Oct. 17, 2013
When one mentions the greatest swimmers in the 93-year history of the University of Michigan men's swimming and diving program, Brent Lang is a name that is always mentioned. From 1987-90, he won four national championships, six individual Big Ten championships and won a gold medal for the United States on the 400-meter freestyle relay team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. His school record in the 50-yard freestyle stood for 23 years until brothers Bruno and Miguel Ortiz broke it last year (he still ranks third and still ranks second in the 100-yard freestyle). Lang currently serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of Vocera Communications in San Jose, Calif.
Q: Homecoming was two weeks ago and was the 25-year reunion of the 1988 Big Ten title-winning squad, a team you were a key member of. What is the one thing you'll remember most about that team?
A: That's a good question. We had incredible team camaraderie amongst that group. It didn't feel like there were different classes. It wasn't seniors vs. freshmen or juniors vs. sophomores. Everyone was focused on the common goal. Since we had won Big Tens in each of the two years before, we went into that year as the clear favorites. We started setting our sights on taking it to the next level and what we could do at NCAAs. Up until 1986, Michigan had been the underdog, but by the time we got to 1988, we expected to be the best, but the pressure was on us in a different way. In 1988, we were still swimming in the old Matt Mann Pool, but there was a sense of excitement and hope for the future. The construction on the new Natatorium was underway. We walked by it every day to see the progress they were making. We didn't get into that pool until the summer right before Olympic Trials.
Q: Talk a little bit more about that year. It was a big year for you in a lot of ways.
A: It was a breakout year. My freshman year in 1987, I came in predominantly as a backstroker and individual medley swimmer. At NCAAs, I had the opportunity to swim on a relay as the fourth guy. They needed one more sprint freestyler. I ended up swimming a time leading off that relay that would have placed me higher in the freestyle than I would have in the backstroke or IM. It was a substantial shift for me so I started focusing on sprint freestyle. My sophomore year at Big Tens, I won the 100-yard freestyle and went on to win that same race at NCAAs having never swum that event at a national-style meet before. It was completely out of nowhere. I was doing something outside of my comfort zone as part of a very unified team effort. Part of this theme was Michigan's rise towards bigger and greater things even beyond the conference level.
Q: After your sophomore season at Michigan, you swam for the U.S. at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, winning a gold medal as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay team. Describe that experience.
A: It was very much a surreal experience. Up until NCAAs, I didn't even think of myself as a sprint freestyler. Then I won at NCAAs and Olympic Trials were four or five months later. I showed up there with this weird split personality. On one hand, I was the defending NCAA champion, but on a national level, nobody had ever heard of me. I had very little expectations. I wasn't a long-time national team member. I wasn't a big name. But when I made the Olympic team, I was able to enjoy it in a way not many others would.
Matt Biondi was a big name that year. We spent a lot of time together. He was the Michael Phelps of that era. Every time he turned around, hundreds of photographers and interviewers wanted to do something with him. I remember playing pool with him at the Athlete's Village in the rec hall one time. Every time he would take a shot in this game, 25 flashbulbs would go off. He got very frustrated, tossed down his pool cue and stormed off. Nobody knew who I was, but the reporters still there turned to me.
Having the honor to represent the United States was truly a unique experience. It's difficult to compare it to anything else in normal activities. The level of excitement and fanfare associated with it was incredible. The hardest thing was staying focused on the race itself. In between Olympic Trials and the actual competition in Seoul, I kept telling myself that it was just another race over and over again. You do your best to not get caught up in the media hype of it being the Olympics and I think that helped me. Once I got to the meet and started swimming, I became very relaxed. At the start of the race, I dove in the water and had a nice, long streamline. The first two strokes were long and smooth. It was a great feel. Then it hit me, 'Oh my God, this is the Olympics!' I had a huge rush of adrenaline and didn't tire out.
Q: Your school record in the 50-yard freestyle stood for 23 years until it was broken (twice) last year. Fast swimming is fast swimming, but back then, was a time like the one you had unthinkable?
A: No, it wasn't unthinkable. Both Tom Jager and Matt Biondi had gone faster than that. For me, I didn't think too much about it. In the moment, you know what your fastest times are in those events, but there's no way of gauging if they're the fastest you'll ever go. I always thought about it in comparison to the American record, which at the time was 19.15 or 19.18 or something like that. I was thrilled to win that race at NCAAs twice and hold the team record, but honestly, I fully expected that record to be broken much quicker than it did. Gustavo Borges, who came in right after me, was a much more acclaimed swimmer than I was and broke all my other records. I fully expected him to break that one, too. Luckily, he didn't get it. Jon Urbanchek was so focused on recruiting distance and IM swimmers that he never really focused on recruiting sprinters. Both Gustavo and I came in as middle-distance guys. We weren't true sprinters. In fact, I trained in the distance lane with guys like Eric Namesnik and other middle-distance and IMers. When Coach Bottom came in, he had the reputation and tons of experience being a World-class sprint coach. I used to give him a hard time, 'Please get some sprinters in here! My record looks like a typo!' At last year's alumni meet, I had four different guys on the current team walk up to me and say, 'I'm going to take your record!' I high-fived every one of them and told them to get it done. I was very excited when it was finally broken.
