January: Paul Westphal
February: Tara Gallagher
March: Robert Joseph Ahola
Patience. That is the trait that leaps to mind first when I think about Rickey Perkins as my coach for the Northern Lights Swim Club in Anchorage, Alaska. Rickey was incredibly patient with me, and I was under his tutelage for something like five years across a couple of different levels. Beyond that, Rickey was an excellent technical coach who had a major role in producing a rather astonishing amount of quality swimmers for NLSC, a role that was actually a side gig to his job as the head coach at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. And that patience has served him well in a long career that has seem him go through some fairly out-of-the-way places.
You see, I was a head case, certainly when it came to swimming. Of all the sports I participated in, I enjoyed swimming the least, and I was not shy about sharing that opinion with my parents, teammates, or coaches. I actually love being in the water, and can stay in a pool or the ocean for hours, and I have a swimmer's build (long and lanky, broad shoulders, narrow waist, huge feet, etc.). But swimming laps bored me far quicker than shooting baskets or throwing a baseball, and I said so. Frequently. I also, for all of my genetic predisposition to swimming, could not manage to swim butterfly to save my life (I think it was a combination of my not being elastic enough and never getting the stroke timing down). As a kid, I learned how to swim breaststroke before freestyle, and so I rather quickly jumped through the various levels of the YMCA lessons until I repeatedly got stuck at Flying Fish because of my inability to butterfly. And so when I was swimming for Rickey at NLSC, not only would I publicize my distaste for swimming to my coach, I tried every possible ruse and maneuver to get out of swimming butterfly as much as possible. And Rickey tolerated all of my bellyaching, although he would occasionally enter me in the 100 fly or 200 IM (and even the 400 IM a couple of times) to remind me who was in charge.
If I told you that an athlete who had performed his sport in college and then gone on to a long and successful coaching career had originally come from Midland, Texas, you would probably guess football, right? After all, Midland Lee is the arch-rival of Odessa Permian in the book (and movie) Friday Night Lights. Not exactly a nest of swimmers. But that's where Rickey came from, and he went all the way to Anchorage to swim for UAA, then started coaching there shortly thereafter.
Swimming is a weird sport to coach because it's the only one where you are physically unable to provide constant and instant feedback to your athletes, and harder still if you have twenty-five to forty of them spread across six lanes and all moving at drastically different speeds. If you think about it, an athlete in any other sport can at least hear their coach, whether they're courtside, using a megaphone from an electrical lift, or pacing them in a motorboat or golf cart. Even water polo players keep their heads out of the water almost all of the time. But swimming coaches have to wait for their athletes to get back to the wall, and also mostly demonstrate technique without getting in the water themselves. At meets, when they're urging swimmers on, they stalk the deck, shouting whenever someone's head comes out of the water. Rickey was fairly conspicuous as a large African-American man, a rare enough species in Anchorage to begin with, let alone on a pool deck. So it was easy to pick him out waving us on with his clipboard or shouting encouragement (he was also one of the few male coaches).
Perhaps the best way to quantify Rickey's ability and success as a swimming coach is to tally up the remarkable number of college swimmers that he produced. Alaska, being a small state, does not produce droves of Division I or professional athletes; there are typically three or four basketball players in Division I in any given year, and a small handful of football players. But just among my contemporaries, NLSC produced a preposterous amount of college swimmers, completely out of proportion to the state's usual production of athletes. Something like a dozen of my contemporaries swam at the Division I level, including at places like Duke, Arizona State, Colorado State, Wyoming, and Harvard. That's a strong track record.
Rickey moved on from Northern Lights (and UAA) in 1998, becoming the national coach of the Bahamas (I know, rough gig, right?) before jumping shortly thereafter to the University of Washington. He's been at Evansville University since 2002, where he's thrice been named the Missouri Valley Coach of the Year, and has pumped out forty all-conference swimmers. Rickey's coaching style allowed him to reach and motivate all kinds of swimmers, from the singularly dedicated to obnoxious head cases like me, and hopefully he continues to build successful teams in his long and distinguished career.