Swimming: Piper's last lap

February 19, 2014 

Richland swim coaches

Long time Richland swim coaches Kathy Piper and Randy Willis are ready to take their swimmers to state.


When the state high school boys swim meet ends Saturday night in Federal Way, so will an era.

The 20-year coaching relationship between Kathy Piper and Randy Willis also will be over.

The two have coached high school swimming together at Richland and Hanford High Schools since 1993.

But Piper is calling it quits after this weekend’s state boys meet. Willis will continue on one more girls season in the fall, then retire after that.

“What I will miss most is all the great relationships we have created over the past 20 years,” Piper said. “We have developed a young beginning program to a state contending team for the last 10 years.”

Those competitions are what stoked Willis’ fire.

“I will miss championship meets — district and state,” he said. “The district and state meets may be the most intense team event that exists in swimming. Very high energy, loud, and very competitive. All-American times are earned at this meet every year. It is meaningful because it is not based on an opinion or judge. It is a time and times don’t lie.”

And he’ll miss one other thing.

“The look in an athlete’s eye when they see the scoreboard and realize their time, or that they just won a state title,” he said.

Willis swam in high school and college, along with playing baseball.

“Coaching became a passion at the end of my college swimming years at Eastern Washington University,” he said. So Willis helped get the Tri-City Channel Cats team going in 1979.

He also made successful presentations to the Kennewick School board in 1984 to add girls swimming, to the Richland School board in 1994 to add girls swimming, and in 2003 to the Richland School board again to add boys swimming.

Piper said she started swimming at the age of 6 because her brother was swimming and she knew she could beat him.

“I love the fact swimming can be a team sport, yet an individual sport,” Piper said. “The clock determines everything. Keeps the politics out of it. You either have the time or you don’t.”

A standout high school swimmer at West Anchorage High in Alaska (she won a state title eight different times), Piper was an NCAA All-American in the 100 butterfly for the University of Puget Sound.

“I absolutely loved high school swimming,” Piper said. “It was fun, so different from club — short, sprints and so many non-year-round kids we had easy workouts. I always wanted to coach swimming and give back to what I loved.”

One July afternoon in 1993, Piper was swimming at Columbia Basin Racquet Club in Richland. Willis, who owns the health club, asked Piper if she would like to coach the girls team in the fall, as his assistant wasn’t coming back.

“Having just had a baby, I thought, ‘Wow, sounds fun, extra income,’ ” she said. “I’ve been at Richland and Hanford ever since with Randy. Except for one year he took off.”

The two have worked magic ever since. Here are just a few of the numbers:

w 26 females (most received some form of scholarship) and 16 males competed at the college level.

w Two Automatic High School All-American swimmers in Cody Roberts (two years) and Lisa Bratton (three years); three relays with All-American Consideration.

w Hanford High had five district titles in 10 years; Richland High six undefeated dual meet seasons, and four district titles in 10 years.

w Richland six top-10 state finishes in 10 years. This weekend should be the seventh straight.

w Nine individual state champions, and four relay state champions.

A couple of their favorite memories include the Richland girls 200 free relay team of Amy Dotson, Brittany Hollenback, Michelle McDonald and Elizabeth Johnson winning the program’s first state title; the Hanford girls winning both the 200 and 400 relay titles in 2012; Richland’s Nick Connors upsetting the favorite and winning the 500 free title; Bratton winning the 200 IM in All-American time in the fastest race in state history; and Roberts breaking the 17-year-old state record in the 100 Butterfly.

“And getting the boys program at Richland and Hanford (in 2003) was another proud moment,” Piper said. “The support from parents and the Richland School board was so great. I can’t tell you how excited I was to have this high school program and give boys another sport for high school.”

Yet Piper and Willis agree on one regret.

“Not being able to get a public facility built in the Tri-Cities,” Willis said.

It’s amazing, Piper said, what kids have been able to accomplish without a facility.

“We have accomplished so much with a lack of adequate training facilities,” Piper said. “I wonder how many more state champions there could have been.”

Who knows? But one thing is for sure: Piper and Willis both are proud of what they helped create in the Tri-Cities. And they’d like to be remembered for their contributions to swimming in this region.

“I would like to be remembered as a fair, hard-working coach,” Piper said. “Whether kids were my athlete or went to another school, or coached another school, I always took time to help others. There were plenty of times I could have been more strict, could have done things differently, but I always tried to do what I thought was best for each athlete. I treated them all equally whether they were an Olympic-caliber athlete or a beginner just learning a flip turn.”

Willis loves seeing athletes improve their performances.

“I succeeded in convincing athletes to swim faster times they only dreamed of and thought were for someone else to achieve,” Willis said. “Wherever I have coached, our program became the dominant team everyone else wanted to beat.

“Nothing,” he added, “can be more rewarding than teaching athletes to perform at a high level and succeed in life.”

Something both Piper and Willis have done for years.

Editor’s note: For a look at this weekend’s state boys swim meet and local competitors, see Friday’s Herald.

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