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July 29, 2009 > An "UP"lifting duo

An "UP"lifting duo

By Alyson Whitaker

Walk onto the pool deck during swim practice for the Mission Highlands Sharks of the East Bay Swim League (EBSL) and it's clear that coaches Frank Gygax and Nels Larsen are teaching far more than just swimming technique.

For the last decade, this dynamic duo has been teaching the importance of humor and fun in addition to the mechanics of swim strokes. Whether joking across the pool during practice or dressing up in costume for a home meet, Gygax and Larsen prove that participating in a team sport doesn't have to be all work and no play.

Years ago, the coaches began the tradition of coming in costume to the end of season championship meet as a way to bring a little enthusiasm, spirit and fun to an otherwise serious league event. Saturday's, July 25, EBSL Championship meet at Chabot College was no exception, as the coaches arrived dressed as the main characters from the Disney Pixar movie "UP."

Complete with an enormous helium balloon bouquet attached to a miniature house, Coach Frank was an ideal match for the older "Mr. Fredricksen." With a backpack stuffed full of adventure gear (and extra swimming goggles), Coach Nels fit the part perfectly of young wilderness explorer "Russell". The 100 badges on his sash carried the names of all 100 Sharks swimming at Championships. The infamous "Grape Soda" badge was displayed ceremoniously over his heart. It was clear to all team members and their families that this theme mimicked the real-life relationship of Gygax and Larsen.

Ten years ago, Gygax was ready to throw in the towel after coaching summer recreational league swimming for 28 years. He brought on assistant coach Larsen as a "stroke guru," hoping to bring some new technique to his old-school ways and in the process, re-energized himself. In Gygax's own words, "I was the old geezer. Nels was the young stud who needed to be led, and now has taken over. He is the reason I stay on and enjoy what I am doing."

For Larsen, Gygax has been a father figure, supporting him in all aspects of his life, which now includes wife Nicole and children Natalie and Kyle. Frank's dry sense of humor has mellowed Nels through the years, and helped him realize that life, and swimming, is more about the process-not just the end result. While Nels is still highly competitive, he's learned to step back and enjoy the kids, their families and the relationships that are formed through the swim team.

The coaches upped the ante this season, pushing the swimmers harder than in previous seasons, and the kids all responded positively. They worked with all age levels to improve their stroke techniques which, in turn, improved times. Several team records were broken during the season, and at Saturday's Championship meet, a few EBSL records were beat as well.

Through it all, the coaches have made swimming fun. They both agree that their top priority is making sure that the kids' experience as a Highlands Shark is one of the highlights of their childhood. And while it's great to break a swimming record, win a meet, and swim the fastest, it's the fun along the way that makes it all worthwhile.

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