Asked her thoughts about her and teammates winning Springfield Public Schools’ first state swimming championship, boys or girls, Glendale High School junior Nikki Sisson didn’t even need a second to think about it.
After all, she is a graduate of the youth swim scene that’s been around for decades.
“It’s very cool. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think about that,” Sisson said Monday. “Now swimmers have a reputation to uphold.”
If you think she was excited, you should have heard the local swim scene’s “Old Guard” that included former Glendale coach Jim Whytlaw and longtime Drury University coach Brian Reynolds; Whytlaw coached for 34 years and Reynolds 31 years for Springfield Youth Aquatics.
As they described it, Glendale’s feat — accomplished Saturday in St. Peters as Sisson won the 50 freestyle and anchored the first-place 200- and 400-freestyle relay teams — culminates an effort that basically started in 1972.
That’s when SPS first offered the sport, beginning a journey that saw its first individual state champion in the late 1970s, led to a city-wide, shared pool at Central High School before the creation of the Foster Natatorium in the early 1990s offered opportunities for hundreds of more swimmers annually.
Along the way, SPS teams placed second or third and individuals won state titles. But Kansas City or St. Louis schools won team championships.
Until Saturday, when Glendale scored 190 points, out-distancing second-place Parkway West by 39 points.
“Wasn’t that awesome?” Whytlaw said immediately upon answering the phone Monday. “I coached in Springfield for 34 years and ’83 was the first time a Springfield team won a trophy, and that was the Glendale boys. But we never quite got over that last hurdle.”
He then punctuated his euphoria this way: “But this group of girls,” Whytlaw said, “put it all together and did what needed to be done.”
Sisson proved to be a key this year, as did teammates on the state championship relay teams that included her sister Kaylee, Madeline Nelson, Macie Beairsto and Hannah Leif. Nikki Sisson is the oldest. Three are freshmen, and Nelson a sophomore.
Coach Steve Boyce’s strategy of de-emphasizing sprints in recent weeks but emphasizing details — such as quick start times and turns — proved the difference, Sisson said.
Boyce noted the team timed it right this year, building its competition early in the season.
This is his third year at Glendale since Whytlaw retired and it’s his seventh overall in Springfield after coaching Parkway South’s boys to three state titles more than a decade ago
Boyce also is a former Drury swimmer and appreciates the youth leagues for becoming a reliable feeder system. Many have gone on to big-time college programs.
“There’s no way they get here (with a state team championship) without going through the youth program,” Boyce said.
Said Reynolds, “It’s just exciting that it finally occurred in Springfield. I knew Glendale was knocking on the door. And in my opinion, I knew it was going to happen sometime.”
Whytlaw said many coaches are to thank, as well as the swimmers who pushed each other to be better.
He singled out former Missouri State coach Jack Steck and the late Dale Neth, the longtime coach at Parkview, whose Bruce Rogers was the first state champion. Rogers won the 50 freestyle in the late 1970s. Steck coached Missouri State University and the Missouri State Aquatics youth program for decades.
The construction of the Natatorium also cannot be overlooked, Whytlaw said.
“Up until that time, we had the Central pool right across from Central High School and we had five schools sharing that place,” Whytlaw said. “It was difficult. I remember we would have practices scheduled at 3 o’clock and they would go all the way until 10 o’clock, and then another team would come in at 6 in the morning.”
Fast forward to Monday, when five Glendale girls turned out for a photo shoot to celebrate the title at the Natatorium. Boyce took 18 girls to the meet, including several alternates, but mostly did so because it truly was a team, and community, effort.
“It was so exciting. We really wanted to win last year and we got second barely. But it was just exciting,” said Nelson, the team’s best in the backstroke.
“It means everything. To be a freshman, it was amazing,” Leif said. “It was like a dream come true. We were the first Springfield team in swimming to get first. And that means a lot. And when you see your coach cry, it gets you emotional.”