Fred Evans is a swim coach at South Shore International College Prep, a selective enrollment school located on 75th and Jeffery. He has coached swimming in Chicago for over forty years, starting at Chicago State in 1974 and then moving on to Chicago South Swim Club, the first integrated swim team in the city. Before he was a coach, he swam at the collegiate level, where he became the first African American national swimming champion in the United States. His daughter Ajá Evans was an Olympic bobsledder and his son Frederick Evans III played in the NFL for nine years.
I meet Fred and his friend Bob Valentine, who also coaches at South Shore International, at the L&G Restaurant on 75th and Exchange. They are both dressed in t-shirts and shorts, having just come from a morning swim practice. Though they have coached in the same area for decades, and though Bob had always heard stories about “the legendary Fred Evans,” they only met five years ago, when Bob’s team came to Chicago State for an invitational.
For the first half of the interview, Bob drinks his coffee and listens. When the check comes, he grabs it and pays. “I finance this operation,” he says.
Fred, your team, the Chicago South Swim Club, was the first integrated swim team in the city.
FRED EVANS: I mean, I can go back with that program more than forty years and it’s always been that way. I think I got there the second year it was developed. Now I never looked at it that way, because when you’re in it, you just do it.
I always like the idea that I’m a child of God. I’m the oldest of four children, of Frederick and Dorothy Evans. And one day my mom was at the swimming pool with another lady, and she saw that we liked playing in the pool, and she said, “There’s such a thing as a swim team.” And it was coed. At the time I was going to a grammar school for seventh and eighth grade, and it was all boys. And I was like, “Oh, good. Girls.” [Laughs] For me.
So, I mean, could I have done other sports? Yes. I tried out for football in my freshman year of high school. I was the second or third fastest guy in the school, running, and I got cut. And I said, “All right, I’ll do something else.” [Laughs] Then they asked me to play my junior or senior year, and I opted out. And I just kept swimming. Made All-American, went to the Nationals; I was the only guy with a tan there. I just had fun. I needed a way to pay for school, so I got a scholarship. I wanted to go out to the West Coast, but my father had recently passed and I was the oldest of four children, so my mom said, “You need to be closer to home.” So I ended up in the Midwest. I grew up in Washington, D.C. So I’m a transplant.
What was it like, to be “the only guy with a tan”? And you went to internationals, too, right?
FRED: Yeah, yeah I did. People were pretty cool. And some were really, really mean. Did I hear someone use the word “n——”? Yes. Did it make me wanna fight ‘em? No. Was I upset? Yes. I thought there was more civility. Certainly, I knew I was different. But for the most part, I was having fun.
So it didn’t make it harder—but it wasn’t a motivation for you? Or was it?
FRED: Oh, no, sometimes it would—often it would be a motivation. I remember one time I was at the Nationals, it may have been my junior year. And this one guy said he was going to kick my ass. Literally! He and I [points at Bob], we still talk about it. And I didn’t say anything, but I ended up beating him and breaking the national record by two seconds. [He held that record for four years.]
That’s always nice.
FRED: It is, it is.
How long did you swim for before you realized that you were really, really good?
FRED: Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re in the top ten in the whole United States, and you know that they only take the top two in my sport to the Olympics, is that “good”? You’re fourth? [Shrugs] But I knew I had gotten a scholarship; I knew I was traveling a lot, going around the country and other people were paying for it. I was getting an education for free, so I thought—I mean, I worked my tail off, four or five hours a day…that was a job! But I don’t know if I’d ever use the word, “good.” I’m not sure I ever used that.
But when you first started, was it just another sport? Or did you know, was there something different about it?
FRED: I was blessed. I was exposed to it. I had some wonderful coaches, a fantastic family, you know. I was having fun! And it was a sport…with girls! And I really want to emphasize that, because it really was a motivator. I didn’t know any other sports with girls. And when I was in grammar school I had the most horrific experience in baseball. The coach was just horrible to me. I didn’t know anything or any better, but I was maybe in the sixth grade, and I knew that if the coaches were like that, I didn’t want to do that sport. I played soccer, ran a little track, played a little football…I don’t know how else to describe it. I had a good time.