Q: Speaking of fast swimming, your career-best times in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle still rank among the top 10 all-time in the Big Ten Conference (fourth in 100-yard freestyle, ninth in 50-yard freestyle)? How impressive is that considering how the sport has evolved in the 23 years since you swam those times?
A: The sport has definitely come a long way. It's exciting to see how fast people are swimming. We've gone through the era of full-body suits, changes to starting blocks, changes to workouts and even changes to stroke. I'm frankly surprised that those times are still in the top 10. I'm completely blown away by the times that are coming out of Big Tens and NCAAs, but also the depth, too. That's perhaps the thing that has changed the most. The people in consolation finals are going super fast. The level of competition has risen up.
Q: Tell us a little bit about what you're doing now?
A: For the last 12 years, I have been working at Vocera Communications. When I was brought in, there were maybe five or six people. It was a classic Silicon Valley start-up company that was backed by venture capitalists. It grew from an idea to what is today, a public company that did $100 million in revenue last year. Our product is really fun, actually. It's inspired by the communicator badge from Star Trek where you would tap a button on your chest and say, 'Kirk to Scotty', or something like that. It's a wearable badge that uses speech recognition to set up calls. You wear it around your neck or clip it on your shirt and say instructions. You can call an individual or call a group. What we primarily do is sell it into hospital environments so nurses and staff can communicate with each other. It improves overall safety and productivity because nurses or staff no longer have to run around the halls trying to track down the person that can help their patient. We're in 850 different hospitals, high-end hotels, high-end retail chains and nuclear power plants... basically anywhere where there are large numbers of mobile workers who need to communicate with each other. Unlike the walkie-talkie, there's intelligence in this software so it can route the call to the appropriate person. You can say things like, 'Broadcast to security team' or 'Get me housekeeping'. With our product, we're able to intelligently route the call to the right people.
Q: Do you still swim?
A: I do. I'm with a Masters team out here in California. I get in the water four times per week. I get up at 5:30 a.m., in the water by 6, come home and have breakfast with my kids before they even know I left. I think it's key in developing life-long fitness. You cannot let the rest of your life get in the way. By doing it in the morning, it guarantees it happens otherwise distractions get in the way.
Q: How did swimming at Michigan help prepare you for life after swimming?
A: I think that swimming at Michigan has taught me two things. One, even though I was a sprinter, life is much more of a marathon than it is a sprint. There are ups and downs that happen. The thing that gets in the paper is the 19.36 time that you swam at NCAAs at the end of the season, but the real part about competitive swimming and frankly life is the day-in, day-out work and dedication that goes into those 19 seconds. I find life is similar to that. When we did our IPO, it was a fleeting moment, standing up on the platform at the New York Stock Exchange, but behind that was 12 years of building and suffering and hiring and making strategic decisions. There were a lot of long days and nights. The parallels that are there are really strong, I think. People who are looking for a quick fix, whether in sports or in life, are typically disappointed. For me, the key thing is that you have to enjoy every day, because if you aren't, the 19 seconds at the end of the season or standing on the platform at the NYSE doesn't make up for a miserable life the prior 12 months or the prior 12 years. You have to be doing something you are passionate about and be around people you want to be around. If you are only focused on the end result, you probably are putting too much pressure on yourself and won't do what you want.
Secondly, I learned that you can very easily exceed your own expectations. I forced myself to dream bigger in life in general. When I was recruited to come to Michigan, I would have bet you any amount of money that I wouldn't have been an NCAA champion (let alone a four-time NCAA champion) or even an Olympic gold medalist. Going through that process and realizing that people I idolized like Matt Biondi or Janet Evans who were larger than life when I came into that scene were just ordinary people. They had the same fears and doubts I had, yet they had the same opportunity to achieve at that level. It was an eye-opening experience for me. It motivated me to go to Stanford Business School and to take the company public, not things I thought possible when I was a senior in high school. Michigan helped me convert those dreams into reality.
Q: Lastly, what does the University of Michigan mean to you personally?
A: I see it as the true formative years of my life. It made me the person that I am today. It introduced me to a group of individuals that I look to as friends and mentors. It taught me a way to interact and talk with people that guide a way I can live my life, show discipline and hard work and care for other individuals. A lot of that came from being in Ann Arbor, being a Michigan Man and growing up in that environment.
Previous Alumni Q&A: Dick Kimball