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From a walk-on to a leading role

by Paul Goldberg
The USC Athletic Department celebrated the groundbreaking of the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Nov. 2., a new facility for the Trojan swimming, diving and water polo teams. Pictured here: Wilfred “Fred” Uytengsu and Coach Peter Daland (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)
Photo: The USC Athletic Department celebrated the groundbreaking of the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Nov. 2., a new facility for the Trojan swimming, diving and water polo teams. Pictured here: Wilfred “Fred” Uytengsu and Coach Peter Daland (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

They met in the dungeon.

That’s what Trojan swimmers call the indoor pool tucked away in USC’s 82-year-old physical education building, and that’s where Wilfred “Fred” Uytengsu ’83 first met Troy’s legendary swimming coach Peter Daland.

By 1978, Daland had already led USC’s men’s swimming and diving programs to nine NCAA team titles and was regarded as one of the sport’s giants. Uytengsu was 16 years old and attending boarding school in Los Angeles. He had already swum in international meets while representing the Philippines, where his parents lived and where his father had a thriving business, but he was not exactly a five-star recruit.

Uytengsu was visiting the USC campus at the suggestion of a family friend and found his way to the dungeon, where Daland was in the middle of practice with such Trojan greats as John Naber, Bruce Furniss and Steve Pickell.

Standing on chlorine-stained tiles against a backdrop of banners displaying school records hung like tapestries around the pool, Daland took a moment to speak to the young swimmer, a caring gesture that immediately struck Uytengsu as extraordinary.

“I wasn’t heavily recruited, and Peter’s reputation was already quite stellar,” Uytengsu recalled. “He asked me what my intentions were and, quite honestly, I was just hoping to be able to be part of the team.”

Thus a relationship was born. Daland later offered Uytengsu the opportunity to “walk on” to a USC team jam-packed with NCAA champions, All-Americans and Olympic medalists. Uytengsu gladly accepted the offer.

By the time Uytengsu joined the Trojan swim team as a freshman, however, he could barely swim. During his senior year of high school, he had been involved in a car accident that damaged his right leg so seriously that doctors were skeptical whether he would be able to swim again. The compound fracture required three stabilizing pins, and Uytengsu’s rehabilitation lasted long after the large cast was removed.

But he didn’t let that stop him from participating in team workouts at USC.

“I ended up pulling with a pull buoy for the first six weeks of practice,” he said. “It was going to be intimidating just swimming at that level and more so with the cast.”

If the first impression he made — showing up at practice with a cane and swimming with a cast — struck his teammates as odd, the second impression really hit home. The walk-on’s tireless work ethic in the face of a daunting injury soon became evident to every member of the team.

“Fred’s great attitude and desire to succeed were evident during the rehab process,” said former teammate Jeff Float ’83, a 1982 NCAA champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist. “He always had a will to do whatever it took, and he had a charisma and sense of humor to couple with his distance-swimmer work ethic.”

While Uytengsu did not have the times to match those of his scholarship teammates, his hard work and affable personality helped him mesh seamlessly with the entire team.

Or, as All-American teammate Kirk McGowan ’81 said: “He was a good pop-off. Basically, he fit right in.”

Like anyone who wanted to stay on the team — whether a walk-on or scholarship swimmer — Uytengsu swam the yards asked of him, 5,000 or 10,000 a day or more. And in the beginning, he did it without much outward success. On a team with world-class swimmers, Uytengsu was a backup whose results were modest.

In spring 1982, however, at the end of Uytengsu’s junior year, Daland approached him with unexpected news. His teammates had voted Uytengsu captain for the 1983 season.

Daland recalled the conversation vividly.

“Fred came to me and said: ‘This is crazy, because I’m not a great swimmer and there are guys who are. And now I’m the captain?’ I said: ‘Fred, the captaincy is not dependent just on fast swimming. It’s leadership and the kind of person that you are. These outstanding swimmers on the team felt you would be the best leader and you would be the one they would like to have there. My advice to you is to keep on doing the right things.’ And he did, and he had a great senior year.”

It was a harbinger of things to come for the future CEO.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be scoring points at NCAAs, but there were other areas where I could help,” Uytengsu said. “I suppose that was my first exposure to leadership. A leader isn’t necessarily the person who is the expert in his field, but [rather] someone who can bring common people to produce uncommon results. Being team captain certainly helped me prepare for my leadership roles later in life.”

As it turned out, leadership is an area in which Uytengsu thrives.

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A few years after graduating from USC, Uytengsu returned home to the Philippines and began working at the Alaska Milk Corp., founded by his late father, Wilfred Sr., in 1972. Fred Uytengsu is now president and CEO of Alaska Milk, the leading publicly listed dairy company in the Philippines.

In addition to being CEO of Alaska Milk, Uytengsu owns the Alaska Aces, a professional basketball team that has won 13 Philippine Basketball Association championships since joining the association in 1986.

He has also been credited with bringing the Ironman and XTERRA triathlon races to the Philippines, in addition to IronKids, which encourages Philippine youth to exercise and compete. All of this is the natural manifestation of Uytengsu’s passion for sport and his love of competition and fitness.

Uytengsu did his first triathlon a year after graduating from USC. He competed off and on until the mid 1990s, when he began to take the sport more seriously. In 2011, Uytengsu set a personal best at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii — just a few months before his 50th birthday.

Uytengsu is also part of a strong Trojan family. He is married to his college sweetheart, Kerri (Dunn) Uytengsu ’84, and the couple has three children. Their eldest daughter, Ashton, graduated from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2009.

Daland, the coach of so many greats, applauds the accomplishments of his former Trojan walk-on.

“I knew he was a life-winner back then,” Daland said. “He was a motivated person. He also was a guy who always did the right thing. He has made the right kind[s] of decisions that worked not only for him, but [also] for his family. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”

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In May, Uytengsu made Trojan history with an $8 million gift to USC Athletics  — the largest ever given to the department by a former student-athlete — to provide a new home for USC’s men’s and women’s swimming, diving and water polo teams.

Uytengsu’s gift represents significant support for The Campaign for the University of Southern California, a multiyear effort to secure $6 billion or more in private philanthropy to advance USC’s academic priorities and expand the university’s positive impact on the community and world.

Uytengsu made the gift with one catch — that the center’s swimming pool be named after Daland, to honor the coach he still holds close to his heart.

“In many respects, I saw a lot of my father in Coach Daland,” he said. “Both were men of few words. They were highly principled. They led by example. You were urged to do the right thing and do it right the first time. This is why I felt Peter did a lot more than win nine NCAA titles and coach Olympic, NCAA and national champions. He really deserves to be recognized for developing student-athletes for the next stage of life while squeezing out the best performance they were capable of in the pool.”

That tradition will continue at USC, with a pool bearing Daland’s name.

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