Really, the thing was how blessed I felt I was, because when I “retired” and stayed here, it was almost a thing I felt compelled to do spiritually—to coach. I mean, the coach that I had was fired. They were looking for another coach for the college and the age group program. I’m going to graduate school, getting ready to leave Chicago, going back to D.C., thinking I’m going to law school or something. In my mind, I was going to be the mayor. And they asked me to coach and I said, “I’ll do it for a year until you find somebody.” And apparently, I did it well enough that they stopped looking. And then I finished my degree and started a business with one of the professors, and I stayed in Chicago.
The business was called the Motivational Training Program. The professor’s name was Frank O’Block, now deceased. I started becoming fascinated with how important your mind is in competing. And it had a huge impression on me because I knew it made a difference, but it happened to be something I practiced with athletics, versus business or something else, and I wanted to try to accelerate performance. And the professor and I developed a strategy to do that, and we started doing it. It was kind of cool…I would call up [companies] and say, “Hey, I’m doing this thing with motivation, I think it has an impact. This is how much it costs, we’ll do a couple of days.” They’d say, “cool.” Then I’d call up somebody else. “Yeah, come on out.” A business called us, a city called us. So I got this idea of going back to school at University of Illinois to get a degree in sports psychology. Got distracted, never finished a degree, but I did publish [a book]. I’m one of those guys that couldn’t stand regurgitating information in class, but I published.
So the motivational thinking that helped you in sports can be applied to other fields?
What’s that process like?
FRED: Let’s do one with you. Tell me what time it is: the big hand of the clock is on the twelve, and the little hand is at a ninety-degree angle to the right. What time is it?
FRED: So you’re looking at the face of the clock. But if you’re looking at the clock from inside, it’s really nine. o’clock. And that’s like your type of motivation—intrinsic, extrinsic. How are you motivated? Knowing that part can accelerate how I proceed to teach and coach and manage whatever. [One of my swimmers], she couldn’t stand me as a coach. She thought I had favorites, that I was mean to her specifically, and then as she got older she said that wasn’t the case. But at the time, they may think that but I’m only wanting the greatest thing that they can possibly do at that time. The greatest. And I see it inside of people all the time—their eagerness, their tenacity, their fear. Because a lot of people have fear of success. “Wow, I gotta be responsible now.” I know I’m talking all around the world here, but…coaching felt like a responsibility. God blessed me, how dare I? And I tried to quit.
BOB VALENTINE: Which time? [Laughs]
FRED: The first time, I had been coaching about twenty years, and I went into corporate America. Liked it. That was the first time I had only one job at a time in my entire life. It was pretty cool. Made a couple of companies, had a successful one, industry changed and it changed me. So I got back into swimming because I wasn’t looking to go there, but it came to me. I checked it out again, saw a team that was interested in a coach—“eh, I could do this.”
At one point I was training other colleges [and] they came to Chicago State to train with me. People traveled an hour to get to me—at the time, I didn’t know it was because of me. It was fun. They thought it was fun. But it’s a privilege to hear them talk about me, and to be alive and not dead. Because you know how people say things. I’m at the age when funerals become a regular event, and you have people telling these fabulous stories, and you hope they had shared that with the person while they were alive. So, I could die today, pleased that I’ve been able to get and have what I have.
Look, I know the premise here is to talk about swimming and my experience with the sport, and I’m humbled by that. I get recognition not because I was the best in the United States but because I was, quote unquote, the first African American collegiate national champion. Woo, that and two dollars will get you a cup of coffee. I got recognition for that, but more importantly it gave me a platform to be who I am, and continue to do what I like to do. Look at me. T-shirt, flip flops, and shorts on the South Side of Chicago. I even ride my bike in this stuff sometimes.
BOB: His recumbent bike. Low to the ground. It’s a lowrider.
FRED: Well, I have a flag six feet up and I pay attention. I’m very defensive.
