Swim Coach Maggie Nance Has Lifted Palisades High’s Program to Unprecedented Heights
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
The one thing Maggie Nance looks forward to the most this time of year is getting wet.
In the words of ex-Palisades High swim captain Dora Seggelke, now a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara: “It’s tradition, she always brings an extra pair of clothes… she knows what’s coming.”
Yes indeed, joining her teams for a celebratory dip has become routine for Nance. And no, the ritual never gets old—her reward for months of dedication to Palisades Aquatics, which consumes much of her time and energy and has for three decades—first as a swimmer and now as pilot of the program all others in the City Section strive to emulate.
“It may look easy but it’s not,” she says. “We just put everything we have into trying to win.”
Quite a lot has changed in the 30 years since Nance last put on a Dolphins swimsuit, but her high standards have not. She took over as head coach in 2004 and simply put, the results speak louder than she ever could or would.
During her tenure Palisades has captured 22 section championships—nine by the boys (including the last seven in a row) and 13 in 14 seasons by the girls, including the last 10. This year’s City prelims and finals would’ve been held last week but with all spring sports canceled as a cruel consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, the Dolphins’ dynasty is on hold.
What’s the secret to Nance’s success? She cites several factors.
“We’ve had the perfect marriage of Rose Gilbert’s gift building the pool, the support of the parents, the availability of incredibly talented coaches who are willing to work with us, [Pali High Aquatics Director] Brooke King, a supportive Athletic Director [John Achen] and Assistant Principal of Athletics [Russ Howard] and, of course, an increasingly motivated, hard-working, lovely generation of athletes,” she says. “Rental of the pool to Westside Aquatics has provided us with a steady stream of athletes coming up through middle school to feed our program. The kids are coming to us faster than they used to. It’s an incredible culture all around. The Maggie Gilbert Aquatic Center is a culture of excellence.”
Palisades has an abundance of depth and talent that most coaches can only dream about. At the time the season was cut short in March the roster consisted of 100 athletes (varsity and JV combined)—91 swimmers and nine divers. There is indeed strength in numbers.
“Two years ago [in 2018] we even had every kid swim top 16 at prelims and make it to the finals,” Nance recalls. “I think it was the first time that had ever happened!”
Nance swam for three years at Palisades under coach Dave Anderson and the girls team won two City titles. In those days there was no aquatic facility on campus. Practices and meets were held in Temescal Gateway Park at the old Palisades-Malibu YMCA pool, which closed in 2008.
“I was varsity my whole time at Pali, but we only went there for 10th, 11th and 12th grade—ninth was at Revere,” she recalls. “I only scored my junior year, though. I don’t think I made top 12 in 10th or 12th grade.”
When Nance graduated in 1990 the boys team had won five straight City crowns and the girls were also in the midst of a dominating period, yet a few years later the program suffered an extended drought lasting until 2001.
“It became pretty clear to us that Maggie wasn’t going to run things the same way they’d been run under [previous coach] Merle Duckett,” says former Dolphins swimmer Peter Fishler, who has been one of Nance’s assistants since 2011. “The inmates were done running the asylum. We weren’t swapping events five minutes before the race, we weren’t getting graded based on CIF performances and we weren’t getting away with showing up to three practices a week just because we were fast. It was a real change to the culture of the team. Not everyone bought into it and they quickly showed themselves the door. But for many of us it was an opportunity to see what some clear leadership could provide the team and we rallied around her.”
Fishler was one of Palisades’ senior captains in 2006—a season which ended in controversy in the City finals at USC, where the boys were going for their fifth straight section crown.
“Right after the 200 freestyle I pushed back off the wall and one of the officials told me to get out of the pool,” Fishler remembers. “I muttered under my breath ‘You can’t tell me what to do!’ Someone heard it and ejected me from the meet for unsportsmanlike conduct, which has never happened before or since. I was seeded first in the 100 butterfly but I wasn’t allowed to swim and they also had to replace me on the 400 freestyle relay, which we ended up losing by nine-tenths of a second.”
Palisades ultimately finished second, three points behind Cleveland, but to this day Fishler appreciates the support Nance gave him that fateful day.
