Tuesday, May 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hannula a maker of swimming champions

Seattle Times staff reporter

Now it's all in sort of sepia tones. What I remember of Dick Hannula is a guy standing on the pool deck at Wilson High 42 years ago, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. I think he had a whistle around his neck. He had a crew cut, and there might have been some salt among the pepper.

This was one of the small functions of his burgeoning swimming empire in Tacoma: teaching a six-week class as part of every sophomore's physical-education requirement.

I don't recall a great deal of it, other than we swam laps. And more laps. And when those were done, we swam some more laps.

It was work, but nothing like what was going on in the early morning and late afternoon in the same pool, a place where young guys grew strong and Hannula became legendary.

He's 77 now, sitting in the living room of the West Tacoma home where he's lived for half a century. That's the thing about Hannula; nothing much ever changed, the home, the rules, the hunger.

"It became a passion," he says, recalling his start as a coach. "You know how that goes."

He was named recently to the Washington State University Hall of Fame. He'd never say this, but it's not a big deal, not when you're already in half a dozen halls of fame, so many you have trouble naming them, everything from Aberdeen High to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In fact, anybody inducting him now ought to answer a question: What took you so long?

It's all been out there for decades, after all, how a Finnish-Austrian kid from Aberdeen delivered fish for his dad before the school day started; how he got a business degree from college and began his professional life with an unsatisfying job as a salesman; how, 24 consecutive state championships and an unbeaten string of 323 meets into another career, he became the most successful coach in Washington high-school history, any sport, period, paragraph.

Now his life is family — four kids in professional jobs; grandkids, 13 of them; and a 5-month-old great-granddaughter. Grandkids playing college football or in the Tacoma Youth Symphony. There's some volunteer coaching at the Tacoma Swim Club, and the occasional speaking engagement.

And the workouts, of course. Three times a week with wife Sylvia, he hits the weight machines at the YMCA for an hour, then swims for another hour.

"Other days, I normally run," he says, up to five miles. "I wouldn't call it running anymore. I'd have to call it a jog."

Hannula continued stewardship of City of Tacoma swim programs until a decade ago, long after he had given up the Wilson job in 1983. So there's been a full generation to wonder at the monolith he built and take on the questions:

Could you do it today? Are kids different, less malleable? Have the decades chipped at their willingness to dig so deep?

"I'm perfectly fine with the kids," Hannula says.

What he disdains is a rule implemented years ago by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association that limits the involvement of coaches out of their seasons.

"You can't coach at a level I wanted to coach," Hannula says.

In time, Hannula surveyed a considerable dynasty. He not only coached at Wilson, he coached the Tacoma Swim Club. He ran the aquatics problem for the parks district. He trained the lifeguards and the swim instructors. It's not hard to envision him knowing about any precocious 10-year-old coming up in south Tacoma.

Hannula says he most values enthusiasm and hard work. He didn't brook horseplay. If you had two unexcused absences from practice, you were history.

His P.E. classes were businesslike. One day, Bruce Jackson, working as a teacher's aide, saw two students goofing off in the pool.

"He grabs them both by the hair and literally picks them up and sets them on the deck," recalls Jackson, whose family had moved to the Wilson district from Federal Way.

Jackson himself had moments of testing Hannula. In junior high, he slapped the water after he had just broken a minute in the 100 freestyle, and emerged from the pool to be confronted by the coach.

"You will never do that again," Jackson says Hannula told him. "You're going to be a good sportsman."

The commitment required was unstinting. They swam three or four mornings a week, and five afternoons. Hannula says they practiced twice on Saturdays for nine or 10 months a year.

"My guess is, we were working as hard as anybody in the nation," says Jackson, who went on to WSU, put in his first month of practice there and then felt compelled to go to the coach, Doug Gibb.

"These workouts are too easy," Jackson told him. "I'm not going to get in shape."

Hannula could recognize potential, but he was no dummy in realizing when he needed to cultivate candidates. One day before the summer of '63, Bruce Richards heard from his older brother, Chuck, a future standout in Indiana's famed program, that Hannula wanted to see Bruce turn out.

"Why would we want to do that?" Richards recalls thinking. "It's wet, cold and rainy."

He agreed, but entering his sophomore year, Richards remained less than sold. So he got the treatment regularly accorded the other fence-sitters.

"His green Rambler showed up at my driveway at a quarter to six in the morning," Richards says of Hannula. "He was afraid I was going to quit. It was that personal investment that really stands out."

Picture this: Hannula used to allow swimmers to pick their event at the state meet. In 1970, four of his best — on what might have been his pre-eminent Wilson team — picked the 200 freestyle, each telling him he thought he could win it.

The Rams took places 1 through 4 in that event. They left the 50 free a little bare, and it was the only event they didn't win.

There were certain standards, about not hot-dogging or making a show of how spent you might be after a race. And of course, once Hannula began stringing those state titles together in 1959, there was the insular pressure of sustaining the streak.

Where the underpinnings for all this originated, he is at a loss to say. But he learned to work hard early, making deliveries to Aberdeen-area restaurants for the John Hannula Jr. Fish Company before school began.

He laughs. "I remember how badly I smelled before I went to school," he says.

His paternal grandfather was a gillnetter who worked the ocean from Grays Harbor to Astoria, Ore., sailing between the two points. Eventually, his wife put her foot down and they settled on the Washington coast.

Hannula's younger brother Don, later a columnist at the Tacoma News Tribune and The Seattle Times, was a state swim champion. Dick's own affair with the backstroke came about in ironic fashion:

"I couldn't even put my face in the water," he says sheepishly. "I could never swim the crawl stroke and breathe. I'd just put my head up. So they put me on my back."

He captained the team at WSU as a senior, and in the process of getting a teaching certificate at Washington, recalls writing a term paper on coaching swimming, something he never dreamed he might do.

Then a UW department head pointed him to Tacoma and Lincoln High, which needed a business teacher and a basketball coach.

"I can't coach basketball," Hannula said in his interview. "But I can coach swimming."

An interviewer left the room, discussing Hannula's offer with other administrators. Confused, Hannula departed after half an hour.

"Do you want that job or don't you?" the interviewer demanded over the phone days later.

"I didn't know he was interested in me," Hannula says. "It was stupid of me."

He won two state titles in his seven years at Lincoln, then moved closer to home, and to a better pool, when Wilson opened in 1958.

Through that scorching quarter-century, Hannula plucked people out of P.E. class who became state titlists, he coached Olympians, he sat down the day after state championships and began calculating what would need shoring up the next year.

He savored the smaller victories that were really the big ones.

There was another '66 swimmer named Gay Mount, who had mostly unremarkable seasons at Wilson. Out of the UW, he tried repeatedly for acceptance into the U.S. diplomatic corps but kept getting rejected.

Then one day, a car pulled into the lot back by the pool, the doors opened, and Mount fairly bounded into the facility. He had been accepted.

"Coach, I owe it all to you and this swimming program," he said.

It wasn't the last time Hannula heard it.

What I remember after six weeks around him is being stronger, fitter, more capable. Inevitably, that's the way it was for the swimmers in Dick Hannula's pool, the real ones.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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