Family and recognition are the twin values that Nikita Denisyako, the new Scottsdale Preparatory Academy (SPA) swim and dive coach, has learned to prioritize within the sport he’s been a part of for over a decade.
“Back [when I was in high school], there wasn’t any public recognition of just high schoolers who performed well in sports,” Denisyako said. “Swimmers who performed well at the world stage - World Championships and European Championships, were recognized on national media, but local high school events or city championships were not covered.”
A native of Riga, Latvia, Denisyako moved to Moscow when he was 4 years old and spent nearly all of his teenage years there perfecting his backstroke. He moved to the United States when he was 19, and got a full scholarship from Texas A&M University to swim.
Denisyako’s college experience was eye-opening, as it was his first taste of a close-knit swim team. In Russia, high school athletics are unpopular and many athletes, like Denisyako, are moved towards club competition at an early age.
“It’s just another family that you spend most of your time with,” Denisyako said, referring to his college swim team. He added that he is trying to instill in his high school teams the same atmosphere and pursuit of athletic goals that made his college experience so enjoyable.
His swimmers have more than embraced this agenda.
“In the afternoons we do these team exercises,” said senior and SPA men’s co-swim captain this season, Nicholas Ames, citing an example of, “Balancing a tennis ball with two people, you had to go back and forth.”
That teamwork can be found at their meets as well, where the Spartans can’t be ignored while conducting their pregame chant circle or clapping behind the starting blocks during relay events.
At swim and dive competitions, countless athletes from various Arizona high schools can be seen approaching Denisyako, many of whom he’s coached at the Scottsdale Aquatic Club. He gives them pointers on the events they’re competing in, but not before making them laugh or smile. To Denisyako, these swimmers and divers are his family away from home.
Denisyako is the third head coach in as many years for the Spartans. The lack of leadership continuity would spell disaster for many other programs, but SPA swimmers have a different view of the situation.
“Developing all of my skills because of all the different coaching styles, I think that I’ve developed more of a renaissance style,” said Eric Bernhardt, a senior and co-captain of the men’s swim team with Ames, adding, “I can kind of do a little bit of everything.”
Bernhardt has been a part of the swim team for four years, and in that time has seen the head coaching relay continue from Kim Lester in 2017, to Robert Ostrander in 2018, and now coach Denisyako.
The Spartans’ leadership carousel hasn’t slowed down the program’s progress one bit. The SPA women's swim team has been state runner-up the past two seasons in Division III competition, scoring 200 or more points in each trip to the state tournament.
Ostrander was optimistic about this year’s team. “They’ll win this year,” he said.
Ostrander came in to coach SPA swim and dive in 2018, following Lester’s departure with her husband to Texas. Ostrander filled Lester’s shoes nicely, but left his head coaching job after one season to move up from Division III swim and dive to Division II, and is now coaching for Notre Dame Preparatory.
Fortunately for the Spartans, Ostrander recruited assistant coaches, Ted Collins and Jennifer Barlow, to join him last season. They enter 2019 as the Spartans’ longest tenured coaches.
Both Collins and Barlow credit the recent success of the program to the depth and dedication of its swim and dive members.
“They swim with club teams pretty much year-round and that helps,” Collins said, “and then the ones that don’t, we work even more so earlier in the season on getting their endurance going and technique.”
Collins recently attended his first Masters world swim meet this past August, where he swam in South Korea. He has been involved in Masters swimming, an adult swimming organization, for about 10 years. This was a perfect fit for Collins because he always loved the sport, but lacked a program when he was in high school.
Between Collins and Denisyako, the Spartans now have well-traveled leadership for this season.
Currently, SPA coed swim and dive is 4-0, outscoring their first four dual meet opponents 681-381. The hope is that in 2019, the program can continue its first-year head coaching magic and return to the swim and dive state tournament in early November with a championship in mind.