Oh, She’s Worthy
Palmer Credited With SHS’s Success
Posted: February 8, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Barbara Palmer insisted, most vehemently, that she was not worthy of significant recognition for her achievements over the past 10 years as Spotswood High School’s swim coach.
She insisted that she was just a “small piece of the puzzle” and “a little piece of the success,” and that “it’s not about me being the coach; it just isn’t.” She wanted any story about Spotswood swimming to be “about the girls.”
But, as strongly as she insisted that eight district titles and two regional championships had little to do with her, other people, just as strongly, insisted it was about Palmer — and there were a lot of them.
“She’s been the coach for 10 years, and that’s a long time, and she’s done so much for our team,” said SHS senior backstroker Olivia Sheffer, a team captain. “...She’s always pushing us and making us try to get our goals. And she just loves us so much, and you can tell. She definitely deserves it.”
Last week, the 51-year-old Palmer told her team that she was retiring at the end of the season, which now has just two meets remaining: the Region III championships this weekend, and the state meet Feb. 14-16.
Palmer — a sixth-grade science teacher at Montevideo Middle School known for her bubbly demeanor and blue, sequined wardrobe at big meets — said she’s retiring because of a desire to become a high school administrator, possibly an athletic director. She’s currently getting her master’s degree at James Madison University.
“I’ve always said I’m going to go 10 years, and I’m at 10 years now,” Palmer said. “I’m getting to a point where I want to try some different things personally in terms of furthering my career.”
Palmer started SHS’s program for the 2003-04 school year and built the girls into an area power. They have won eight district titles (there have been nine district meets) and seven straight. Now, the Blazers are going for their third straight Region III title and are in position to make a run at their best-ever finish at the Group A/AA meet. Last year, Spotswood finished fifth. It also finished fifth in 2005.
Palmer, regardless of her protestations, gets credit as a major reason why.
“She always makes sure that the swimmers are ready for whatever event they’re swimming,” said senior Coral Dean, a team captain who swims the 200-yard individual medley and 500 freestyle. “And, if anyone’s nervous, she keeps them calm. She keeps us focused on the team, too, and not just individuals, which is how I think we win all the time. … She makes it more about the team than herself.”
That’s how the program started.
Palmer — who played volleyball at Division II Shepherd University (W.Va.), from which she graduated in 1984 — got involved in area swimming through her daughter, Ashley, who participated in the Valley Swim League, a local summer youth circuit. But, at the time, Spotswood didn’t have a team.
“I just think Harrisonburg had a team, and I felt there was enough interest in the area with all the summer leagues,” Palmer said. “There were a lot of people participating in that. … I just knew these high school kids would want a high school sport.”
The SHS swim program’s first season was 2003-04, and Palmer described it as a “trial year.” She said there was no coaching stipend and no district championship. Those came the next year.
Sara Smith was a junior at SHS at the time. Smith, now 25 and a veterinary student at North Carolina State, went on to swim at Virginia Tech and even made the Olympic trials in 2008. Smith said Palmer — who credited Smith’s talent with helping the fledgling program gain legitimacy — was the force behind Spotswood swimming.
“Oh, my gosh, for the Spotswood High School team, it was 100 percent,” said Smith, who graduated from SHS in 2005. “From what I remember, she worked so hard. She is the reason Spotswood has a swim team.”
Palmer, not surprisingly, said it wasn’t.
“It’s just a lot of different factors,” she said. “The No. 1 thing is we’ve had a great support system in our administration at Spotswood. That’s been a factor. We’ve had dedicated parents who are willing to step up and be officials … And I think the biggest thing is committed swimmers.”
Palmer said she intends to stay involved. She said she’ll manage the East Rockingham Recreation Association pool this summer for a 15th year before retiring from that, as well. She also could end up as a meet official.
Spotswood assistant Jarad Buckmaster — a former swimmer at Division III Brockport (N.Y.) and now an SHS math teacher who likely will succeed Palmer as head coach — said it was Palmer’s parental coaching style that’s helped her build Spotswood into a power.
“She coaches like a parent,” said the 36-year-old Buckmaster. “She treats these kids like her own kids and makes them want to swim. She’s very much active in their lives outside of swimming.”
Palmer’s demeanor — her way with the swimmers — also has helped the Blazers succeed. She relates and helps them relax, mostly by taking all the stress on herself.
“They want to swim for her,” Buckmaster said. “I think that is a really big part of that. It’s the relationship she builds with the kids, even at an early age and being at the middle school — it’s the reason we’re able to sustain that for so long.”
Even if Palmer insists she had little to do with it.