Growing up in rural northeast Iowa, Upper Iowa University alumna Stacey Blitsch ’98 never imagined the global experiences she would enjoy in life. A double major in athletic training and fitness/recreation, the Oelwein, Iowa, native served as a lifeguard, swim instructor and physical trainer, before traveling to Hollywood and becoming a roller derby icon and Hollywood actor on both the large and small screens. Most recently, her career path came full circle when she was named Haiti’s Olympic swim coach.
A volleyball player and cross-country runner, Blitsch chose to attend UIU due to the small class sizes and to pursue her interest in sports and athletic training. Growing up, Blitsch also had a passion for swimming. While her high school didn’t have a swim team, Blitsch found another way to get to the local pool every summer day; becoming a lifeguard and swim instructor at the age of 16. She continued this employment while enrolled at UIU and was eventually named the Oelwein Aquatics Center manager.
“One of the first choices I made as an adult was choosing to attend Upper Iowa University,” Blitsch said. “It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. My UIU experience allowed me to grow as a person, while learning to respect the many cultures around the world.”
During her time at Fayette Campus, Blitsch credited a number of UIU courses and social and extracurricular activities for playing an essential part in introducing her to new horizons. The Homecoming Queen especially enjoyed her time as a work-study employee in the athletic department and with her E.Y.E. sisters.
“The athletic department and training staff were a tight-knit community that helped everyone progress and succeed,” she added. “I really enjoyed the hands-on practice and course training in the training room and fitness center. My work study experience allowed me direct access to the playing fields, pool, gym and fitness center, where I learned more about athletics, and specifically, training techniques.”
Blitsch is also greatly appreciative of the positive influence her athletic training professor Don Bishop and advisor Bill Prochaska had on her life. Bishop taught many of the classes that set Blitsch on her career path, while Prochaska helped find Blitsch a Florida internship that catapulted her into the world of sports and fitness.
From Hollywood lights to the Olympic rings
Blitsch roller-skated her way into the Hollywood spotlight as “Malibu Stacey” on
The Nashville Network’s (TNN) Roller Jam from 1998 to 2000. As part of the weekly roller derby show, Blitsch’s alter ego was a confident, athletic “California girl,” who competed alongside two of her California Quakes teammates as “The Bod Squad.”
This experience led to Blitsch’s involvement in a number of additional media and production opportunities, including appearances on television’s King of Queens and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; the “Charlies Angels” movie franchise; a six-page article in Sports Illustrated; and listed as one of TV Guide’s “16 Sexiest Stars on TV.” She also worked behind the television camera in such roles as production assistant with the MTV Video Music Awards, Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards and the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.
Of course, her UIU education also provided Blitsch various career opportunities as a physical trainer and instructor. In 2005, she opened Star Sport and Fitness, a personal training company for competitive swimmers. The ongoing motivation to help swimmers improve their skills, techniques and racing style would lead Blitsch to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She never envisioned standing poolside as an Olympic swim coach, but the opportunity came about after visiting Haiti in 2018.
“In the ’80s my Aunt Sally used to travel to Haiti, where she helped develop the Wings of Hope orphanage,” Blitsch said. “When I later visited Haiti, I visited the orphanage and was inspired by my aunt to give back to the Haitian community.”
While staying at a coastal resort, Blitsch swam daily in the Caribbean Sea and started to research the Haiti swim program to see if there was an opportunity to help teach the sport. Eventually she was put in contact with Naomy Grand Pierre, who was the first female Olympic swimmer for Haiti. Together they worked on marketing and sponsorship ideas to help the team, and Blitsch soon became involved with the Fédération Haïtienne des Sports Aquatiques (FHSA). She learned that the team was looking for a female coach with a flexible schedule and who could travel internationally with the swimmers.
“I was most interested in getting involved and sharing my coaching and sports performance education and experience with the youth of Haiti,” Blitsch said. “My family taught me to give back to others and inspired me to further explore the Haitian culture. I was super excited to be a part of the team and give back to a culture that my family always held close to their hearts.”
When Blitsch started working with the team, the FHSA was a newly formed aquatics association with only one other coach on staff. In addition, there are few swim coaches at any level in Haiti and only one 50-meter pool, which has not been functional in 30 years. Despite the lack of coaching, state-of-the-art facilities and financial assistance that many athletic programs in other countries receive, Blitsch was able to lead two Haiti swim team members to the Tokyo Olympics this past summer.
Emile Grand Pierre competed in the 100-meter breast stroke, where she won her heat and set a new Haitian national record with a time of 1:14.82. Unfortunately, swimmer Davidson Vincent had to be quarantined after coming in contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 on the flight to Japan. This allowed him only a few days to train at Tokyo before his race in the 100-meter butterfly. Under the circumstances, Blitsch especially praised him for his effort and time of 54.81.
“The biggest takeaway for the Haitian swim team was our exposure on a global scale,” Blitsch said. “The lack of winning medals was inconsequential compared to the opportunity to compete with unity and respect alongside other athletes from around the world. I was most proud of how the athletes remained focused and composed while in Tokyo. Both swimmers represented Haiti with pride and dedication. They were responsible, coachable and committed to represent Haiti and shed a positive light on a country which has been through such hard times.”
Blitsch noted that while the international exposure of the Olympic team has been slowly influencing more Haitians to try swimming, only 2 percent of the Haiti population knows how to swim, and drowning remains one of the leading causes of death in the country.
“We are beginning to develop coaching certification clinics and lifesaving/lifeguard programs in Haiti as other facets of our mission,” Blitsch said. “There is a lot of work to do, and I am here to help promote the benefits of swimming for sport and survival. I am sincerely thankful and appreciative for a UIU educational experience that has helped me contribute to the success of the FHSA and our aquatic sports teams.”