Dow's Newman Right at Home in Water

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

August 29, 2018

Claire Newman described her younger self as “a complete amphibian,” and not much has changed as she goes through her teenage years.

“I’ve just always felt at home in the water,” the Midland Dow junior said. “It helps me work out my school day and any emotional problems. Being in swim also kind of reminds me of my abilities and, personally, I feel more spiritually sound when I swim.”

Newman is a four-time Division 2 Finals runner-up, having placed second in the 50 and 100-yard freestyles both of the past two seasons. She has won state titles in club competition, and is already drawing interest from college swim programs at all levels.

So it’s no surprise she feels comfortable in the water. It’s an offseason spent mostly on dry land, however, that could be the catalyst for Newman’s strongest season yet.

“I spent two to three months doing physical therapy on my shoulder,” Newman said. “I feel much better now that my shoulder is all healed up. I know better how to prevent another injury. I’m already starting to see the results of it. I’m much more conscious of which muscles I’m using for every part of my stroke, but especially my shoulders.”

The shoulder injury surfaced during Newman’s sophomore season, and she said it was the result of overuse. While still in season, she trained by simply kicking in the pool for two weeks.

Newman managed to perform well when it mattered at the Division 2 meet, also helping Dow touch third in the 400-yard freestyle relay in addition to her runner-up individual finishes. But she said the entire process was tough emotionally.

She would go on to compete in Junior Nationals in Tennessee following the prep season, but eventually focused on getting healthy.

“She was working very hard on the dry-land aspect, then she started swimming again full-time in May and swam through the summer,” Dow coach Chilly Smith said. “She did very little swimming in January through April. It’s going to help her, hopefully, stay healthy. By doing all the dry land, she stabilized (her shoulder). That was probably the first time she’s ever had really four months out of the pool since she was younger -- a lot younger. I think it was good for her, and that’s why we brought her back fairly slow.”

Now healthy, Newman is ready to meet the goals she’s set for herself. While they’re lofty, they look to be well within her reach.

“I think winning an event at state is probably one of my goals,” she said. “Breaking 23 (seconds) officially in the 50 -- I’ve sort of, kind of done it unofficially. I want personal improvement in my other strokes, specifically the breaststroke and the butterfly, and I also want to get more college exposure.”

Based on last year’s results, Newman appears to be the favorite to complete her first goal – something she was on track to do a year ago.

In 2016, Newman finished second to Birmingham Seaholm’s Haley Doan in the 50 and Dexter’s Annette Schultz in the 100. She passed both of them in 2017, but East Grand Rapids’ move to Division 2 (from Division 3) brought into her races Ileah Doctor, who went on to set meet records in both events in finishing ahead of Newman. Doctor graduated this spring and will be swimming at Indiana University, but Newman’s motivation remains the same.

“I was aware of how incredibly fast she was,” Newman said. “I didn’t really focus on her as competition, though. I usually use myself as competition, trying to beat my own times and focus more on improving myself.

“I wasn’t waking up every morning thinking about Ileah Doctor. I was waking up every morning thinking about how I could get better.”

Winning an MHSAA Finals title, and breaking 23 seconds, would go a long way toward achieving Newman’s final goal of attracting more college attention. So would improving her other strokes and proving she can win at longer distances, as Newman is well aware.

“A lot of colleges really like to see a 200 (yard) swimmer,” Newman said. “That signals that you’re pretty flexible in your events, same with the two (individual medley events). I think it’s also really great for aerobic training.”

Smith said he’ll be working the longer events, as well as the butterfly, into Newman’s competitive schedule this season to help her and the team.

“A swimmer has to be able to swim different events, because that’s one way you can keep a swimmer from becoming stale or bored with their swimming,” he said. “We’re really trying to work the 200, because if we can get a better 200 out of her, that’s just going to help her 100 freestyle.”

Newman has taken a visit to Michigan State University and said that Notre Dame (which she has visited on her own) and Indiana also interest her significantly, as does Division III Kenyon College in Ohio. While she admits she wants to swim against Division I competition, the most important factor for Newman is finding the right academic fit, as well as an athletic one. She plans to study something in liberal arts that allows her to tap into her creative side.

No matter where she goes, as long as she’s in the water, she’ll be right at home.

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Midland Dow’s Claire Newman prepares to swim the 50-yard freestyle at last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals at Holland Aquatic Center. (Middle) Newman, middle, looks to the scoreboard with her teammates in anticipation of their relay time. (Click to see more from

East Grand Rapids' Briggs to Receive Deserved Spotlight for Half-Century of Swim

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

May 17, 2024

EAST GRAND RAPIDS – When the idea was presented to celebrate his coaching milestone, Milton “Butch” Briggs balked at it.

