Embracing the challenge

Granite Bay’s recreational swim team replaces longtime coach in 2017
By: Steven Wilson
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John Hooten will go down as one of the greatest coaches to ever lead the Johnson Ranch Barracudas recreational swim program. 

His accomplishments include numerous Comstock Conference Championships, and he retired this past offseason, after leading the team for 12 seasons, after claiming his seventh-straight title. 

But Chris Nissen’s resume is similarly impressive. 

A competitive swimmer from the age of eight, he swam in the Bay Area, achieving National Level times in the IM and breaststroke events. 

He continued swimming at the collegiate level and was one of just 12 All-American recipients in college in the breaststroke. Nissen helped his Santa Rose Junior College program claim a league championship and he claimed a number of record-setting swims at Sacramento State in the mid-1980s before transitioning full-time to coaching. 

But it seems, coaching has always been in his blood. 

Nissen, who still recalls his preliminary coaching stint at the ripe age of 17, created a foundation for teaching and engaging swimmers of all ages long ago. He used that base to hone his craft, as a coach and as a referee.  

“I wasn’t even enrolled in college when I first started coaching,” Nissen said. “It was before they changed the latest (swim) group to (ages) 15-18. At that time, you couldn’t coach and get paid and swim. So for two seasons, I coached without pay.”

Nissen's dual role parlayed into a productive collegiate career and a promising coaching career post-graduation. 

He's enjoyed stints with Cordova's aquatic programs, Rio Americano high school, Arden Hills and, most recently, Jesuit's water polo and swim programs. 

Nissen has also served as the NorCal Swim League (NCSL) President, was a nationally certified swimming official, led training clinics for NCSL officials, served as NCSL Championship Meet Referee and was a Meet of Champions Meet referee.

It’s safe to say, he's become very familiar with the area, but he also knows what it takes to win having coached Rio Americano’s boys swim team to a pair of section titles and the girls’ squad to one of their own.

But replacing Hooten, who led the Barracudas to the top ranking in the NorCal swim league for a decade, won’t be easy.

“It’s a challenge to follow a legend like that,” Nissen admitted. “He’s had great success here for a number of years. I’ve had similar success everywhere I’ve gone, so I saw it as a new challenge.”

The Barracudas return enough talent to make the transition a little more seamless.

Ten-year-old Erica Jaffe has been one of the club’s strongest swimmers this season. Competing in the 100-IM and the 50-freestyle, Jaffe has blown away the competition and has already set a new club record in the 25-yard backstroke with a time of 15.47.

“She’s a hard worker and really pays attention to her technique,” Nissen pointed out. “Even at age ten, she probably has the best technique out of everyone out here.”

What’s more impressive is Jaffe’s 200-IM time would already qualify for the high school frosh-soph level. She even beat a few 14-year-olds along the way.

“That was fun to watch,” Nissen said with a smile.

Last season’s 11-12 relay team of Brooke Briggs, Natalie Quilala, Emma Daniels/Rosie Murphy, and Amber Myers also returns to the pool for the Barracudas this season, but now as part of the 13-14 age group. 

That group already owns the 2015 Meet of Champions 200-meter freestyle relay record with a 1:47.20 time — a clocking they shaved three seconds off in 2016 at the Comstock Championships for another first-place finish.

Nissen has also been impressed with both sets of older groups, led by Granite Bay High graduate and University of Pacific commit Christian Murphy, his 11-12 swimmers, and many others. 

“I know a lot of the coaches in the league — mostly just from being around in the swim community, but there’s always been great respect for the Johnson Ranch program,” Nissen added. “They work hard and they display good sportsmanship. 

“One of my big things is you’re swimming against other people, but they’re there to help you. They’re there to help you do your best, and you should thank them for that. So everyone in practice, everyone in the heat you swim, they’re there to help you go faster. They’re not just opponents.”

Few opponents have given the Barracudas much difficulty over the years, but Gold River gave Johnson Ranch a good run earlier this month, but the Barracudas were able to emerge with a 440-389 victory. Fellow Comstock League foe, Elk Grove, presents another unique challenge in the final meet of the regular season. 

“All of the teams in this conference are tough,” Nissen confessed. “They’re always going to have a handful or more strong swimmers, so we always focus on having a full team effort.”

The Barracudas will be back in action this weekend with three straight days of events. First, the team will compete in Friday’s Olympic Day races and hear from special guest swimmers after breakfast. Then, the team will hit the road to take on Glen Oaks Saturday morning. The festivities conclude on Sunday with the Summer Invitational, which is another opportunity for racers to earn a Meet of Champions qualifying time. 

Nissen will be on hand for all three events and you can be sure his swimmers will be ready to go as they look to continue a long tradition of success.