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Just Keep Swimming
by Sami Edge - Special to the Tribune
Jul 17, 2013 | 2186 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by John Byrne -- Sparks Piranhas Swimming Team coach Atsuko Perkins fights off shivers as she steps out of the pool for a photo at Alf Sorensen Community Center.
Tribune photo by John Byrne -- Sparks Piranhas Swimming Team coach Atsuko Perkins fights off shivers as she steps out of the pool for a photo at Alf Sorensen Community Center.
For Atsuko Perkins, Sparks’ Alf Sorenson Community Center is like a second home.

Whether she’s acting as Associate Head Coach for the Sparks Piranha Swim Team, a water aerobics instructor, private swim coach or substitute lifeguard, the 55-year-old Japanese native visits the Community Center pool at least five days a week — sometimes even visiting on days the pool is closed to teach private swim lessons or coach dry land Piranha workouts.

A navy wife, Perkins’ coaching history began when her eldest son joined the swim team at her husband’s naval base in Japan. His coach, a pilot, often had to miss practice depending on his deployment schedule. As a parent volunteer, Perkins often stepped in to help run practices.

It was in 1996, with her husband’s relocation to Fallon, that Perkins’ coaching commitment escalated. Again following her sons, Perkins became involved as a volunteer with the Fallon Barracuda Swim Team, eventually working her way up to head coach, a position she served for the next eight years. In addition, she served as head lifeguard at the Churchill County pool, helped train Navy swimmers, and joined the coaching staff of the Churchill County High School Greenwave swim team where she was named coach of the year two of her eight years coaching.

In 2008, Perkins was persuaded to leave Fallon for the Rail City area by then University of Nevada coach Mike Richmond. During her time in Fallon, Perkins had communicated with Richmond about best practices for coaching long-distance swimmers, and viewed him as a mentor to her coaching efforts. When Richmond approached Perkins out of the blue at a swim meet, asking her to join him as the assistant coach of the Wolf Pack swim team, she said yes.

“It came as a total shock. I had not even thought about or dreamed about Division I,” Perkins said. “That was a different ball game. It was intense. I learned a lot. The girls were great, and I had a great time.”

After four years at UNR, Perkins and Richmond decided to leave the Div. I scene, choosing instead to focus on coaching the Sparks Piranhas, a team that they had been coaching in tandem with the Wolf Pack.

Of all the teams she’s coached, Perkins says the Piranhas hold a special place in her heart.

“Each team you coach for has a different philosophy. I just fell in love with the philosophy of the Sparks Piranhas,” she said. “It is not traditional. It is dynamic. It is great. We teach our kids not just to be fast swimmers, but also to be good people. We want our kids to have a great base as a human being. That’s our main goal.”

To further that goal, Perkins – who is an assistant coach for the Piranhas JV and varsity teams and primary coach for the “Tier 1” level of novice swimmers – implements a new team learning objective such as integrity or honesty, every two weeks. Through parental participation, community service and “life skills” lessons, Perkins says the Piranhas are able to form a truly united community rather than a network of competitive peers.

“We don’t believe that if you swim fast, you’re the best person … It’s not just swimming only here; we try to build character around the sport,” she said. “We consider ourselves a family. Once you’re in the Piranhas, you’re always in the Piranhas.”

As a water aerobics instructor, Perkins’ objective is to teach life skills of a different sort. Rather than helping build the fundamentals of moral character, Perkins helps her older clientele reclaim the fundamentals of movement. After years of medical injuries of her own, including a fight with breast cancer, rotator cuff injuries, broken heels, a hysterectomy and other overuse injuries, Perkins understands the power of the water in healing the body and soul through low-impact resistance training.

“Water is a great element to still be able to work out, tighten, tone up, increase flexibility and prevent injuries,” Perkins said. “And all of my clients are awesome people. They understand what I do and are very supportive and eager to learn. There are wonderful people all around me.”

Surprisingly enough, Perkins’ personal history as a competitive swimmer is somewhat limited. In Japan, Perkins participated in sports like volleyball and track and field, using swimming mostly as a cross-training workout and only competing in meets when it was absolutely required of her. What she’s learned of coaching swimming, Perkins mostly picked up through self-education, the experiences of her children, who both swam competitively for USA Swimming, and through the direction of more experienced coaches.

According to Richmond, Perkins’ outside perspective allows her to view the sport from an angle that he might not have considered as a life-long swimmer and former champion athlete himself.

“In one aspect, she doesn’t have that preconceived notion of what coaching is. She has a totally fresh outlook on the sport and on her role as a coach,” Richmond said of Perkins. “I think that’s a bonus: a real unique perspective.”

After four years of coaching with Perkins, Richmond has seen a drastic improvement in the commitment and passion of kids who ascend to his swim groups after having learned the basics of the sport with Perkins. He attributes the change to the power of the positive energy that Perkins brings to practice each and every day – the same energy that makes her an invaluable addition to the Piranha team.

“The one thing about Atsuko that every single person could say is that she is energy. She never stops. And no matter what kind of day she’s having, she brings that positive energy to practice,” he said. “She will do anything to help anybody, no matter what time of day it is. She is there for our kids. She’s there for our parents. She’s just a giver … and she has set our program up for future success in ways that we won’t even know for the next 10 or 12 years.”

Day in and day out you’ll find Perkins at Alf Sorenson. Although some days her work schedule spans from 6:45 am to 8 pm, and it’s a sure bet that after roughly 18 years of coaching the chlorine has practically soaked through to her veins, Perkins’ positivity keeps her excited about every flip turn and ‘aquasize’ lesson.

It’s a labor of love, Perkins says. In the end, it’s a job that gives more than it takes.

“I love this pool. I love this place and the people are wonderful to work with. I’m not really doing this for the money, I just really love the job,” Perkins said. “I love giving back to my students, and it’s really rewarding too – that just a little 5-year-old can do a flip turn and I see that big old smile at the end: that’s the biggest reward.”
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