Published Mar. 28, 2023
By LILLIAN PAUL
The red lights flash: 28.59! 28.65! 29.03! 30.00! 30.05! 32.13! Times from the 50 freestyle. The sound of water rushing over the side of the pool deck and the clicks of stopwatches accompanying the girls’ forceful finishes echo between her ears as she recalls yesterday’s events. It’s a little over halfway through the Carmel High School swim season, and head coach Chelsea Peterson is posed in preparation, hovering yellow highlighter in one hand and her stack of papers in the other. Her task? To highlight each instance where a swimmer earned a best time at yesterday’s meet, and at this point in the season, when she’s finished her own race, it’s going to be a very neon yellow page.
Since 2015, Coach Chelsea, as her athletes refer to her, has been a part of the Carmel High School girls’ swim program though she’s spent a rather accomplished 15 years total as a swim coach.
As a Monterey County local herself, Peterson swam all four years of her high school career, captaining for three of the four and setting school records in two events–the 200 medley relay and the 200 freestyle relay–which stood for over 10 years.
“I had a really positive high school experience,” Peterson recalls. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to pass that forward.”
This vibrant and creative coach has certainly managed to accomplish her goal. Whether it’s fun holiday practices, women’s rights stickers or chalking up the deck, Carmel High swimmers reap the benefits of the community she’s created.
On their way to practice, the girls can often be observed trudging through the gates of the black iron fence surrounding the pool deck, dry eyed and exhausted from a long day of school. The post-practice picture, however, is much different. Though they may still be exhausted, Peterson’s athletes are also dripping with satisfaction–and chlorine–grinning from one latex-covered ear to another and enjoying the high of well-earned endorphins rushing through their system.
As a no-cut sport, the swim community has also become a scene for new students who are still trying to find their place on the Carmel High School campus. Scarlet McColl, for example, joined the varsity girls’ swim team her sophomore year as a new student in the district and has appreciated having Peterson as a coach and inspirational figure.
“She’s a really good motivator and gets to know everyone on a personal level,” McColl reflects on her three years under Peterson’s coaching. “She makes a very welcoming environment.”
It’s obvious that the pool deck local not only has a love and care for her athletes, but also for the sport itself. Peterson dove right into coaching full-time at the Golden West Swim Club for seven years after graduating from Cal State Long Beach and gained a wisdom and passion for coaching while doing so. She recalls that one of her favorite memories from this era was fangirling over getting to wear Olympian Janet Evans’ Team U.S.A. parka at a particularly cold practice.
Eventually, when the opportunity presented itself, she returned to the Monterey area to not only coach the Carmel girls’ swim team, but also to teach a lap swim class through the Pacific Grove Adult School three days a week, two hours a day. It’s safe to say she is quite the expert on the topic.
“A good team and a good coach can make swimming so much better, but a bad team and a bad coach can’t completely ruin swimming,” the coach says, sunglasses adorning her head.
Thankfully, as CHS athletic trainer, coworker and former dive coach Matt Borek confirms, Peterson is nowhere close to being a “bad coach.”
“Chelsea does a really good job with the swim program,” Borek says. “She’s very organized, and it’s clear that she cares about all of her swimmers. It’s a quality about her that I admire.”
This organization and planning happen to be some of Peterson’s favorite parts of the job, hence the neon yellow highlighter, the wall of swimmers’ times from each individual swim meet and the board of lane assignments for the week that can all be found on the girls’ side of the pool deck.
As a mother of 6-year-old twin girls and a baby boy, Peterson finds it really important to model how women should be treated both at home and on the pool deck. After the 2016 election, she claims to have become much more politically conscious and has participated in several women’s rights marches with her daughters.
In terms of striking a similar attitude within her athletes, at the beginning of every season, Peterson passes out a variety of vibrant women’s rights stickers that depict protests, the famous Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the female gender symbol, strong female swimmers and many more images that quickly find their homes on water bottles and laptops. This powerful role model herself elaborates that it’s good to not be quiet about gender inequality issues but also not to throw them down anyone’s throat.
“Keep asking questions,” Peterson advises.
Additionally, she indulges in a tradition of writing a single word on the pool deck’s giant whiteboard every Monday—like “Determination,” “Respect,” “Commitment” or “Confidence”—along with a brief definition. Then, throughout the week, swimmers are invited to interact with the word by demonstrating it, adding other words that come to mind or drawing illustrations. By the end of the final warm-down set on Friday afternoon, the girls have collectively created an inspirational masterpiece.
Through sharing stories of her experiences as a female swimmer herself and these small acts of inspiration and advice, Coach Peterson has made an impact on the attitudes of her athletes who are confident young women aware of the respect that they deserve.
“It’s not just the boys’ swim team,” says three-year varsity swimmer Sarah Schmidt. “The girls’ swim team can be good too.”
Although power outages have postponed two meets, the girls’ team has already collected wins against Stevenson, Santa Catalina and Pacific Grove. It’s an exciting time in the program with a large influx of talented freshmen and the 15 seniors who have stuck around to help mentor younger swimmers. Though 15 is a large number to lose from a 40-person team, Peterson has expressed her excitement over the potential of such a big group of underclassmen that could continue to bring success to Carmel for many years to come.
This bright-eyed and motivating coach is determined to once again make the pool deck a truly positive place for the ninth year in a row. With coach Chelsea Peterson and the larger-than-average fistful of excited seniors, the rest of Carmel High School’s girls’ swim season is certain to go far and beyond Schmidt’s use of the word “good.”