Performance: Sault Ste Marie's Aliah Robertson

February 23, 2018

Aliah Robertson
Sault Ste. Marie freshman – Swimming

At her first Upper Peninsula Finals on Saturday, Robertson didn’t just break two records – she “obliterated” them, quoting Sault Ste. Marie coach Steve Habusta’s description of the performance. Robertson swam the 100-yard butterfly in 59.27 seconds and the 100 breaststroke in 1:06.31, knocking more than two seconds off both previous meet records to earn the Michigan Army National Guard “Performance of the Week.”

The breaststroke record Robertson broke had stood since 1994, while the previous best in butterfly was posted in 2006. Robertson also contributed to her team’s 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays, with her 50 to start the latter faster than the championship time in that sprint earlier in the meet. Both of her individual event times were Sault Ste. Marie program records as well, and Robertson also has the school’s fastest 200 individual medley in 2:16.28 – which, if swam Saturday, would have won another U.P. Finals title. She also has broken pool records all over the Upper Peninsula during her first high school season.

Robertson plays volleyball during the fall and this spring will join the track & field team and compete in pole vault. She also carries a 4.0 grade-point average. She said she enjoys a good challenge – and should be fun to follow the next three seasons as her times continue to pace the Upper Peninsula and approach the fastest in the Lower Peninsula as well.

Coach Steve Habusta said: “What makes Ali so special as a swimmer isn't her accomplishments. What makes her special is her drive and her character. Ali works as hard as any swimmer I have ever coached. She never complains, misses a set or even an interval. She works through pain, disappointment and fatigue and presses on to accomplish her goals. Her character is second to none; she always has a smile on her face, supports and leads her teammates and is a wonderful all-around kid. What Ali accomplished in the water this year is absolutely remarkable, but pales in comparison to who she is outside of the pool. … Ali's performance at U.P. Finals may be the best individual swimming performance in the history of the U.P., cementing her place as not just one of the best swimmers in the U.P. but one of the best female high school swimmers in all of Michigan.”

Performance Point: “I was pretty confident in what I could do, but I wasn't expecting to do as well as I did,” Robertson said. “I knew I was seeded first in everything, but I wasn't expecting to get the times that I did. I was really shocked. I've never swam that fast.”

Reaching expectations … and then some: “I was kinda just expecting to come in and swim, and next year or the years after that do a little bit better. … It just feels good to be the first one to do something like (breaking those records) in a long time. I'm really excited for the next couple years because there are a lot more freshmen coming up, so I think our relays are going to be pretty good.”

Thank you seniors: “The seniors on our team, they're really fun to be around. They’re really encouraging, so they're my role models on the team.”

Bright future: “Most of the time, the people from downstate are faster than the U.P., so it's good to be that close to the other times. My 100 breast, I really want to improve on that one. I'll probably stay with those two (events), but I want to try to do the 500 free. (My first 500 try) was an interesting race. I'm not really a distance swimmer. I'd like to try it again and see how much better I can do with it.”

Fearless in the pool or pole vault pit: “It's nice to be able to think that you can do things that not many other people can do. It just gives you a rush when you can complete something like that.”

- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Every week during the 2017-18 school year, Second Half and the Michigan Army National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.

The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and responds as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our nation's freedom or protect lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster. 

Previous 2017-18 honorees:
February 16: Austin O'Hearon, Eaton Rapids wrestling - Read
February 9: Sophia Wiard, Muskegon Oakridge basketball - Read
February 2: Brenden Tulpa, Hartland hockey - Read
January 25: Brandon Whitman, Dundee wrestling - Read
January 18: Derek Maas, Holland West Ottawa swimming - Read
January 11: Lexi Niepoth, Bellaire basketball - Read
November 30: La'Darius Jefferson, Muskegon football - Read
November 23: Ashley Turak, Farmington Hills Harrison swimming - Read
November 16: Bryce Veasley, West Bloomfield football - Read 
November 9: Jose Penaloza, Holland soccer - Read
November 2: Karenna Duffey, Macomb L'Anse Creuse North cross country - Read
October 26: Anika Dy, Traverse City Central golf - Read
October 19: Andrew Zhang, Bloomfield Hills tennis - Read
October 12: Nolan Fugate, Grand Rapids Catholic Central football - Read
October 5: Marissa Ackerman, Munising tennis - Read
September 28: Minh Le, Portage Central soccer - Read
September 21: Olivia Theis, Lansing Catholic cross country - Read
September 14: Maddy Chinn, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep volleyball - Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Sault Ste. Marie’s Aliah Robertson swims a record-setting butterfly during Saturday’s Upper Peninsula Finals. (Middle) Robertson also set a meet record in the breaststroke. (Photos by Shari Robertson.)

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.)