“She was really nice about it,” he says. “Maggie was very encouraging because she knew I felt awful. That whole incident totally changed my life because it altered the events I ended up swimming in college.”
Nance’s uncanny knack for knowing what to say and when spawns from a lifetime of experience in the sport. She was raised in Topanga (in fact her mom still lives in the house Maggie grew up in) and went to Topanga Elementary and Paul Revere Middle School prior to Palisades. She swam competitively from the ages of 9 to 21, first at the Palisades-Malibu YMCA under club coach Shawn Donohue, then at Pali High, then at Smith College (a Division III school in Northampton, Massachusetts), then for Masters. She stopped competing when she started teaching.
“The biggest challenge for me personally is one of time,” Nance admits. “Overseeing aquatics programming could easily be a full-time job. For me though, it’s just one of my five classes. I’m also a Spanish teacher and am Chair of the World Languages Department. Teaching, running the program, and being mom to three kids, and doing those things well, is impossible, especially in the spring.”
Time management applies not only to Nance herself, but also to her efforts to accommodate those seeking deck room or lane time.
“The other challenge is that of timing of the facility,” she adds. “The scheduling constraints I have make it hard to get enough pool space for everyone that wants and needs it. It’s a shame because the pool has space earlier in the day, but all the kids are in class.”
Beyond her people skills Nance has an intuitive sense of how to structure practices and how to prepare her swimmers for big meets. It’s a complex and philosophical approach, but it works.
“We’re a sprint-based program so we do a lot of strength building in the fall because of the lack of pool space,” Nance says. “We work on technique and legs primarily, with a focus on short distance races. We train all kids for all races in the first two-thirds of the year. As we draw closer to City Championships we focus the kids on their specific races. Tapering will work under certain specific conditions. The concept is that someone training hard is in a constant state of fatigue. The idea is that you take a kid up to 100 percent of their training in terms of intensity and volume and you drop it down 90 percent in terms of volume, ideally over three weeks. The only way a taper works is if a kid is training consistently for the four months leading up to the taper. That means no break for Spring Break or it’s pointless. If you bring the volume down a little bit per day over a few weeks, but keep the intensity high, the muscles repair and rest and are ready to perform at peak levels. We tell the kids that they can’t do extra workouts, go skiing, go for big hikes. They need to rest. You do mind work and you work on fine tuning the details of their races. This combined with the rest and the excitement makes achieving best times almost inevitable.”
Nance feels indebted to beloved Pali High English teacher Rose Gilbert, whose daughter Maggie won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle as a 12-year-old at the 1958 Junior Olympics in Santa Monica. When Maggie Gilbert died of an embolism in 2004, the same year Nance took the reins at Pali High, Rose (who passed away in December 2013 at the age of 95) donated more than $2 million towards construction of the state-of-the-art facility named after her daughter.
“It’s everything,” Nance says of the Maggie Gilbert Aquatic Center, which opened in October 2010. “The old pool holds the most wonderful memories for me but it was only six lanes with no gutters. This new pool, with 15 lanes and the ability to have it dedicated to high school use all afternoon long, has changed everything. There’s no question our success has largely to do with the pool. Not to mention it’s allowed us to have diving and water polo! Without this facility those sports were impossible. Rose was also my teacher in high school. I was always confident the pool would get done because she gave us so much money that we were able to get it going.”
Another reason for the team’s success year in and year out is the staff Nance has assembled.
“All of our assistant coaches are completely involved in the day-to-day process,” Nance says. “I’m actually not on deck with my own group of swimmers regularly. The other coaches are the ones making the kids fast.”
Fishler coaches the Dolphins’ novice swimmers in the fall and handles lineups for spring meets. Danny Colvin is the daily coach for what Nance calls the “Kingmaker Group,” the varsity-level kids that don’t swim club. Daily coach JJ Amis handles all dryland and the intermediate swimmers while Jax Tatro handles the beginning or underclassman swimmers (the most novice group) and Tom Davidson works with the divers.
