Michael Lohberg dies of blood disorder

Updated: April 16, 2011, 6:02 PM ET
Associated Press

Dara Torres is reminded of her coach everywhere around the pool. The flags wave in the breeze at half-staff and the music blaring from the younger swimmers' iPods is rap, something he detested.

Michael Lohberg died April 4 at 61 from a rare blood disorder that was diagnosed just before Torres won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He coached at six Olympics and qualified swimmers for every games from 1984 to 2008.

Lohberg had aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow doesn't produce enough new cells, leading to fatigue. Lohberg's struggle worsened in January when he became unable to fight off repeated infections. Torres would spend time at his bedside.

[+] EnlargeMichael Lohberg
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill Michael Lohberg, Dara Torres' swim coach, died April 4 of a rare blood disorder.

"Even though you knew things weren't good, it's still just hard to believe," she told The Associated Press by phone on Friday, her 44th birthday.

After the funeral, she spoke at the reception held at the pool in Coral Springs, Fla., the only time she was able to stop crying.

"That place was his life," Torres said. "So many people showed up from all over the place. It was a tribute to how many people respected him and loved him."

Especially Torres, who was by far the oldest athlete Lohberg was coaching. They shared an affectionate relationship, teasing and zinging each other during the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials.

Asked then what it was like to coach an, ahem, older woman, Lohberg deadpanned, "Dara is a little bit high-maintenance." She playfully glared at him and punched him in the arm.

Lohberg was a father figure to Torres, whose dad, Ed, died of cancer shortly before she began her comeback that led to Beijing.

"We had a great rapport. He didn't take any crap from anyone. I couldn't get away with anything," Torres said on the phone. "The wonderful thing about Michael is he was able to communicate with people of all ages, whether it was me or the 14-year-olds he had in his group."

Lohberg much preferred Torres' taste for classic rock than the rap played by others on deck during practice. He asked Torres to put together a mix of songs for him. She did and played it one day.

We had a great rapport. He didn't take any crap from anyone. I couldn't get away with anything. The wonderful thing about Michael is he was able to communicate with people of all ages, whether it was me or the 14-year-olds he had in his group.

-- Dara Torres on swim coach Michael Lohberg

"One of the kids asked, 'Who is this playing?" Torres recalled. "He said, 'Led Zeppelin,' and the kid asked, 'Who's he?"

At that, a disgusted Lohberg walked away.

Lohberg was head coach of the Coral Springs Swim Club and South Florida Aquatics near Fort Lauderdale. He was born in Germany and had a background in physiology, having come up through his country's training system, Torres said, "so he had an idea of how much the body could and couldn't take."

He wasn't part of the U.S. coaching staff in Beijing, but had hoped to be there to oversee Torres and the other seven Olympians from five countries he coached. Instead, he watched from a hospital bed and communicated with Torres by cell phone as she won three medals.

She then took 16 months off after major knee surgery. She swam competitively for the first time at a meet in February, when she qualified for next year's U.S. Olympic trials.

Before Lohberg died, Torres had already decided to aim for the 2012 London Olympics, when she'll be 45. Bruno Darzi and Chris Jackson, who helped Lohberg prepare Torres for Beijing, are carrying out the plan he developed in hopes of her making a record sixth Olympics.

"It's a one-day-at-a-time thing," she said. "I'm not at the peak of training, but I really don't want to be until next year."

If her training is day-to-day, so is Torres' mind. Every time she walks into the pool, memories of Lohberg come flooding back -- his white hair, outwardly gruff persona and physically imposing presence.

"He was such a big part of my life," she said. "It's just tough now because the reminders are so new and so sad."

Lohberg is survived by his wife, Birgit, and the couple's teenage daughter and son, who often babysat Torres' daughter, Tessa, who turns 5 next week.


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press