Christmas is a time of special deliveries, and Hanford High School is making one in a few weeks for a special family.
Joan and Doug Wertz, along with their kids, might well be the first family of Hanford swimming. Maggie, Joe and Will grew up in the program and planted many of its milestones. And on Dec. 27 the three will be inducted together into the school’s Hall of Fame.
There is usually a 10-year waiting period to be considered for the hall, and Will, the youngest, is only four years removed from his last season with the Falcons.
But for this family, there is a rush.
Joan has Stage 4 kidney cancer, and she may not make it to the new year.
“It really means a lot that our mom and dad both get to be here to witness it,” Maggie said, “and to show that their legacy is living on in the Hall of Fame of Hanford High School, so we’re excited about that.”
The Wertz family — including oldest brother Ben, who graduated before Hanford had a boys team — spoke about Joan, swimming and the Hall of Fame at their the home Wednesday in West Richland. The mood was light, and the family shared a lot of laughs, photos and memories. Joan joked that her hot pink socks were her way of keeping up with the fashion trends.
When cancer came calling
It was June 18 when Joan, 61, was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
She hadn’t felt well for some time, and visits to several doctors provided no answers.
“By the end of May, we were desperate to find out what was wrong,” Doug said.
Finally, they visited an OB/GYN at Kadlec Regional Medical Center, where Joan worked as an obstetrics nurse, and an ultrasound revealed the cancer.
“There was a big tumor on her right kidney,” Doug said. “It had hid in there the past year and a half.”
It’s a cancer journey. You learn to accept it because it is you. You take it day by day.
“Women, check your abdomens,” Joan advised. “Mine was hiding a lump.”
Joan subsequently went through two rounds of chemotherapy with no improvement. Surgery was an option, but not a good one. Instead, she opted to go out on her own terms.
“It’s a cancer journey,” Joan said. “You learn to accept it because it is you. You take it day by day.”
That acceptance included missing Joe and his wife Melissa’s wedding July 3 in Denver. She wasn’t up to the trip, so she and Doug donned their finest attire and watched the wedding via the Internet.
Joan also will have to forgo the annual family hike up Badger Mountain on Christmas Day.
“I have a damn good excuse,” she said. “It was always empty on Christmas Day, and I would come running down yelling, ‘Ho, ho, ho.”
Worthy of honor
The family’s Hall of Fame moment will come thanks to the help of Hanford High athletic director Eric Davis and former swim coach Kathy Piper, a longtime family friend.
The kids’ credentials certainly are worthy — Maggie was one of the first girls from Hanford to qualify for state in 1999; Joe, a member of the school’s first boys team in 2006, was a three-time conference swimmer of the year; and Will won a state championship in 2014.
So Piper inquired if all three could be inducted together, giving Joan one last cherished memory of her children.
All of the kids would be inducted at one point or another. It’s a small thing to ask.
Hanford athletic director Eric Davis
“We were happy to do it,” Davis said. “Our booster club members, everyone was in favor. All of the kids would be inducted at one point or another. It’s a small thing to ask.”
Davis said the induction ceremony will be at halftime of the boys basketball game Dec. 27 against Mt. Spokane. While the honor is nice, Joe and Will have additional plans for the night.
“We want to do the 3-point shooting contest at halftime to win a 2-liter of pop,” said Joe, who got a a nod in agreement from his younger brother.
Swimming is a family sport
While the Wertz kids were fish in the water, Joan and her husband Doug were keeping order on the deck. They helped coach and chaperone, made meals, and Doug was a race official.
“That was dad, killing kids’ dreams one DQ at a time,” Joe quipped.
“I think our teams were well-prepared for state,” Doug chimed in. “They knew the rules.”
Ben, 34, lives in West Richland with his wife and three kids. While he did not swim at Hanford, he was a member of the Tri-City Channel Cats, a local club team that Joan and Doug helped with.
Maggie, 32, lives in Houston and is an assistant principal. She started swimming when she was 5 years old — “She was our wave breaker,” Doug said — and swam year round.
She was a three-time district champion and two-time team MVP at Hanford, and was one of the first from the school to qualify for state. She went to state all four years, placing fifth in the 100 backstroke as a senior in 2002.
Our vacations were swim meets.
Maggie was the first Hanford swimmer to compete collegiately when she swam for Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and was an NCAA Division III All-American.
Joe, 27, is a fifth-grade teacher in Houston. He was a member of Hanford’s first boys swim team in 2006, when Speedos were scoffed at and the team practiced in a three-lane, 20-yard pool at a local gym.
He was a three-time Swimmer of the Year for the old Mid-Valley Conference and a four-time All-American in the 200 individual medley and the 100 backstroke. He placed third at state in both events his senior year in 2009 before swimming for Seattle University.
Then there is Will, 21.
He is the only Wertz kid with a state championship, winning the 200 freestyle his senior year in 2013-14.
“Everyone was there,” Doug said. “We had our ‘Beast from the East’ shirts on. There had to have been 30 of us.”
Will also swam at Seattle U. and now lives in Seattle and works at the Cheesecake Factory.
“Our vacations were swim meets,” Joan said.
Through it all, Joan never missed an event. Family came first, and that started with dinner around the table.
“It’s important,” she said. “That’s what’s missing these days. It’s a time to connect.”
Even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
“We might have had dinner around the table, but usually it was quick because we were always so hungry,” Maggie said.
Joe and Will know they don’t hit the 10-year mark for the Hall of Fame, and for the most part never gave it a second thought until Piper got a bee under her bonnet.
“We have all put in the work,” Will said. “It’s hard to make your stamp in swimming. I wanted to be the best in my sport. I appreciate it.”
Added Maggie: It was all a big surprise,” she said. “I never thought I would be considered for the Hall of Fame. This is special. Even more so to go in with my brothers.”