Rally Champs 'Survive' Fun-Filled Forest

August 19, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

As one of Michigan’s top high school swimming sprinters, Fenton senior Gabbi Haaraoja no doubt was in strong shape to start this summer.

But she and her Tigers teammates made sure to prepare for this month’s preseason “survival trip” with plenty of miles running and yards swimming a local lake.

All that training paid off during three days and two nights at Pigeon River Country State Forest near Vanderbilt as the team prepared for last week’s first day of practice and a run at a 10th-consecutive league championship.  

And the Tigers have kicked off the title effort by being named winners of the MHSAA’s inaugural Prep Rally, a contest that was part of the MHSAA’s PLAY (Preparation Lasts All Year) initiative to encourage athletes to remain active during the offseason so they are prepared physically and acclimated to warm weather when practice begins in the fall.

“Being out in nature, it’s really pretty there. You appreciate it more,” Haaraoja said, then adding some tongue-in-cheek. “It definitely was fun. But it was a lot more work than what we were used to. I think I’m actually glad I’m a senior.”

Athletes from Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett and Beal City also were finalists. Participating athletes from Fenton’s girls swimming and diving team will receive tickets to an MHSAA Final of their choice, where they will be recognized for their achievement.  

Fenton has taken similar training trips heading into all 14 seasons under coach Brad Jones. Others have included activities like canoeing and dune climbing, The last four years, the team journeyed to El Cortez Beach Resort in Oscoda for some time on Lake Huron together before practice began.

This season’s seniors asked to do something new. And it was a new experience for many in more ways than one.

The team left Aug. 11 and returned home two days later in time for the first day of practice. Jones took north 24 athletes, and some had never camped or slept outside. Six seniors made their fourth preseason trip with the team – but for 12 freshmen, this was their first experience as high schoolers.

That team demographic made this summer’s trip especially important for bonding. But it also had a desired effect physically – both heading into this fall and in setting preparation expectations for the future.

Pigeon River Country has 67 miles of trails, and the team hiked four or more miles between camp sites each day – making this the most physically taxing of the trips any of the Tigers had been on to start swimming and diving season.

“We were very up front that in August we’re taking this trip, and you need to be able to go 6-7 miles walking. We put that out there early on,” Jones said. “We have pretty good girls doing what they’re needing to do outside of (swimming) training. (But) we were pretty up front that you don’t put your backpack on and your hiking shoes on for the first time in August.”

Haaraoja said the hikes made it obvious quickly who had prepped during the summer and who needed to catch up. Seniors rotated throughout the line of teammates, so those who began a hike leading the group finished at the back with those working harder to keep in step.

Once in the woods, Jones split his athletes into four teams for a series of challenges that included building their own fires, cooking their own meals (they didn’t receive food until the fire was started) and breaking camp the next day. One trail ran past a small lake, and the athletes swam across it in a relay to earn more points. Another relay-type event involved filling buckets with water.

The challenge champions received ice cream.

“By the time we get home, everybody knows everybody else,” Jones said. “Once we get into training, the top girls are in one lane and the beginners are in another. So there’s not a lot of interaction. But this gives the whole team a chance to get to know each other.”

That’s the part Haaraoja said she’ll remember most fondly, while also appreciating the edge the added physical activity of the summer prep and trip should give the team this fall and in years to come.

“For the underclassmen, they realized where they should be at the beginning of the season next year so they don’t come into it completely out of shape,” Haaraoja said. “It helped our underclassmen learn what our goals were. They know what they’re working for.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Fenton's girls swimming and diving athletes take a moment for a photo during their three-day "survival trip." (Middle) The Tigers take a quick lunch break during a hike at Pigeon River Country State Forest. (Below) The Fenton athletes pose for one more photo wearing their "survivor" T-shirts. (Photos courtesy of Fenton coach Brad Jones.)

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.)