Standing in front of members of her swim club, coaches and teams from around the state, Nikki Walsh was trying wrack her brain for some form of an acceptance speech as one of her former swimmers presented her the Senior Coach of the Year Award for the State of Utah for 2019.
Walsh lived in the pool most of her life, swimming competitively since she was 8 years old, and now she stands at the pool’s edge, directing a new generation of swimmers. As head coach of the Cache Valley Marlins, the largest year-round swim club in Cache Valley, Walsh spends most weeknights with her swimmers at practice. Her weekends often include traveling to swim meets as her team competes.
“I never grew up thinking I would be a coach because, well, my mom was a coach and that is all that we ever did,” Walsh said. “However, I realized I really enjoyed working with kids and watching them progress. It is really rewarding.”
Parents of her students and some coaches around the state also recognize her dedication to her team as they, collectively, nominated her for the award. At the end of September, their efforts to highlight Walsh’s work resulted in statewide recognition for both her and the club at the Utah Swimposium.
As a Logan native, Walsh swam at Logan High School, did club swim and then made the trek down to Brigham Young University’s swim team, where she studied English for four years at BYU with a swim scholarship.
Now, balancing a family, a team, a business and her mother’s legacy, Walsh said she leans on her strong support system and the motivation from her swimmers to bring her goals to life.
“I wouldn’t be able to run this team without strong assistant coaches by my side,” Walsh said. “We really become like a family and depend on each other a lot.”
As a mother of four, with the oldest being 11 years old and the youngest being 3, how to best balance everything is a daily question. Walsh decided to start coaching when she was pregnant with her first child and was bored at home, wanting to find a way back into the swimming pool.
“I often wonder if my family misses out on stuff because I am coaching and I question a lot of the time that I give,” Walsh said, “but it just doesn’t feel right to be done. So when I do hit a barrier or make myself question, I go to my mom because she did this too and made it through.”
Yolanda Bates, former high school swim coach, founder of the Cache Valley Marlins, current assistant swim coach at BYU and Walsh’s mother, raised her four kids while working as a coach.
Bates said she used to bring her babies to the pool in a playpen when she had to work, and the parents of the swimmers played with them, helping her balance the alternating roles she played.
“I see the team parents helping Nikki out the same way they helped me,” Bates said.
As a Cache County deputy attorney, Walsh’s husband also has significant demands on his time but Walsh said they work hard to make sure their family remains the priority.
“It is about 80 percent hard work and 20 percent joy,” said Bates. “Anyone can be a coach and tell people they are doing something wrong, but not everyone can show them how to fix it. That is key.”
Bates created Cache Valley Marlins despite critics denying a need for club swimming and worked to help the high school swim teams in the area by giving swimmers year-round training. She loves swimming and decided her children needed to be taught to swim at an early age.
“I was harder on my own kids than other students,” Bates said. “Nikki really took to it, and swimming really became a big part of her life. But she never wanted to be a coach, and it can be a tough thing to do — to follow in your mom’s footsteps.”
After taking over her mother’s position as head coach for the club, Walsh said she has learned so much about challenges, success, friendship and perseverance.
“Every year it is so hard to say goodbye to the swimmers that graduate, and I never think it will be the same, and then we get another great bunch of kids and it just keeps growing and getting better,” Walsh said.
There are around 150 swimmers on the team per year, and the coach-owned team provides opportunities for these swimmers to compete on local, state and national levels. Ranging from around 8 years old to 18, the swimmers perform at different levels and have a unique opportunity to be a part of the same team throughout the entirety of their primary education.
“I think that has a lot to do with why Nikki received that award,” Bates said. “You really work with the swimmers in Logan to help them grow into powerful swimmers that can compete with larger teams with more resources. It takes a certain passion and patience to encourage and motivate long-term progress.”
Walsh said she was surprised when she found out that she was nominated for the Senior Coach of the Year award and was even more surprised a week later when she won against the four other male coaches who were nominated.
“Nikki … sacrifices a lot of time with her family to do this for the swimmers,” said Marcus Singleton, a coach for Cache Valley Marlins, Sky View High School’s swim coach and longtime family friend of both Walsh and her mother. “I have a lot of appreciation to her from all she does to keep the team running, because it takes a lot of effort.”
Walsh said it means so much to her for a little team in Northern Utah to be recognized state-wide. She shares her success with the coaches on her staff and her team whose motivation is the reason she remains a coach today.