West MichiganThe longtime East Grand Rapids swimming & diving coach doesn’t like to be the center of attention, although his teams certainly have been over the last 50 years as he’s established a pair of perennial state powerhouses. 

“He vehemently said, ‘No, we’re not doing this,’” Pioneers assistant girls coach Gwen Barnes said. “But it’s going to be super cool and so deserving. We need to mark this occasion as a community and swimming community. He has influenced so many people and been an active member of the community for a long time.”

On Saturday, the East Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Alumni Association will commemorate Briggs and his 50 years of coaching at the school.

Briggs took over the East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving program for the 1972-73 season, and the girls program beginning in the fall of 1974. He has coached 102 seasons total, winning 26 MHSAA Finals championships with the girls and 12 with the boys.

Briggs has always wanted the focus to be on his teams rather than himself.

“He is not one who likes the spotlight,” retired Pioneers athletic director Tim Johnston said. “He is a very private man, but it is awesome that this group of alumni, swimmers and parents want to celebrate him.

“He is one of the best coaches I have ever had the opportunity to work with, but to be completely honest, he is a better person and more than just a coach. That is the truth.”

Past EGR swimmer Kris Ward was a member of the first girls state championship team in 1978.

“He had a huge impact on me,” Ward said. “Just from understanding hard work and dedication and being part of a team. Then following it through. He worked with a variety of people on the team and helped us to come together. It was all about life lessons, and he's teaching the kids that while still being successful.”

Briggs also coached Ward’s daughters Alex, Ashley and Abby.

“He was always about connecting with the kids,” Ward said. “My kids were all able to swim for him, and so I had that experience with him in a different way and seeing how he was with all of my girls on the team.

“He starts with connecting with one person and carries that through to make the success better.” 

Briggs, second from far left, celebrates the 2014 Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship with his girls team. Barnes, an assistant coach for the girls team the past three years, also swam under Briggs from 1984-87.

Her teams won four straight Finals championships and never lost a dual meet.

“There were high expectations for us, and despite them being unspoken, we felt it,” Barnes said. “We wanted and felt this desire to do our best on that team each year, and he instilled this culture of commitment and hard work. Every swimmer had different abilities, but he was able to tap into getting us to do our best.”

Barnes has gained a different perspective of Briggs as his assistant.

While she noted that he still displays the same traits as far as his demeanor, sense of humor, kindness and patience, his devotion to the program and his student-athletes also has never wavered.

“Coaching with him as an assistant, you see how much work and time he puts in that goes unnoticed sometimes,” Barnes said. “To maintain that level of commitment for 50 years is pretty remarkable, and he still has this presence when on the pool deck that challenges everybody to do their best. He set the same standard for everyone, and everyone on the team feels important, which I think is cool.

“He weaves in a lot of stories and lessons from over the years and maintains traditions that I think make current teams feel like they are a part of and building onto the history.”

Briggs, who played football and ran track & field in high school, was inducted into the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame in 2009. The EGR natatorium was named after him in 2014.

Briggs, who taught at Ottawa Hills High School, has received national attention, too. In June 2020, he was named National Girls Swim Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association. Briggs had received the same honor in 2011.

He wrote this of his coaching philosophy as part of the nomination for the NFHS girls swimming award:

“My coaching philosophy has been, and continues to be, a work in progress. I have formed relationships with hundreds of amazing young people. They have taught me life lessons in real time and real situations. As a neophyte coach, the experience revolved around winning. We worked together as a team, supported each other in and out of the pool, and won often. Thankfully, I became aware of the value within each athlete. Today, I attempt to interact with each athlete at every team activity and follow their progress in non-swimming endeavors. In short, when I removed my ego from the team's expectations and outcomes, the entire atmosphere was much more enjoyable and productive. And we are still capable of being successful. The Lord has put me in the right place at the right time.”

Ward said she expects about 200 people to attend Saturday’s celebration.

“He has impacted so many people in the swimming community, and there is something special in what he has created,” Ward said. “All of the kids on the current teams and their families will be there, as well as a lot of different generations. I also know that there will be people coming from far away.”

As far as Briggs’ future, Barnes doesn’t see him stepping down any time soon.

“I don’t really ever see him stopping,” she said. “His passion is EGR swim, and I think he will continue to be a part of the program as he can and wants to be.”

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) Longtime East Grand Rapids swimming coach Butch Briggs, right, will be celebrated this weekend for his half-century of coaching the Pioneers. (Middle) Briggs, second from far left, celebrates the 2014 Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship with his girls team. (Top photo by Kris Ward; middle photo by High School Sports Scene.)