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Peterson leaves behind tradition, legacy at Red Mountain swimming

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The Red Mountain girls were East Valley Region champions in Mike Peterson's 18th and final season as the Mountain Lions swim coach. (Special to MyNewsMesa.com)

Mike Peterson has spent thousands of hours at Shepherd Aquatic Center, but now that he has stepped down as Red Mountain’s swimming coach it’s things like annual stops at a little-known restaurant on road trips to Tucson that will resonate the most.

One of the traditions in the Mike Peterson-era at Red Mountain was stopping at the Kon Tiki restaurant on the way home from an annual meet at the University of Arizona. (Special to MyNewsMesa.com)

“That’s part of the Red Mountain swimming tradition that the kids always looked forward to,” Peterson said. “There’s been a lot of success in the water, but it is the time away from the pool that really defines each team.

“There’s a million little things you do every year, like stopping at the Kon Tiki when we were in Tucson every year. It started out by the kids asking to go to In-N-Out and I said I had a place in mind, probably 12 years ago. After that they always knew we were coming and had special menus for us.”

And there will always be a special place for Peterson in Red Mountain swimming history.

“Mike’s focus was more than just victories,” Red Mountain athletic director Jim Gowdy said. “He cared about the culture of the swim program and how he was impacting the entire campus.”

Peterson’s departure from the program came down to the benefit of retiring after this school year and nothing to do with wanting to get out of coaching.

He admits he will probably surface somewhere closer to home considering the 25-mile one-way trip he’s had to Red Mountain and continue to develop kids, something he still has a passion for to this day.

Mike Peterson was named East Valley Region coach of the year and received the award from district athletic director Steve Hogen. (Special to MyNewsMesa.com)

“I will coach again somewhere, although I am not actively looking,” Peterson said. “I love the process of teaching a kid to be an athlete. I am not tired of that at all.”

Peterson is a born-and-raised Arizonan and went on to swim at Arizona State before beginning his coaching career while still in college at Scottsdale High. His first job after graduation was in the Houston area and then in Palm Springs, California, before returning to Arizona to take over the Arcadia program, where he helped them win two state titles.

He had a stint at Gilbert High before taking over at Red Mountain in 1999, which was right about the same time the city of Mesa had very little club swimming presence.

It made for some difficult seasons early on, but with Mesa Aquatic Club regaining some footing with the help of many of the coaches from the Mesa school programs, the whole district benefitted.

“As soon as we started getting kids to swim year-round for the clubs we started getting kids on the podium (at the high school state meet),” he said. “It has helped put dozens of Mesa kids in state contention every year.”

Red Mountain has been competitive ever since as Peterson led the boys to a runner-up finish in 2010, while the girls teams having twice finished third in state along with winning two regional titles.

Peterson walks away knowing that new coach Ben Scott was a quality hire and that he had it very good for a long at time at Red Mountain.

“I’ve had a lot of great kids and family,” Peterson said. “As coaches, you can have a wide range of experiences. I have only had great experiences. Swimming is a little different. We have to make hard decisions, but I don’t like to tell a kid or parent he can’t play third base.

“We always have the watch.”

And now Peterson will be watching from a far.

“Red Mountain has been a great place,” he said. “We have had nine kids win state titles, and kids who could have gone to West Point. I couldn’t have asked for much more.”

– Jason P. Skoda is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.

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