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Heard heads back to school

Dan BurkhartMike Heard stands at the NU pool.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Mike Heard had 1,730 miles of interstate highway to think.

The 34-year-old and his wife of five years, Ricci, cracked open a new chapter in their lives two Sundays ago when they hit the road for the University of North Texas in Denton.

Heard, a former Nevada Union High School all-section swimmer and longtime area swim and water polo coach, was off to the town of about 66,000 just north of Dallas to pursue his second master’s degree, this one in physics.



“I’m really excited about going back to school. I haven’t been challenged academically for a long time,” he said. “But the toughest thing about leaving is, I like it here. I love working with the kids. I love the community. I grew up here, and I came back on purpose after college. So, to leave all of that is really, really hard.

“Then on the other hand, this was a chance to move on and do something I’ve been talking about for a long time. This was such a good opportunity, I felt like I needed to take it,” he added.




Elise Tuttle, 18, who has been a pupil of Heard’s for the last decade-or-so as a member of the Grass Valley-based Penguins Swim Team, is torn over his departure.

“It’s really sad to see him go. He’s been like the key to the whole program. He’ll be missed a lot, but at the same time, you have to be happy for him because he’s pursuing something he’s wanted to do for a long time,” the 2002 NU grad said.

Heard, who swam for the California State University, Bakersfield, squad that won four straight NCAA Division II national championships from 1986 to 1990, didn’t have too much time to ponder his decision to leave.

Ricci Heard found out about the opportunity in April and made the initial phone calls.

Heard, who was chest-deep in the high school swim season at the time, booked a flight to the Lone Star State during spring break.

The powers that be in the UNT science department liked what they saw and offered Heard a position as teaching assistant on the spot.

“I had to make the decision within a week, because in order to get a leave of absence (from my job as a science teacher at NU), I needed to have the paperwork in quick,” he said. “It’s probably good that I didn’t have too much time to think about it.”

The Sacramento-born, Grass Valley-raised Heard got his start in swimming at the age of 6.

“My mom was a swimmer, and she got me and my older brother started. I was a terrible swimmer at first. I was just awful,” he said.

Heard worked and worked, and worked some more in the pool before he began to see results.

As a youth, he set several Penguins team records in the sprints. Heard kept it going at the prep level, where he starred on a NU team that won four straight Capital Athletic League titles.

“I was never naturally gifted at swimming, so I had to work really, really hard. Even through high school and college, I was the guy who had to make sure I did everything just right in order to improve,” he said.

He earned an academic scholarship to Cal-State Bakersfield, and then made the swim team as a walk-on.

Heard was in the pool in all four of the Roadrunner’s national titles, but a nagging shoulder injury he got years before caught up to him his junior year.

“That really kinda pushed me into coaching, because I had to spend the second half of my junior year and the first half of my senior year on the deck with my coach,” he said.

His coach at the time, Ernie Maglischo, who had the distinction of leading three different schools to NCAA swimming championships, became Heard’s mentor.

“It was incredible just being on the deck with him. He would point out stuff all of the time. In the year I spent with him on the deck, I was just like a sponge,” Heard said.

With bachelor’s degree in physics in hand, Heard headed north to the University California at Davis to pursue a master’s in engineering and maybe get in a little coaching on the side.

He offered his services, and the Aggies accepted.

Heard helped out the first year, then left the pool the second year to focus on getting his both his master’s and teaching credential.

A year later, a job at his high school alma mater opened up.

Heard jumped at the chance to come home, and promptly headed for the pool.

He took over the NU swimming and water polo programs, as well as lending his services to the Penguins soon after he hit town.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with kids. And I love the area, I wanted to live here. So to come back up, and get a teaching job and get a chance to coach was a really great opportunity,” he said. “I don’t know where my new life will take me, but I’d definitely love to come back.”


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