Los Gatos Resident Raised an Olympic Champion
August 1, 2012
By: Kathleen Kearns
At age 10, as his family toured the site of the ancient Olympic games in Greece, John Naber told his mother he wanted to be an Olympian.
“In what sport?” his mother asked.
“I have no idea,” he replied.
Three years later, he figured it out — swimming. Seven years after that he climbed the podium at the 1976 Montreal Games, not once but five times, to receive four gold medals and one silver.
His mother, Joan Haskell Naber, who now lives at The Terraces of Los Gatos in Los Gatos, Calif., says modestly that her chief contribution to her son’s success was feeding him. Providing fuel for a teenaged boy who swam four hours a day was no small feat — John typically ate an entire box of cereal and a can of peaches for breakfast — but she did much more than that.
“Mom was up at 4:30 [a.m.],” says Nancy Naber Campbell, John’s younger sister. “They’d pull out in that white station wagon. John had to be in the water by 5.”
Joan also did the laundry, a never-ending pile of chlorine-scented towels and swimsuits. She and her husband, Phil, who died in 2001, helped run their son’s swim meets by timing races and handling a myriad of organizational chores.
“Phil was very meticulous in keeping records,” says Joan. “He set up a huge chart on the wall for John, who would put down the best time he did each day. And the next day he would try to do a notch better.”
John recalls, “If my time that day was a personal best, I’d make a big colorful circle with a Flair felt-tip.”
Phil’s method kept him focused on constant improvement, not on where he ranked compared with other swimmers.
“All that mattered was if I was getting better with each meet,” John says.
Joan, meanwhile, encouraged her son’s friendships with his fellow swimmers.
“I grew to enjoy my life at the pool,” John says. “I made friends there, and I felt I was among equals.”
She also encouraged a positive attitude by reminding him about something he’d said as a very young boy. Long before John started swimming, Joan once placed in front of him a glass filled to the midpoint. She asked if it was half full or half empty.
“Mom,” he replied, “that’s a glass full of water.”
Not half full. Completely full.
“I was unrealistically optimistic,” John says. “Mom told me that story multiple times, and that gave me permission to keep on being unrealistically optimistic. Olympians have to believe a gold medal is possible long before it’s probable.”
Joan and Phil lavished their other three children — Fred, Nancy and Rob — with the same attention and support they gave John, and all four have gone on to accomplished careers. Still, seeing your son stand on the Olympic podium is a memorably proud moment. Each time “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during his medals ceremonies in Montreal, John felt overwhelmed with emotion.
As for Joan, she shed a tear or two. Then she headed to a pay phone to share the news with John’s siblings back home in Menlo Park.