1980 U.S. Olympic swim team member, former U.S. national team swim coach, and four-decade coach of San Ramon Valley Aquatics Richard Thornton died while heading out to surf in Santa Cruz on Thursday, according to his family.  

Olympic swimmer Richard Thornton might have been a better-known swimmer, had his 1980 U.S. Olympics team not been part of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. But his legend was huge in the the Bay Area, as he went on to coach the U.S. national swim team, and co-founded and coached San Ramon Valley Aquatics for nearly 40 years.

Thornton died unexpectedly Thursday of apparent unknown causes while heading out to surf at a Santa Cruz beach known as The Hook, according to the Chronicle. He was 65.

There is some dispute over Thornton’s cause of death. A Thursday Facebook post from  Thornton’s brother Marc says Thornton "passed away surfing today.” But an update from the Bay Area News Group says “initial reports Richard died while surfing are inaccurate,” and that “Thornton died while stepping into the water but the cause of death is unknown.”

Regardless, Richard Thornton may have peaked as a swimmer on a 1980 Olympics team that ended up not competing, but he would impact the lives of generations of Bay Area competitive swimmers, and even Olympic gold medalists. He co-founded San Ramon Valley Aquatics, a year-round swim program for swimmers of all ages, in 1985, and in 1995, coached the 1995 US World Championships team in Rio de Janeiro.

As the publication SwimSwam explains, in San Ramon Thornton coached future Olympian Matt Bondi, who would become an eight-time gold medalist (1984, 1988, and 1992). Thornton also coached Pan Pacific Championships gold medalist Sarah Anderson (now Sarah Anderson Cramer).

“Rich had one of the biggest impacts on my life,” Anderson Cramer said in a Facebook post. “He was an outstanding person and someone I truly loved and respected. By the end of my swimming career I considered him a member of the family. Heaven called home one of the best today. Trying my best to smile through the tears! Sending all my love to the Thorntons.”

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Image: Roxanne L via Yelp