Making a splash

New swim coach combines passion for sport and alma mater

Ella Waldman

Although CESJDS didn’t have a swim team when Lower School P.E. teacher and alumna Gabriella Pilarski (‘16) attended high school, her love for the sport came full circle when she accepted the opportunity to coach the varsity swim team this season. 

After graduating from JDS and studying kinesiology at the University of Maryland, Pilarski accepted a physical education teaching position in the middle of the pandemic. Originally, she planned on following a physical therapy career path. However, after a change in education requirements for that field, she wanted to find a job before committing to going back to school to earn her master’s degree. 

“I was looking for jobs related to my [bachelor’s] degree and I saw that JDS was hiring,” Pilarski said. “Thankfully, I only had to teach P.E. via zoom for a couple of weeks before they brought me in, in-person. And I’m very thankful for that because that was not very pleasant, in my opinion, for the kids or the teachers.”

A year later, before Pilarski entered her second year of teaching at JDS, athletic director Becky Silberman offered Pilarski an assistant coaching position for the cross country team. Pilarski instead asked if there were any available volleyball opportunities and subsequently accepted the position of middle school girls volleyball coach. Then, about a month before the winter sports season began, Silberman offered her the swim coach position. 

Before college, Pilarski played volleyball and swam competitively. In fact, she swam on a team with Olympic swimmer Phoebe Bacon and continues to play on a recreational volleyball team today. As someone who has been involved in both of these sports for a while, she hopes to create an environment where her athletes can flourish and enjoy the sport as much as she does. 

“Volleyball was my first season coaching anything and I really really enjoyed it. I thought it was so fun to work with [kids older] than I do during the day, very refreshing,” Pilarski said. “In P.E., it’s required, and all the kids at the Lower School love it. But it’s so different [from] working with one specific sport, with kids who want to learn that one sport.”

After coming off of a successful volleyball season where she led her team to the playoff semifinals, Pilarski recognizes that coaching swimming will require a different technique. Because athletes are in the water and not beside her, it is more difficult for Pilarski to offer quick corrections to her swimmers. 

“I can’t just be like, kick harder, or I can be, but that’s not as valuable to the athletes,” Pilarski said. “I’ve never done this before, [so I’m trying to learn] what I can offer that aren’t just good workouts. What kind of corrections can I offer about your technique and mental attitude?”

In addition to enhancing her coaching style, Pilarski hopes to help swimmers meet their individual goals and swim their personal bests. For several JDS swimmers, this means training for the METROS, a distinguished regional swim competition that Pilarski hopes to help athletes compete in. 

Aside from individual objectives, Pilarski’s other goal is to emphasize team support and spirit. Growing up, her favorite swim memory was cheering so loudly for her friends that they were able to hear her while they were underwater. Pilarski hopes to bring this same energy, enthusiasm and support to the JDS team. 

“My favorite part [of swimming] is how it is simultaneously an individual and team sport. You can work hard by yourself to achieve individual goals while being a part of a supportive team environment,” Pilarski said. 

Although the logistics of the swim season are not yet finalized, the team still practices twice a week at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington pool. As of now, three high school meets in the Washington Metropolitan Prep School Swim Dive League are on the schedule, and two more may be added. Additionally, should the swim team join the PVAC League, some middle schoolers may also be allowed to compete with the varsity team. 

After the fall season concluded, Pilarski had a chance to reflect on her first coaching experience and how she hopes to bring what she learned into the upcoming winter season. 

“I learned…how much it really is about the athletes and their experience. I was frustrated when we would lose, thinking that there was something … I could have done differently that would have allowed the team to win,” Pilarksi said. “But what it comes down to is, are the athletes feeling like they can be trying their hardest? Are they having fun? And are they learning something? And trying to maximize not just winning, but individual and personal growth.”