In sports, the term “dynasty” is used to describe a team that dominates for a period of time. Sometimes a dynasty isn’t recognized until years later, when time has removed us to a more comprehensive vantage point and history can be seen in proper perspective.
The title is seldom used and hard earned. Dynasties in professional sports arise only a handful of occasions during our lifetimes. The Yankees of the 1950s, the Steelers of the 70s, the Bulls of the 90s, and the current New England Patriots have been designated dynasties.
But you don’t have to look that far to appreciate such dominance – we have our own dynasty in the works here in Southern Idaho.
As the temperatures outside the Wood River YMCA in February dip to single digits, the action is just heating up inside the brand new $20 million facility in Ketchum. Condensation frames the large picture windows surrounding the pool where the three-time high school state champions are midway through another two-hour practice. Although the state swim meet is still 10 months away, the Wood River High girls team is already focused on bringing home title number four.
“Having everything pay off in the end is the best part,” says senior co-captain Lacy Werley. “All the early morning workouts, the hard work, sticking it out and celebrating at the end is very rewarding.”
“Everything builds up to that one race the entire year,” says Esther Williams. “After all the training that you put into it, you have to make that one race your best race.”
Williams is one of five juniors – along with Megan Hayes, Racheal McGinnis, Ashleigh Share and Jessica Pennington – who will vie for a fourth-consecutive state title next November in Boise. What’s more, the team has also won six straight district titles.
“If we can win state every year, from freshman to senior year, how cool is that?” Williams says. “How many teams can say they’ve done that?”
Whether or not they achieve that goal, the Wood River swimmers have already obtained dynasty status. One sign of their dominance is that all other high school swim teams in Idaho use beating WR as their motivation.
“Now that we have won three years in a row, other teams are looking to see where we’re at and they’re chasing us,” Share says. “It puts more pressure on us, but it’s important that we keep our heads level. We refuse to become cocky.”
What makes the WR girls’ accomplishment even more impressive is that high school swimming in Idaho is an “open” team competition. Instead of dividing into classifications based on school size like other sports, all swim teams compete against all other schools – big and small. Wood River’s championship teams have included about a dozen girls, but have beaten large Boise teams with over 40 swimmers.
What are the ingredients for a dynasty? Talent, hard work, dedication, and a commitment to a common goal are factors. But ask any of the Wood River girls about the secret to their success, and they’ll all give the same answer: coach Brian Gallagher.
Gallagher has been a swim coach since his college days at the University of Arizona, where he competed on the school’s swim and water polo teams. An avid swimmer since age 6, Gallagher was ironically drawn to Idaho by water’s frozen form. Like so many others, he came to Sun Valley to ski in the late 70s and never left. He knows what it takes to swim at the highest competitive level and imparts his wisdom to his pupils.
“Even though we’re here every day working hard, Brian is the one who has made it possible,” says senior co-captain Taylor Straley. “I know that I wouldn’t enjoy swimming as much if he wasn’t the coach.”
Although the squad practices five days a week, year-round, they have never gone through the same workout twice. Gallagher keeps things fresh by inventing creative workouts. The coach is also unique because he swims with the team. He earns respect from his athletes because he doesn’t ask them to do anything that he’s not willing to do himself. Also, being in the water allows Gallagher to view the kids’ strokes below the surface and he’s able to pinpoint mistakes in technique.
“He makes it fun to come to practice,” says senior co-captain Natalie Hague. “He knows how to train us so that we peak at the right time.”
“Even though our team has grown, he still gives us all individual attention to help us with our strokes,” Share says.
As a coach and role model, Gallagher uses a calm and positive demeanor to encourage his athletes. He doesn’t punish the team with hard workouts; he knows when to be strict, when to push, and when to praise.
“Brian is a huge support system, both in and out of the pool,” Straley says.
Wood River’s rise to the top hasn’t been an overnight success. There’s no off-season in swimming, and Gallagher says he’s fortunate to have a group of teenagers who are highly competitive and committed several years ago to dedicate their lives to the sport.
“There are relays and team scores, but swimming is basically an individual sport, and like other individual sports, it’s all on your shoulders to make it what it is,” Gallagher says. “You have to love that aspect and be self-motivated. These kids swim with a lot of heart.”
The team loses some talented swimmers to graduation, but Gallagher is grooming the next group of champions, including sophomores Melissa Becker, Michael Coiner, Taylor Coiner, Sophie Nosworthy, and freshman Sarah Brown.
As the team glides through the water, punishing it with powerful strokes, they know how much work it takes to win a championship. But for them, swimming isn’t about accolades; it’s a lifestyle.
“It’s a pretty special and unbelievable moment (winning a state title). You live for those moments, but you also live for those moments when a kid swims faster in a meet,” Gallagher says. “Just to see a smile on somebody’s face when they’ve improved their time is very rewarding. Some kids may never win a championship, but maybe they had a great swim and they’ve felt how exciting it is to be part of a team.”