Hayden Pierce’s relationship with the combined Columbia Falls-Whitefish high school swim team has come full circle.
Pierce, who took over as head coach this winter to become the program’s fourth head coach in its seven-year history, began swimming competitively as a member of the Wave Ryders swim club when she moved to the Flathead Valley at age 10. During the summers, she trained with the Columbia Falls summer swim league and had aspirations to join the high school swim team. There was just one problem — a sanctioned high school swim team didn’t exist at Columbia Falls High.
“A bunch of families from the summer league combined forces in order to start the cooperative swim team,” Pierce said, pointing out that since Columbia Falls didn’t have an indoor pool, and Whitefish didn’t have a swim team, the partnership made sense.
The combined team came together during the 2014-2015 season, and Pierce joined the inaugural team as a junior. The team trained as one group but competed as four separate teams. Turnout was low the first year and the Columbia Falls girls scored just three points at the state meet, while neither Whitefish squad scored any.
Just a year later, the Columbia Falls boys won the state meet and Pierce, then a senior, helped her four-person Wildkats team finish third.
Since graduating, Pierce has filled in as a substitute coach several times over the years and joined the coaching staff as an assistant last year. When she was approached about the head job, she said it was a little overwhelming.
“It just came full circle — my mom was one of the parents that was part of getting this team up and running,” Pierce said. “It means a lot to be approached that way.”
While swimming on the high school team, Pierce began coaching younger kids in the summer league — some of the same kids she gets to work with now.
“I think it makes for a good environment, the fact that I know the kids on a personal level as well as an athletic one,” Pierce said. “It was nerve wracking at first, but honestly it’s really fun for the kids and for myself.”
Normally, the team practices as one group, even though the two schools score separately in meets. This year, however, due to COVID-19 regulations at the Wave, each school is practicing separately, although Pierce hopes they can work toward swimming together again.
“I’ve never thought of the teams as separate or competing teams,” she said. “We’re just one family — success for one is the success of both.”
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