Olsen Rewriting Fenton Record Board

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

October 27, 2020

The Fenton High School swimming pool isn’t named after Gracie Olsen. The program’s record board only makes it look that way.

Olsen, a junior, owns seven of the eight individual school records at Fenton, and she has her eyes on the eighth -- the 100-yard backstroke, which was set at 57 seconds by Haley Shaw in 2012.

“That one is frustrating, just 0.24 (seconds away from breaking it),” Olsen said with a laugh. “I would say I probably swim that event the least. I didn’t really start to get into it until a couple years ago.

“I do think about that a lot. It’s something I thought would be super cool if I could do. Obviously, that wasn’t my main goal going into high school, but I thought it would be super cool if I could be able to (own every record). If I don’t, that’s totally fine.”

Olsen will likely claim that record eventually – she's already beaten the time outside of high school competition – but even without it, she’s left an indelible mark on the Fenton program in 2½ years, and that goes beyond the number of times they’ve had to print her name on the board.

A three-time MHSAA Finals champion and Indiana University commit, Olsen is among the state’s best swimmers, and a sterling example for her teammates to follow.

“Her attention to detail and her dedication has put her above most swimmers,” Fenton coach Brad Jones said. “She’s absolutely one of the most coachable athletes I’ve ever had, and this is my 32nd year coaching.”

It was cold feet – or a dislike for them – that put Olsen on a path to swimming glory. She said she was an ice skater with an eye on playing hockey, like her father, when she was young. But her feet getting cold turned her off to the idea. While she experimented with several other activities, it was her mother’s sport, swimming, that stuck. 

Gracie took up the sport competitively at 7. By the time she was swimming in the 10-and-under state finals, coaches could see great things ahead.

“We had this coach, his name was (Dave) Seagraves, and he always told me when I was younger, ‘I just know there is something about you – you're going to be so special,” Olsen said. “He passed away a couple years ago (in 2017). When I was 8, he was that factor that always made me stick to it. When he passed, I kind of started swimming for him.”

Seagraves’ influence on Olsen can still be seen – and not just in the pool. When she was young, he told her to tap the starting block 10 times prior to a race to help her focus. While it’s not an every-race occurrence, she said she does it often, and it frequently results in her best swims. 

“I’d stand behind the blocks and tap it with my left and right hand 10 times, kind of like playing the piano,” she said. “I don’t usually forget.”

In the pool, Olsen’s greatest influence is likely her mother, Stephanie, who herself was a standout swimmer before a shoulder injury derailed a possible collegiate career. Stephanie coached the Fenton Area Swim Team with Seagraves, and is an assistant on the varsity team. She is also the one that pushed her daughter to be an all-around swimmer, rather than focusing on one stroke or a single distance.

That’s resulted in personal best times that would have been good enough to finish all-state in all eight individual events at the 2019 Finals. She can’t swim all eight, of course, so she swam in two – the 200-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly – and won both. She was also part of Fenton’s 400 freestyle and 200 medley relay teams, which placed third and fifth, respectively. 

The year before, she won the 200 IM and was second in the 100 butterfly.

“We highly anticipate that she will repeat as a double winner in whatever events we put her in,” Jones said. “One of the things that makes Gracie so special is that she’s good at all the events. She doesn’t have a weak stroke. … In coaching, you don’t have athletes like Gracie very often. It’s fun to have people call you and say, ‘Where is Gracie going to be, because we don’t want our kids there.’ When the state Finals come around, we start getting calls. That’s a lot of fun.”

Jones joked that the only thing Olsen isn’t elite at is diving – although she hasn’t tried it.

“I’m afraid to let her,” he said. “She might be good at it.”

Both Jones and Olsen expect she will start to specialize a bit more when she goes to Indiana, and that butterfly will be her main stroke, along with freestyle. Her versatility gives the Hoosiers plenty of options, though.

For now, she’s focused on improving each stroke every day, and her motivation to do so goes well beyond chasing records.

“Just thinking about where I am now tends to be a huge motivation for me,” she said. “I’m very thankful, personally, for what I have. It just makes me so happy that I get to be with a team like this and have the coaches that I do. I could not be more fortunate.”

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) Fenton’s Gracie Olsen races to the butterfly championship at the 2019 Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals. (Middle) Olsen has committed to sign to swim at Indiana University. (Top photo courtesy of the Tri-County Times; middle courtesy of Gracie Olsen.)

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

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)