OTHELLO — Swimming for the Othello Barracudas as a child, Natilee Ruiz said she never really thought that she stood out. Becky Moses, the longtime Barracudas coach, encouraged Natilee’s parents to enroll her in a year-round swim program. Ruiz’s parents agreed, and so her career began.
After six 2A state titles, five state records (three of which still stand) and a stint competing at San Diego State University, Ruiz has found her way back to the pool where everything began. In her first year as head coach of the Barracudas swim team, Ruiz hopes to share what’s she learned with her kids, while at the same time re-discover why she learned to enjoy the sport in the first place.
When she first started swimming at the club level, at around 8 or 9 years old, Ruiz began with the Manta Rays in Moses Lake before relocating to the Tri-Cities. The young Othello swimmer traveled to the Tri-Cities six days a week, staying all summer in the area.
“In the moment, I didn’t know any different,” Ruiz said. “I was just going with the flow. I went with complete strangers half the time. People were constantly helping me, who were just like, ‘Oh, Natilee’s swimming? Natilee needs a ride? OK, let’s go.’ Perks of living in a small town, I guess.”
Even when qualifying for Olympic trials, Natilee still didn’t realize the skill she had. It wasn’t until she took a year off to play volleyball in high school, before trying to come back at the same level, that she realized where she was at.
Due to the lack of a swim team in Othello, Ruiz had to travel to Moses Lake to compete with the team there before competing for Othello at the state meets. Moses Lake High School swim coach Tony St. Onge said Ruiz always had a natural talent in the pool.
“In swimming, that means she had a phenomenal feel for the water and could generate a lot of power, while streamlining her way through the water with great efficiency,” St. Onge said. “She made it look easy.”
For Ruiz, swimming became something she looked at as a ticket to help pay for her college. As she got older, stacks of recruiting letters piled up for her, San Diego State being the place that felt the most comfortable to her.
Despite traveling around the country for meets growing up, Ruiz said the move from Othello to San Diego, Calif. was a huge change.
“I traveled all over the U.S. for club swimming,” Ruiz said. “But I could tell you what the pool looked like, and I could tell you what the hotel looked like. When I actually lived in San Diego for four years, it was a completely different lifestyle.”
While at SDSU, Ruiz got her degree in child and family development, with plans to pursue a career as a pediatric nurse. A call from the school district in Othello about an opening in the special education department, with an offer to pay for her master’s degree, was too good to pass up, however. Ruiz said she’s always wanted to help people who have special needs.
“My students are amazing,” Ruiz said. “They are the reason I wake up every morning. They are the reason I go to work.”
Back in Othello, when she first got the call about coming back to coach the Barracudas, Ruiz said she didn’t think she was ready at first. Ruiz said she hadn’t done a proper job of balancing fun and work during her career, having dedicated so much of her life growing up to the sport.
“I was a product of the business,” Ruiz said. “I lost sight of why I swam in the first place. I lost sight of the fun I should be having.”
This season, Ruiz felt she was ready to move forward from her past and share her experiences with the young swimmers in the community.
“My goal was that, obviously, I wanted to share my knowledge,” Ruiz said. “But also to remind them not only are we here to work hard and be competitive, but we’re also here to have fun and have a good time, so that’s my goal.”
With the smiles from her team, and the thanks she gets from parents and others for coming back to coach, Ruiz said she’s happy she made the decision to return.
“They respect the fact that I did my best in a sport that I dedicated my whole, I don’t know how many years to, and I’m back here trying to help,” Ruiz said. “It’s satisfying.”
St. Onge said he’s followed Ruiz’ career from the time she was with the Manta Rays all the way through college, where she finally got the chance to compete in relays. He’d have Ruiz as the anchor on his team any time, he said.
“She was the type that would put the team before herself and be barely able to crawl out of the pool after a relay,” St. Onge said. “It’s great that she is coaching and teaching now. There is a lot that students can learn from her. I hope she has a long and rewarding career.”
As she just begins her return to the Barracudas, one idea she had as a possibility for the future was a Special Olympics swim team she could help be a part of.
“I’d love to be able to combine my two passions, with something like that,” Ruiz said. “That’s just an idea I’ve had in my head.”
For the future, Ruiz said she’s simply “going with the flow” and seeing where it all takes her.