Inside USD

Gary Becker, USD: A Good Fit for 35 Years

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gary Becker celebrates his birthday on New Year’s Eve, one of the most festive days of the year for all. But unlike Becker, it’s also a day when most people are making a new year’s resolution to get in better shape — again.

Perhaps more people should follow the example of Becker, now 65 years young and in his 35th year as a USD employee and the longtime director of University of San Diego’s Campus Recreation programs.

“You have to make the decision that you want it to be part of your life, every day,” he said of achieving better fitness. “If you make that decision only once a week or when you think you need something, it’s likely not going to work. You have to be willing to do something every day. It has to become part of you.”

Given Becker’s dedication to USD since 1978, his routine to stay in shape via daily swimming and a positive approach to life, it’s no wonder why he’s smiling.

“I don’t schedule anything for an hour so I can use the pool here,” he said. “Conditioning wise, it does a number of different things to keep me healthy — vascular, weight wise and it’s a great break right in the middle of my day. It is invigorating, refreshes the mind and helps me gear up again.”

Establishing, Thriving at USD

Becker has his swim routine down pat, but as a USD employee, he’s no stranger to handling different leadership roles. A water-covered gym floor, the result of a boiler break, greeted him on his first USD workday on Aug. 1, 1978.

He spent 15 seasons as USD’s women’s swim coach. Three athletes, Mary Lightfoot, Janet Gaunt and Denise Odenwald, earned AIAW Division II All-American status. Another notable swimmer was Betsy Myers, a USD business alumna who later served as a senior official for President Bill Clinton from 1995-97 and was the chief operating officer for President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Becker coached club water polo, too. But the bulk of his work at USD has been to oversee the intramurals programs, sports and recreation club teams/leagues, fitness facilities in separate spaces on campus and educational recreation classes.

Becker feels USD has a “well-balanced” program and believes most every student is, in some way, utilizing what’s available. He expressed, though, he’d like to see the fitness and recreation facilities closer together — not just for accessibility, but to build more “authentic relationships for students” and enhance spirit on campus.

Becker’s solution-oriented approach demonstrates his strong character. He and his staff strive to keep up with fitness and sports trends and gauge interest so students, employees and alumni have what they need.

After 35 years, Becker shows no sign of slowing down.

“To me, it’s still about being in a position where you continue to change and grow, and it keeps you passionate about what you’re doing. That’s one piece. Another is to be in a place where you see that you can do it. Hopefully, too, the values you have match up with the values of wherever that is. I’ve been fortunate at USD to work with a lot of really good, wonderful people.”

Family Atmosphere

Becker, born in Long Branch, N.J., resided in Australia for a few years before his parents moved them to the Los Angeles area. He graduated from La Mirada High School, earned undergraduate degrees in chemistry and history and coached at UC San Diego and earned a master’s degree from San Diego State. But it’s USD where Becker has found his place and much of his personal joy.

He met his wife, Sandy, soon after beginning his first year at USD. She worked for a sporting goods company and stopped by the campus to sell him sports supplies and equipment.

“I think it was intramural flags, softballs and whatever else,” he recalled about what he purchased. Becker followed his order by asking her to dinner.

A few years later, he asked Sandy to marry him. She wanted to think about it, but when she did say “yes,” it was quite memorable.

“We trained together, running for marathons and such, and we used to go to up to Mt. Soledad,” Gary recalled. “It happened on April 1, 1981. I was at practice when one of my swimmers gave me a note that Sandy wanted her to give to me. When I opened it, the message said that if I wanted to marry her that I needed to ride my bike and meet her at the top of Mt. Soledad at noon. It was 11:50 when I opened the note! I lived 10 minutes away, which is where my bike was at the time. So I drove there, got my bike and rode up the hill. When I got there, she was leaving, figuring I didn’t want to get married. That’s how we were officially engaged.”

They’ve been married 30-plus years and they have two grown children, Sarah and Matt. Sandy and both children were regulars at many on-campus events that Gary worked at USD. Swimmers placed a birth announcement ad in the student paper, The Vista, when Sarah arrived. Matt is a 2012 USD business administration/marketing alumnus and was an active club water polo player.

Balance and Wellness

Becker has a great family, a job he loves, and good health. For 35 years, USD has been good to Becker. He states the importance of work-life balance and positivity.

“I think enjoying life and having fun is important, but for that to happen you have to decide you want to be positive about things. When you become negative about something or focus on the negative, I think mental issues can happen if you’re always unhappy. When you’re positive, people around you become more positive and can accomplish more. Is life really worth worrying about these things all the time? If you have to worry, my motto is to find the positive in everything you do.”

That’s why Becker is upbeat about a concept he sees as beneficial for USD in the near future.

“I’d like to create a well-being zone. Some do it just from a fitness perspective, but I’d like to see us create an environment where we’re able to reach every student when they first come in to when they leave. They’re able to evaluate their own wellness, understand why they might need to adjust it, and know it’s OK to go get help for their wellness adjustment. We could expand this beyond just the fitness piece, looking at it also from a mental health and a spiritual side.”

Now that’s a resolution worth celebrating every day.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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