BOB: I would still run him over, though.
FRED: Well, like they say. “When you have friends like this, who needs enemies?” But Chicago State, then they changed it to Chicago South when they had to move it to another location. It was a fabulous experience for the kids, but I think it was an even greater one for me. I really wanted to see them thrive. I tried to push them as hard as I could. They tried as hard as they could—some of them did, some of them didn’t, and they’ll tell me that now. But it was fun. Hard, tiring, frustrating, and beautiful, all at the same time.
You started coaching and you thought you were only going to do it for a year. Were there experiences in the first couple years that made you want to do it for a longer period of time, or was it really just “by accident?”
FRED: Well, I got so good at it. There was a time in my fifteenth or sixteenth year when we stopped going to as many swim meets, because I saw what they were doing in practice. I had three kids, some of that time was starting to eat into my time, and I knew what they were going to do. So I didn’t go to every meet. The kids were fine. It was the parents who got mad. Because they’re parents, you know, they think they know. I always say the best place for a coach to coach is an orphanage. I have a granddaughter that is a senior, and it’s always fun to see the stages of life—now I’m coming around the second time. Oh, wait, hold on, that’s a family I used to coach. I gotta say hi.
[He gets up and walks across the restaurant to talk to them for a minute. During this time, Bob shows me pictures of him being “chased” by a fake polar bear at the Peggy Notebaert Museum. Eventually Fred returns and sits back down.]
FRED: That was a family, I used to coach their children, and now their children have swimmers.
BOB: And he can go anywhere in the country and that happens.
You two have said you share a vision for improving swimming on the South Side generally. What does that look like?
BOB: Building up self-esteem, first of all. Fred and I, we’ve established this girls’ invitational at South Shore International, and the idea there is to push them to build up self-esteem and self-empowerment. And that’s a vision that I had, and I had friends like Fred that pushed me through to do it. That’s how we complement each other.
FRED: I guess it depends on who’ll have us, too. We made a proposal for Chicago South Swim Club to take it over and enhance it. Haven’t heard back from them. I don’t know, I just want to continue to share while I’m able to.
BOB: Just the mere fact that he’s still alive…I mean, no one will be able to tap his or my minds in about ten years because we won’t know what the hell we’re doing, we’ll be senile.
FRED: He’s predicting that, I’m not.
BOB: But a good senile.
FRED: I believe there are Nobel Prize winners—anything and everything that could possibly be great—right here, if they’re given the opportunity to pursue. I just want to be a vehicle for that.
BOB: And as we improve swimming on the South Side, we want it to become a self-driving system, where the kids that swim will become the kids that teach, the kids that go to college, and then they’ll swim in college. They’ll come back in the summer, they’ll teach again, they’ll teach the adults in the community. There’s a whole plethora of things you can do in an aquatic environment to make it productive and profitable, and just grow it out of its mind. That’s our vision.
FRED: It’s life skills, but I use swimming as the medium for it to be taught. If you go up and down and up and down and use a watch, it equals something that’s not subjective, it’s objective. It’s a fact. It’s not my opinion. That’s one of the things I like. Doesn’t require someone’s interpretation of what good and bad is. The clock doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t care who you are. The team aspect is trying to do the best you can to score…as a team. You cheer for each other. The parents try to get there and set up their stuff. It’s a commitment, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a thing you do.
We have children on our high school team, girls, and I said, “What swimmer do you think you emulate?” I said, for example, to one of my kids, “[Katie] Ledecky.” Now, Ledecky’s Caucasian, and [the student is] black. And she said to me, “You know, I wanna be Simone Ledecky.” I thought that was fabulous. It really was.
So then we talk about attributes: attitude, work hard, dedication. Just because they’re at that place, doesn’t mean you can’t have that attribute. You can be like that now, you’re just not at the Olympics…yet! These Olympians, when they’re kids at nine, eight, seven, six, they say, “I want to be an Olympian and win a gold medal.”
BOB: It’s true, it does happen like that.