High School Sports

Roley’s team-first mindset stands apart

Sehome senior swimmer Gwen Roley already assumed she wasn’t going to be a Class 2A state champion in the 200 freestyle for a third straight year.

She also figured it would be difficult for her team to win a state championship — Liberty was the heavy favorite and barring any huge surprises, the Patriots were going to claim the title.

But Roley, who has been selected The Bellingham Herald’s 2014 All-Whatcom County Girls’ Swimmer of the Year for the second time, knew she had the opportunity to propel her team to a second-place finish with a strong showing in the 100 backstroke.

The only issue was she had just gotten out of the pool after helping the Mariners to a third-place finish in the 200 freestyle relay.

“That’s pretty tough to do, to get out of relay and pop back in,” Sehome coach Don Helling said in a phone interview. “It takes a lot of guts.”

Roley handled it with ease, finishing fourth in the backstroke — one of three Mariner swimmers to finish in the top eight, propelling the team to a second-place team finish at the Class 2A State Championships last month at Federal Way.

It’s only fitting that Roley hadn’t competed in the backstroke early in her career. It wasn’t until her junior year when she made the switch, and of course, the move was made to benefit the team.

The senior’s team-first attitude, particularly in 2014, highlighted a career with plenty of individual accolades.

“It was more just asking me what I needed her to do at any given meet,” Helling said. “She was willing to do it.”

After all, high school swimming is about the team, and that’s the reason Roley has stuck with Sehome’s squad for so long, while some peers opted to focus on the more individually competitive club swimming.

But Roley has done more than just stick with it — she’s made it a priority.

“I knew that the reason I like to do high school swimming is that it is all about the team. ... I want to be able to work together with people to achieve something bigger,” Roley said in a phone interview. “My thought process was if I don’t put enough into it and people see me doing that, a lot of people don’t think they have to do it. We wouldn’t achieve the greatest possible outcome.”

Helling added, “I think it’s indicative of what high school swimming really gives to you. It helps kids look at bigger picture and focus on something bigger than themselves. ... I think she’s a great example of that.”

So when the Mariners, in large part due to Roley’s participation on the relay teams as well as some different individual events at state, were awarded the second-place trophy, Roley knew her team had achieved the greatest possible outcome.

That’s why Roley, despite admitting she didn’t meet some of her personal goals in dropping time from last season, still views 2014 as a success.

“Walking down from the stage, I was really happy,” Roley said. “But I looked around and realized that I wasn’t going to be at this meet or at this pool again. It was happy because I had felt success.

“But it was sad that there was a finality. I had been swimming at that pool (the King County Aquatic Center) since I was 12 years old. It was bittersweet.”

It also signaled that she would no longer be coached by Helling.

The swimmer and coach built a relationship throughout the four years not only in the pool but in the classroom as well.

Roley was in Helling’s “anchor class,” a Sehome model that pits the same group of students with one teacher for all four years. It meant that Roley and Helling got to know each other well. Not only did they see each other year-round every day, but during swim season, Roley would see Helling in the morning, then in class, then at swim practice.

“It makes me feel like it is a closer relationship than you’re used to having with a coach,” Roley said. “It makes it easy to be myself around him. It seems more relaxed. I see some of the other girls be afraid of Don. But I know that Don’s just a big softy.”

And of course, Helling had nothing but praise for his four-year star.

“Gwen is an incredible kid. She’s been a joy to coach for these four years,” Helling said. “She’s one of the hardest working kids that I’ve coached. She trains hard and she’s a great team leader. She has a great sense of humor — a very sharp kid. It’s been a lot of fun to see her mature and get to the point she did this year.”

Roley hasn’t decided if she’ll try to swim competitively in college, but says she would be happy with the way things ended if the state championships last month were her last swim meet ever.