Leadership lessons learned in the swimming pool
Will Artley and John Ebuna were world-class swimmers, whose respective teams swam against each other at a Southeastern Conference meet. Artley was assistant coach for the University of Florida while Ebuna was a member of the University of Tennessee’s “Flying Foursome” relay team.
They didn’t know each other during that meet in 1979, but their paths crossed again when both men came to work at ORAU. Today, Artley is a technical writer and editor for projects in health communication and marketing. Ebuna works in information technology.
Both men agree that, like swimming, being an ORAU leader requires teamwork and communication.
“To win a 4-by-100 relay, you definitely have to communicate and work together with your teammates,” Ebuna said. “It’s the same thing with my team here.”
“In the work you do, you realize you’re contributing to a positive outcome for ORAU and the project,” Artley said. “When you’re swimming and winning a race, people don’t realize the nine or ten months it took to get there. Some of our projects are like that.”
Artley would know. He was Georgia’s Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972, Georgia’s Athlete of the Year in 1972, and an Olympic Trials finalist in 1972 as a high school senior. At the University of Florida, he was a 10-time All American and five-time SEC Champion. He represented the United States abroad on national teams in Venezuela, Trinidad and Jamaica in 1973 and the Netherlands in 1976. As a Masters swimmer, Artley was a three-time national champion in 1991, a world champion in 1992 and set the Masters world record in the 100-meter freestyle. In 2018, he was inducted into the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame.
It should be no surprise that he began swimming at age 7.
“Our next door neighbor had a swimming pool and a starting gun, so we had races and I’d win by a lot,” he said.
His family and three others founded the Savannah Swim Team. He swam every weekday at the YWCA. His mom, Helen, was his first coach and she coached two other athletes. Eventually, his dad, Jim, built a two-lane, 25-yard lap pool in the backyard.
Artley was recruited by Eddie Reese, coach of the University of Florida swim team who subsequently left to coach at Auburn and is now a legendary coach at Texas. Reese’s brother, Randy, became head coach at Florida during Artley’s senior year.
“University of Florida swimming is second to University of Kentucky men’s basketball in the number of SEC championships, but I can’t say I contributed,” said. “I was part of an SEC winning team as assistant coach in 1979.”
Ebuna, likewise, had a storied swimming career that almost didn’t happen. He was recruited at age 8 to join his first swim team by his older brother.
“I pretty much said there was no way I was going to do it because I had just flunked beginning swimming,” Ebuna said.
His brother taught him to swim backstroke the week before his first dual meet.
“I won my first race, which was pretty cool, and I’ve been swimming ever since,” he said.
Ebuna was six-time Colorado High School State Champion from 1973-75; High School All-American in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyle in 1975; 17-time NCAA All-American; NCAA National Champion in the 400-yard free relay in 1977 and 1978; NCAA Team Champion in 1978 and SEC 100-yard butterfly champion in 1979. As part of the “Flying Foursome,” he set American records for the 400-meter free relay in 1976, and the 200-yard and 400-yard free relays in 1979. At the World University Games in 1977, he was a champion in the 100-yard freestyle, 400-yard free relay, 800-yard free relay and the 400-yard medley relay. Ebuna had the world’s second fastest 100-meter free time in 1978, and was named Colorado High School Coach of the Year in 1985. He has been inducted into both the Tennessee Swimming Hall of Fame as well as the Colorado Swimming Hall of Fame.
Coach Ray Bussard, legendary swim coach at UT at the time, recruited Ebuna to swim for him.
“I had a very good swimming experience with the team that we had. It was a very good freshman class that I came in with,” Ebuna said. “We had credentials but we weren’t world record holders. We had some YMCA All-Americans, I was a High School All-American. We had some good quality swimmers but no real big names. But we gelled well and finally won the National Championship in my junior year, 1978.”
The championship team was recognized during the Tennessee-Kentucky football game in November 2018.
The “Flying Foursome” and the rest of the 1978 national championship team are still friends. Before the Tennessee-Kentucky game, members of the team were in Edinburgh, Scotland, to celebrate a team mate’s son’s wedding.
“You build a tremendous bond with your team mates,” Ebuna said. “We’ve been friends ever since. They were my groomsmen.”
Ebuna still swims regularly and has participated in Tennessee’s Senior Olympics. He lives in Powell with his wife, Denae. They have been married since 1983 and have two sons, ages 28 and 24. They were not swimmers.
“I didn’t push them,” he said. “I think I veered in a complete 180 from my father. I think he was living a little bit vicariously through me.”
Artley lives in Mandeville, La., with his wife of 26 years, Diane. He has two children from his first marriage: a 37-year-old daughter and a 34-year-old son. His daughter swam in the summer league, and his son swam for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a year.
In business as in sports, “you build a tremendous bond with your team mates,” Ebuna said. Artley and Ebuna know it is that bond and a common purpose, coupled with personal leadership from every team member, that builds and sustains successful teams like those they are helping to lead at ORAU. Almost 40 years later, the “pool” they’re swimming in has changed a lot, but the leadership lessons they learned in the water have definitely stood the test of time.