Marissa Olsen got her feet wet as a high school swim coach in a most unusual and successful way.
Now the 23-year-old Central High graduate is diving into both a sport and a career path that seem perfectly suited for her.
Olsen is the new head coach of the Blue Dolphins Swim Team in Dallas.
She’s also going to be the returning coach of the Crescent Valley Raiders, who last year captured the Class 5A boys swim title (their first since 2007) and were the 5A girls runner-up.
It was quite a high school coaching debut for Olsen, a Corvallis native and Monmouth resident who graduated from Central in 2017.
Olsen became Crescent Valley’s coach through good fortune, good timing and maybe a little destiny.
Shortly before the high school spring season was to start, she inquired about any openings for an assistant coach at Crescent Valley.
“I just had a feeling I should call them,” she said.
We have no openings for an assistant coach, she was told, but we need a head coach to replace long-time coach Rex Watkins, who had just retired.
Olsen applied, and much to her surprise, got the job.
“I think they were desperate,” she said. “And I was in the right place at the right time.
“I feel so lucky.”
Olsen also became an assistant age-group coach with the Blue Dolphins. And, when head coach Jesse Genauldi recently stepped aside to focus on his educational path, Olsen applied for that vacancy – and got it.
She’ll be working closely and guide the Blue Dolphins’ youth swimmers and other programs. She’s looking forward to having the Dallas Aquatic Center play host to swim meets Oct. 22-23 and in April. She wants to line up a food truck for those events.
The pool also will have a “Spooky Swim” on Oct. 29.
One thing she really would like to see down the road with the Blue Dolphins is more scholarship opportunities.
“Money shouldn’t stop kids from doing sport,” she said.
She’d also love to start a masters swim program at the Dallas facility, but finding pool time for such a group is a tricky issue.
“The pool is only open certain hours due to the funding,” she said. “But there’s such an interest in Polk County. I’ve had more than 20 adults say they want a masters team.”
Olsen also would be excited if a pool could return or be added in Independence for use by youth and adults.
Olsen recently was accepted to be in an American Swimming Coaches Association mentorship program. It’s a one-year program where participants meet and learn from other swim coaches, which also include Olympic-level coaches. A week ago, she made a trip to Las Vegas as part of the program.
As much as she loves being a swim coach, the biggest thing in Olsen’s life is her 17-month-old daughter Alice. The toddler has changed her life for the better.
“I was coming out of not making the best decisions for myself,” Olsen said. “Having Alice changed my life and has made me want to be successful and follow my dreams and make a career for myself, and not be just a mom but be someone who is showing her that you can follow your dreams.”
Olsen likes living on campus in Monmouth and being around the Western Oregon University environment and energy, though she also could see herself and Alice being part of a larger and even more diverse community someday. In the meantime, Olsen is interested in going to school to study sports management.
Alice’s father is “super supportive,” Olsen said. He is available to pick up Alice from day care and be with her in the evenings when Olsen has to be coaching or traveling with one of her teams. And Olsen’s mother is in a position where she can help take care of Alice during the day.
“My mother is a strong, amazing woman, and she is so supportive of me,” Olsen said.
So, some of the pieces are in place for Olsen to continue building on what has been an impressive start for someone whose formative years weren’t always the easiest.
Olsen was raised in an old military housing duplex in Adair Village. Her single mom worked very hard at cleaning houses, and then married Marissa’s step-dad.
“Growing up, my parents tried to put me in every sport imaginable,” Olsen said. “My dad ran a club basketball program. I traveled with the boys and got dragged to practices. My dad also coached track for Santiam Christian and football at Jefferson High. But I grew to despise basketball and football, and volleyball was kind of the popular-girl thing, and I didn’t feel like I fit that.”
Swimming, on the other hand ... now, that was more her style.
“Swimming was different, and in swimming you don’t have to rely on anyone else,” she said.
She joined the Corvallis Aquatic Team when she was about 5 and competed for several years, making the 100-meter breaststroke her specialty.
“I was not the fastest by any means,” she said, “and I dropped club swimming when I got to high school.”
Olsen attended Santiam Christian until the eighth grade, then went to Crescent Valley. She moved to Monmouth with her mom and family her sophomore year. That was when her mother was hit with stage 3 colon cancer (she is “doing well” now, Marissa said.
Olsen transferred to Central as a junior.
“It was a hard time with my mom ill, but I loved meeting the new people and having new experiences,” she said.
Olsen, who had been on the swim team at Crescent Valley, focused on Future Farmers of America during her Central years. “I was an officer and really into that,” she said.
She also was in the choir at both high schools and was part of a Central choir that placed third in the state.
“I wasn’t that great a swimmer in high school,” Olsen said. “I’m a much better coach.
“And my high school experience was hard. I was not the most popular kid. I left Crescent Valley because I was not fitting in. It has a different demographic, and I just didn’t fit in, although I loved the swim team there.”
For a while, she thought about going into the service, but she wound up teaching some swimming and moving to Hawaii, where she got some coaching experience with a club team.
“I felt really alive in Hawaii, really happy there, but with the pandemic and having the baby, I couldn’t stay there,” she said.
Some aspects of her personal life have been “a wild ride” of growing and learning experiences. Partly because of that, Olsen is a big advocate for mental health awareness, and, when it comes to her young swimmers, “I love to be there as a mentor for them as much as I can, and I take pride in sharing my story with my athletes.”
In her spare time, she also loves art and to paint, which serves for her as a creative outlet. She received her associates degree through Martinsburg College online. She loves to dress casually and naturally, in ways that are true to show she is and how she is feeling. At Dallas Aquatic Club as an assistant coach, she sometimes would show up in her overalls and pig tails and “nobody thought I was the coach. I love that, to be able to show and express who I am.”
Editors Note: This article was written by former I-O sports reporter, Steve Brandon, prior to his passing on Sept. 9.