You look at the resume, you listen to her speak and one instinctively knows that Torrey Pines senior Leah Coffin is the kind of person who is going to be successful at whatever she puts her mind to. A four-time CIF individual swimming champion (three in the 100 butterfly and one in the 100 backstroke) and a vital cog in the Falcons’ relay lineup, the Solana Beach native has been front-and-center for the last three of Torrey’s nine consecutive women’s CIF team championships.
Under the tutelage of veteran Head Coach Richard Contreras, she and her teammates will be gunning for No. 10 this May. Contreras is effusive in his praise for Coffin, who boasts a 4.13 cumulative GPA to go along with her athletic exploits. “She’s such a polished, capable swimmer, so savvy about racing,” he said. “There’s a lot of control in her swimming in that she can turn it on and off when she has to. She’ll be a threat in both of her races at CIF.”
With the end of her prep swimming career looming larger, Coffin took time to talk about her relatively late introduction to the sport, which of her events she likes better and what her plans are after graduation. For a longer version of this story, visit rsfreview.com.
Q—When did you start swimming?
COFFIN—I tried a lot of other sports when I was younger—soccer, tennis, volleyball—but didn’t really like them all that much. My dad was a swimmer in college, on the men’s team at UCLA, and when I was 9, I decided to start swimming. He never really suggested it but I always knew he’d swam and that interested me. He was stoked when I said I wanted to try it.
I’d always really enjoyed being in the water and it turned out I was good at it. Something’s always more fun if you’re good at it and that hadn’t been the case with the other sports.
Q—You also swim for the Rancho San Dieguito club program. Do you like high school or club swimming better?
COFFIN—I think it’s nice having both. There’s a different vibe with each and, for me, those differences keep me excited. You never know what types of training you’ll have and it’s always changing.
In high school, I really like the big team aspect. At the meets, they’re always announcing the team points, the coaches are pushing us to succeed as a group and you feel like you’re swimming for more than just yourself. It’s nice to know I’m competing for my team and others are counting on me.
With club, it’s more individual, but it’s also year-round and you spend so much time with the other swimmers in your group that they become your best friends. The majority of the team at Torrey Pines is also part of the Rancho San Dieguito program.
Q—Your two primary individual events are the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke. Which do you like best?
COFFIN—I would have to say I like the 100 fly better. I really enjoy getting to sprint that stroke. It’s a race where you’re able to gauge your opponents’ positions and respond. Truthfully, it’s a hard race and I don’t like to go much more than 100 but it’s also a lot about stroke and tempo which I think are both strengths for me.
Q—What are the key technical and mental requirements of those two events?
COFFIN—In the butterfly, probably the most important element is to have a super strong kick and good shooters (the dolphin-type underwater kick off each turn). Everyone has the tempo and breathing down so the kicking usually makes the difference.
In the backstroke, at least for me, I have to make sure I get up to the fastest tempo in the first 25 yards. It takes a lot of practice to get your arms going that fast right away and you have to make sure you’re warmed up well. Good shooters also play a big part in backstroke.
Q—This year you have a chance to win a fourth consecutive CIF title in the 100 butterfly but the level of competition seems to have jumped up, including your own teammate sophomore Mia Kragh. How do you like your chances and how difficult is it to stay on top for four years?
COFFIN—You’ve obviously got to work hard to be successful, but I think having to racing against new people and tougher competition keeps it interesting. If you’re just racing the same people all the time, you’d get bored. As the times get faster and there’s more competition, I think it’s more interesting when you can’t really predict who’s going to win a race.
I’m the kind of swimmer who tends to really get pushed by the competition. Our club team focuses on the racing aspect of the sport and we have the mentality of “anytime, anywhere, anyone” when it comes to competing. I think I’ve always had a strong mental approach and embrace the challenge.
As far as Mia, I kind of like it. Whatever the result, I’d be happy because it would be good for the team. I want to win but I’d be happy for her because I’ve seen how she works every day. In swimming there’s always someone else coming. It would be cool to be able to win that race four straight and a great accomplishment but I’m just going to enjoy the experience.
Q—Before a race and when you’re actually in the water competing, what is going through your head?
COFFIN—I don’t really have a pre-race routine. I’ll usually just go through a few technical points, then clear my head, get on the blocks and go.
I am almost always swimming short races so there’s not a lot of time to think in the water. I concentrate on making sure I hit the walls right, remember certain little things I need to do and maybe just encourage myself to push hard.
Q—Do you instinctively know during a race whether or not you’re going to post a good time?
COFFIN—Honestly, there have been a lot of times when I felt so great and it turned out to be just an average time. I think a lot of the success factor is based on where your body is physically and how hard you’re able to push yourself through.
I like to be very smooth as opposed to trying to muscle through races. Muscling through them is pretty hard and your stroke and form stays so much stronger when you’re swimming smoothly.
Q—What was your most exhilarating moment as a swimmer at Torrey Pines? Your most embarrassing moment?
COFFIN—The best was probably my first CIF Championship meet. I don’t think I realized how many people would be there and how excited my team would be.
I don’t actually remember much about winning the 100 butterfly at that meet but I know I was pretty excited. I was just out there trying to do my best but by winning, I felt I was really contributing to the team.
As far as embarrassing, one time during a dual meet against Cathedral, the sound system wasn’t working all that well and I didn’t hear the start buzzer go off. I got left by myself on the blocks. I finally got going and ended up finishing second, just barely missing the win. I was working pretty hard—it was only a dual meet but it was against Cathedral and we knew the score would be close so I was trying to make up the ground, just like it was a CIF race.
Q—What is something the average person would be surprised to know about swimmers?
COFFIN—Particularly on the Torrey Pines team, I think most people would be surprised that even though we take swimming very seriously, we definitely have a good time with it. People don’t typically think of swimmers as being loud or outgoing but on our team, a lot are.
Some of our team chants at meets are not your basic cheers and we like to have fun doing things like the Sports Center or Wheel of Fortune theme songs.
Q—What are some of the most interesting classes you’ve taken at Torrey Pines?
COFFIN—Three actually come to mind. I really enjoy AP Psychology (Mrs. Leahy) because the subject is thought-provoking and I’ve got a really good teacher. AP Language (Mrs. Smith), which is a writing class, has improved my skills in that area and made it a lot easier to do assignments that require it. I’m also taking a Teaching & Learning elective. That’s with Mrs. Smith as well and it allows us to volunteer in an elementary school classroom.
I have been doing that at Solana Vista Elementary—working like a student teacher, taking groups of kids, helping with lessons and just doing things where they’re needed.
Q—What’s on your plate after graduation from Torrey Pines?
COFFIN—I’ll be going to school and swimming next year at UC Santa Barbara. I’m pretty excited about that. Right now, I’m planning on being a sociology major with a minor in education. I hope to be an elementary school teacher.
I want to be a teacher because I believe it’s a really important job where you’re able to shape a lot of young kids as they grow up and start getting into society. That’s something I want to be part of.
I’m pretty proud that I was able to push myself academically at Torrey Pines. Swimming obviously takes up a lot of time and I didn’t want that to be an excuse for not doing well in the classroom.
Q—As a senior, how important is it to you to end your high school career on a high note at the CIF and State Championships?
COFFIN—It’s really important. We’ve had a lot of success and a lot of the girls in my class have swam on the same relay teams since we were freshmen. We want to finish strong and keep Torrey Pines’ winning streak alive.
My team is really excited about state. We’ve never sent a full team. This year the schedule works out so that everyone can go and after winning the Mission Viejo Invitational [recently], we think we have a chance to win it.