In addition to strengthening relationships with fellow coaches and administrators, Nance has built a strong bond with Adam Blakis, who established Westside Aquatics in 2004 and has coached the Pali High boys water polo squad to eight straight City titles.
“We have a collegial and positive relationship,” Nance says. “The high school and club programs are mutually symbiotic. The excellence of one helps the other. We share equipment and resolve conflicts cheerfully, honestly and with good will. Adam is a good friend and I love working with him and all of his coaches. We all have the utmost respect, admiration and fondness for each other. There are issues that come up and we solve them.”
Blakis echoes her sentiments and offers glowing praise of his own: “Maggie is the best! The thing I appreciate most about her is that she remembers why we swim and compete. She remembers the fun and competitiveness she had when she was a swimmer and provides those same opportunities for her team. Winning is important, but how you win is critical too. She’s created an environment where all of her swimmers are successful. She established a culture wherein the team works hard together and gets enjoyment from competing. She does this by putting the student first. Maggie thinks about what’s best for each individual athlete while still achieving team goals. She holds the team accountable by ensuring an environment has been created in which the swimmers can become their best and she allows each swimmer to choose his or her own path. Maggie is awesome and puts in countless hours above and beyond to make the aquatics community at Pali a success.”
The next step for Nance and her program is better results at the state meet. She has coached a number of elite swimmers, including Palisadian-Post Cup winners like Cara Davidoff (2004), Paris Hays (2006), Tristan Marsh (2014) and Seggelke (2018), but the fastest has been Kian Brouwer, who now swims for UC Santa Barbara. As a junor in 2016 he led perhaps the best team in City history—a squad that set seven finals records. “Time for time we’d never seen anything like that,” Fishler says. “Considering all the records Pali set it was the most dominant any City team has ever been.”
Brouwer set three individual marks and swam on two record-breaking relays. He won the 200 freestyle consolation final and took seventh in the championship heat in the 100 butterfy at the state meet. The following year he broke his own City records in the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly and clocked the third-fastest 200 freestyle time and fifth-fastest 100 butterfly time at the state prelims.
“Kian was an exceptional athlete and I’d love to see more kids placing at state,” Nance says. “It’s a tall order because they have to be top 16 in the state. We’re competing against all of those private schools that somehow seem to end up with unusual concentrations of exceptional athletes. We don’t recruit, nor can we give acceptance preferences to athletes, so we can only compete with those who live in the area or get in on the lottery. The kids that are swimming top 16 are usually elite level athletes as middle schoolers, so it’s going to be determined by who comes to us. That being said, we’ll make the most of them when we get them.”
Nance lives 10 minutes from her mom in Topanga. She and her husband Charles, a prop master who works in commercial production, have been married for 20 years and have three kids: Charlie (17) is a junior on Palisades’ varsity baseball team; Finuala (12) is a dancer/artist who attends Paul Revere; and David (10) goes to Topanga Elementary, plays baseball and swims. They also have a golden retriever named Murphy, a bearded dragon named Yogi and three cats.
The Beach Boys’ classic 1963 song “Be True to Your School” fits Nance to a tee, for no one exudes more Palisades Pride. She always wears blue and her impact has a ripple effect throughout the community. Five years ago she was chosen Southern California Girls Swim Coach of the Year by the California Coaches Association.
“Maggie is an outstanding collaborator,” Fishler says. “If you as a coach bring a certain tool kit to the table, she’ll recognize where it’ll be most impactful and let you off the leash. I was extremely fortunate in that Maggie let me be the coach I had the potential to be on deck, while also teaching me the intricacies of personnel and team management behind the scenes. She puts in that kind of effort with every coach on staff so by the time we reach the competitive season, we’ve all grown and transformed to better assist our athletes. The culture she started cultivating 15 years ago is now pervasive so being a part of this team means you strive for excellence as an athlete, as a student and as a person. If I had to pick what Maggie’s legacy as the Pali Swim Head Coach will be, I’d say it’s her track record of outstanding individuals that graduate from her program and go on to move mountains in the world, simply from the lessons she instills in her team from Day One.”
For now, though, Nance has many more teenagers to influence and teach and many more championships to win.
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