

By Michelle D. Healy

Breaststrokers, beware! The absence of John Hencken from this year's United States Indoor Swimming Championships does not mean that he retired.

Currently, the former Olympic Gold Medalist is focusing his energy on product design. If all goes well with his California-based businesses, the Stanford-educated engineer plans to resume regular workouts in 1983, with an eye on the 1984 Olympics.

At the U.S. Olympic Trials, held simultaneously with the Outdoor Championships this past summer in Irvine. Calif., Hencken qualified third in both the 100-meter and 200-meter breastroke races. He is the only swimmer every to qualify for both events three time.

Having won the 200-breast in Munich at the 1972 games and the 100 in 1976, while lowering his own world record to 1:03.11. the veteran Santa Clara Swim Club member missed a chance to become the only swimmer ever to earn gold medals in three Olympics, when the U.S. chose to boycott.

By the time the next Olympics roll around. America's most famous breastroker, already a successful entrepreneur, will be a married man of 30.

Hencken plans to marry before the year is out. His fiance. Marie White, is also a successful athlete. She is a member of the National Synchronized Swimming Champion Walnut Creek Aquanuts.

"I believe it's a myth that swimmers are over the hill after college. They should be able to continue improving until at least 30, but that's up to the individual. Obviously certain priorities change. Some people stop enjoying the sport when it competes with family and job obligations. At that point it's no longer worth the time and energy," Hencken says.

"What separates John from the other older swimmers is his willingness to take risks. Once an athlete reaches the top of his or her sport, you will often find them reluctant to compete in less than top condition. Over the past couple of years John's professional commitments haven't allowed him the luxury of a traditional workout schedule, yet he gambled with a more concentrated effort and it's payed off" former Santa Clara Swim Club Coach George Haines said recently from the office he now occupies as coach of De Anza Swim Club.

For the next couple of years. Hencken is confining his risks to the business world. Hencken is now a self-employed consultant with his own JFH Engineering. His background in product design with a specialty in electrical engineering led him to work on an advanced paging system for a small firm. American Scientific, which he plans to buy into.

Occasionally Hencken can combine his academic and athletic talents and one result was Digiswim, a strain gauge for measuring the amount of pull exerted on the water.

While preparing for the 1980 Olympics, the Sunnyvale, Calif., resident arranged a flexible work schedule to allow for training. At that time he was employed by Litronix, a company specializing in light-emitting diodes found in calculator and water displays.

Always a serious student, Hencken captured five NCAA titles while swimming for Stanford, despite saving his best performances for a long course season which did not conflict with his academic pursuits.

After graduation in 1977. Hencken turned down a prestigious NCAA Scholarship for graduate study. In the opinion of his instructors, the award--one of five given annually to the nation's top scholar athletes--would not have enabled Hencken to study anything that on-the-job experience would not provide a better background for.

"I'm glad I chose Stanford. That was always my first choice. I was looking for a college where swimming and school could be combined. Jim Gaughran who coached the team while I was there always helped us keep everything in proper perspective," Hencken recalls.

Stanford thought enough of the young breaststroker to offer him only the second full swimming scholarship given in the school's history. A graduate of Cupertino High School, Hencken, whose early years in the sport were supervised by Tatto Yamashita at the Berkeley YMCA before the family moved to Snata Clara, followed in the foot-steps of Brian Job, another of Haines' proteges. Job, also a breaststroker, received that first full swimming scholarship given by Stanford.

"I always looked beyond swimming, never expecting endorsements' to carry me. I knew that my engineering classes were my future. Now I am taking advantage of that education. I am planning on a very early retirement. If things go well, then in five years I'll be doing exactly what I want. That may include swimming and product design, but I want to have the choice." Hencken says.

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