PENDLETON — When Pendleton’s Donna Collins was named the Class 5A swim coach of the year following the Buckaroos’ 2011-12 season last spring, she was excited. When that honor led to a broader award given out by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the word “excited” no longer did her situation justice.
Ecstatic was more like it.
“I’d say this is right up at the top of as excited as I can be,” said Collins, a 21-year Pendleton High swim coach.
The combination of Jacob Rickman, Evan O’Grady, Nick Jennings and Nolan Hill wrapped up the race in 1:30.11, beating out the second-placers by a full second.
Because of performances like that and the others that helped Pendleton compete on the state level, Collins said all her individual coaching honors aren’t really hers alone.
“I’m going to put this one back on the team,” she said. “This is probably the hardest working group of kids I’ve ever had.”
Swimming runs in the Collins family. Chlorine-saturated pool water is as likely to run through her veins as blood.
Collins grew up a swimmer in Pendleton in the 1950s, competing with the Pendleton Swim Association, before heading to Oregon State University. The Beavers had no swim programs at that time, though.
She returned to the dry side in the ’80s and has held some sort of swim coaching position almost ever since. Along the way, she produced another generation of swim enthusiasts. Her son, Rob, coaches in Walla Walla, Wash., and her youngest daughter, Brooke, is a sophomore on the Cal Poly swim team in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
It’s the same passion Collins tries to impart on her student athletes in Pendleton. Her enthusiasm is never the question, but getting her points across sometimes can be.
Coaching in this sport is different than some others, she said. Where a basketball coach can show his or her players the proper form of a layup through example, swim coaches are left on dry land trying to articulate their points to a bunch of floating heads.
“Sometimes you have to get them out and manually move them,” Collins said. Sometimes for the younger levels during summer swim club practices, she’ll just jump in the pool with the swimmers.
Trying to coach from the dry sidelines like that can be frustrating, especially for perfectionists like Collins, said her assistant Amy Ashton-Williams, who has helped Collins coach for about eight years.
“She’s intense. She has a goal for what things are going to look like already,” said Ashton-Williams, who also swam against one of Collins’ daughters as a high schooler in La Grande. “She really has that ability to rally the troops. They don’t all buy into that right away but by the end, they’re doing it with a smile.”
Collins’ practices can be strictly regimented that way, she said. The Pendleton team doesn’t have much pool time at the Blue Mountain Community College facility and has to share the space with Hermiston’s swimmers as well. With only an hour and a half, everything has to keep moving, moving, moving.
“I have a lot of energy, a tremendous amount,” said the long-time coach. “I don’t like downtime and I love to keep the kids moving.”
By receiving the NFHS award, Collins’ name then goes into a national pool for further recognition. The national coach of the year recipients as decided by the same association will be released in February.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.