Cokie Lepinski, US Masters Swimming Coach of the Year, Has “The Best Job In the World”

MARIN COUNTY, California, September 23. COKIE Lepinski had years of experience as a public speaker under her belt when she accepted the U.S. Masters Swimming Coach of the Year last week, but that didn’t keep her heart rate from climbing.

“I felt like I had done a Dave Salo sprint set,” she said about standing in front of more than 1,000 of her peers at the United States Aquatic Sports Convention’s annual awards banquet. Plus, she was handed the award by Rowdy Gaines, who Lepinski tabs as an inspirational figure.

And now, the 55-year-old joins a group of 29 coaches who have won the award since 1986 (two coaches shared the honor in 1992), a roster that includes a couple of Olympic gold medalists and a dozen more whose names are synonymous with Masters swimming.

Like most coaches who toil endless hours daily, monthly, yearly in the quest to make their athletes better, Lepinski is not one to seek acclaim. She just wants to see swimmers smiling as wide as she is during an early-morning workout.

“It is the best job in the world,” she said. “You have a chance to positively impact someone’s life every day, by raising the bar, by making workouts fun, by helping them when the chips are down and celebrating the great moments in our lives.”

Lepinski’s coaching background is brief, but no less impactful. She started Marin Pirates Masters in 2009 when the coaching bug bit her after 18 years as a Masters swimmer.

“I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since,” she said.

Lepinksi took a break from coaching, moving to Arizona to enjoy retirement after a career as a 911 dispatcher. In 2013, Lepinski and fellow coach Susie Powell started Swymnut Masters as a virtual presence on the Internet, supplying workouts to those who were without coaches. That’s when the desire to get back on deck returned.

“I told my husband ‘I need to go back. I’m too young, and I miss coaching deeply.’”

The two returned to Marin and made Swymnut Masters an actual club when they resurrected Lucas Valley Aquatic Masters after the head coach had left. The team had 17 swimmers in April 2013. Today, she coaches 105 athletes.

The growth took time, as did the exposure on the national level. Lepinski publishes technique tips frequently, and produced an e-book called There’s a Drill For That recently. Last weekend, Powell received the USMS Fitness Award to give Swymnut Masters two of the highest honors an American Masters swimming coach can receive.

Anyone who sees Lepinski at a swim meet or at a swim practice can feel the positive energy she naturally exudes. It’s a trait she said she’s had since her teenage years.

“I was always athletic,” said Lepinski, who was captain of her high school’s volleyball and soccer teams. “I was voted most inspirational, and I always had leadership skills in me. So, coaching just seems like a really nice fit.”

She finds the joy in her job every day, but nothing will compare to two moments at the recent USMS short course nationals to exemplify the joy she feels in seeing others succeed.

Nick Winer wanted to break 1:00 in the 100 freestyle, and after a year of work under Lepinski’s guidance, he posted a 56.31, thanks to Lepinski’s assurance in January that it was possible.

“She was passionate about (me breaking 1:00), and it got me excited about all these things I could do differently,” Winer said. “I had no idea that (56.31) was possible. It was because she was able to see some things I was able to do and never gave up.”

The other highlight came in convincing Kayla Coffee to return to competition, where she placed in the top eight in the 50 backstroke.

“It wasn’t getting in the top eight that was great for her,” Lepinski said. “It was getting to swim on a relay with a 77-year-old! That’s what Masters Swimming is all about.”

In addition to her tireless work on deck, Lepinski still competes as a Masters swimmer. She owns the USMS record in the 200-yard breaststroke with a 2:37.95 from 2010, and hopes to get back to that level soon. She’s recovering from knee surgery but is anxious about “chopping away at that gap” between her current times and the level she knows she can attain. In the meantime, she’ll continue to chant her mantra that she gives daily to her swimmers:

“It’s the joy of swimming, not the result.”