Olympians Maya DiRado, Molly Hannis honed skills with Santa Rosa Neptunes swim club

Call it the Cake Baking Theory of Excellence.

Dan Greaves, longtime coach of the Santa Rosa Neptunes swim club, has found the right recipe to help produce more than a dozen swimmers in the past five years who have gone to the U.S. Olympic trials - and this year, two who will compete for their country in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Greaves doesn’t take credit for creating these world-class athletes. He barely acknowledges he had a hand in their success at all.

He says they became great mostly on their own.

“It’s like baking a cake,” he explains. “If you’re missing one ingredient, it doesn’t turn out. But if you spend your whole career trying to master the 12 ingredients, then your cake will be amazing. But if you only want the cake, you’re not going to survive.”

More simply:

“You gotta master all the skills before the end product is right.”

At Neptunes swim practice, they don’t talk about the cake much. They don’t talk times, winning races - and certainly not the Olympics.

“We talk about the skills, the process of it,” Greaves said.

As his two Olympians, Maya DiRado and Molly Hannis, prepare for the games in Rio next month, Greaves, 39, reflected on his club’s success and what it means to have such accomplished swimmers trace their beginnings to a small swim club in?semirural Northern California.

A Neptunes coach for 20 years, the past 12 as head coach, Greaves acts as a gentle guiding hand, not a hard-driving, pacing-the-sidelines screamer.

He doesn’t hound his athletes to work harder.

He doesn’t yell at them.

He doesn’t punish them.

He doesn’t push them to their limits.

He doesn’t feel the need to break them down to build them up.

He doesn’t guilt-trip them if they’re not living up to expectations.

It’s technique over anything, quality over quantity.

“We’re always painting a picture of, ‘Where do you want to go and is your behavior getting you there?’?” Greaves said. “?‘If it’s not getting you there, do you really want to go there? If you don’t really want to go there, then why are we doing what we’re doing?’?”

From those questions - for which Greaves doesn’t require answers - kids are forced to look inward. Some decide they don’t want to compete at a high level.

“It’s all good,” he said, no judgments. There are swimmers of all ability levels among the 330 Neptunes, from kindergarteners to teenagers.

“We get to dabble in high-level athletics. I don’t think we expect anything else,” Greaves said.

Still, the club, in existence since 1955, has consistently produced some of the country’s top swimmers.

That includes junior and senior national finalists, a U.S. Open champion, two NCAA champions, a Senior National Champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Jenna Johnson.

In the 2012 Olympic trials, seven Neptune swimmers competed, including DiRado and Hannis.

This year, six qualified for trials: Hannis, DiRado, Rebecca Baxley, Piper Brockley, Allie Davis and Riley Scott.

In the June 26-July 3 trials in Omaha, Neb., DiRado qualified for three Olympic events - the 200-meter backstroke and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. Hannis will race the 200 breaststroke.

Earlier this year, DiRado returned to Santa Rosa to inspire young Neptune and Santa Rosa Junior College swimmers. She praised her coaches, including Bear Cubs coach Jill McCormick and Greaves, and the Neptunes’ pressure-free atmosphere.

“It was a very relaxed, happy, fun, club swimming experience,” she said. “We trained hard and swam fast, but it was always like, ‘It’s just swimming at the end of the day.’ I’m so grateful for that experience. It’s been so beneficial for my career.”

Though both DiRado, 23, and Hannis, 24, started as Neptunes around age 5 or 6, they took different paths to excellence.

“Molly always loved to race. We had to help her learn how to train,” Greaves said.

“Maya loved to train and we had to teach her how to race.”

After dismissing several suggestions that maybe, perhaps, just possibly, Greaves helped a tiny bit to harness Hannis and DiRado’s abilities, he acquiesced.

“I do think I had something to do with it, yeah,” he acknowledged. “Maya was so intense that my strategy with her was to take all the pressure off. ‘This is just a game. If we’re living and dying with swimming, we’re in trouble.’

“Molly was so playful in the water that I encouraged her to find something that was really special for her and we tried to teach her how to master it.”

In the next breath, though, Greaves downplays his influence: “I’m not going to take credit, like I sat in a room and said these girls are going to make the Olympics someday. I’m not even going to lie and say that was the case.”

Greaves, along with Tony Scott, Hannah?DeRousseau, Cassandra Lund and other coaches, work with the 330 Neptunes, with another 80 on the waiting list.

It takes six months to get a spot on the team.

The coach doesn’t want the recent success to taint the goal of the team - encouraging a love of aquatics and an appreciation of swimming.

“I’m really conscious of that part,” he said. “I like what we’ve built. I want them to be able to experience all these things. If our message changes because we’ve all of a sudden had success, we’re in trouble.”

The Neptunes “are not a great team,” he insists, at least not like the super-team clubs that cultivate Olympic hopefuls, like the North Baltimore club Michael Phelps came from, or SwimMAC Caroline, both run by Olympic team coaches. Greaves said he doesn’t even count the number of swimmers the Neptunes have sent to Olympic trials. “What would I even do with that number?” he poses.

More important, he said, is the number of former Neptunes who have continued to swim in college, many who have become team captains. That total is upward of 200.

Still, Greaves downplays any recognition for that. So what, then, does Dan Greaves brag about? Being a good husband, father and son.

“I’ve got a beautiful wife,” he said, breaking out into a wide, genuine smile.

“I’ve got three good kids. I live in Healdsburg. Life could be a lot worse.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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