Former Olympian, legendary Bay Area swim coach Rich Thornton dies at 65 on Santa Cruz Co. beach

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Saturday, January 6, 2024
Legendary Bay Area swim coach Rich Thornton dies at 65
Remembrances are coming in for a legendary Bay Area swim coach and former U.S. Olympic team member Richard Thornton.

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- Remembrances are coming in for a legendary Bay Area swim coach and former U.S. Olympic team member.

Rich Thornton died Thursday as he stepped into the ocean in Santa Cruz County, preparing to go surfing.

"He was following his buddy down the steps," said Marc Thornton, Richard's brother. "His buddy jumped in the water, looked up for Richard and Richard was just standing there at peace not clutching his heart or anything and he just kind of collapsed into the water."

His exact cause of death is unknown. His family says he did not die from a surfing accident. They say he was receiving treatment for Multiple Myeloma. Despite battling cancer, his family says he wasn't going to give up surfing.

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"I don't know how many boards and wet suits he had hanging around, but it was a major part of his joy, that's for sure," his brother said.

Thornton's father, Nort, coached the Cal swim team for many years. Richard also swam there. He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic swim team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics. His childhood friends say he loved the water. He was either at the pool or at the beach.

"I remember him telling me, in between meets or after meets or after the season, we were like let's go surfing," said Rob Werner, a childhood friend. "I yelled from the stands after he won, 'Richard, what are you going to do now?' And he kind of goes like this in a surfing stance. He wanted to go surfing. That was his thing, man."

He want on to coach the U.S. national and junior national teams and was head coach of San Ramon Valley Aquatics since 1984. He mentored other swimmers attempting to reach their Olympic dreams.

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"He looked to be a mentor from day one," said Greg Werner, Rob's brother and also Richard's childhood friend. "Whether it was with younger swimmers or whether it was a coach taking a younger coach. We always saw each other out when we were coaching."

Richard Thornton was 65. His family says they knew his cancer would be difficult to treat over time. They say he died doing what he loved.

"He could be in a hospital for six months with an oxygen tube, losing weight and all that," his brother Marc said. "What a way to go for someone who loved the beach and being in the water."

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