The first time I met Bill Pullis was in 1985 and I was working in PR for a real estate developer. There was a young executive in our office who was married to Bill. She told us, “Bill coaches the Piranhas and we always have a ton of kids over.”
I was dumbfounded. A swim coach? That was a career?
We would watch through the office windows as he buzzed off to work in his red Porsche, late in the afternoons. What kind of a job is a swim coach? I wondered again. No, I wasn’t a swimmer or a swim mom at the time. I didn’t get it.
Pullis accomplished through “being the hardest working coach ever” to grow the Piranha Swim Team from 14 swimmers in the Palm Springs pool to more than 200 swimmers and expanding the program to Indio High School, College of the Desert, Desert Hot Springs and the Boys and Girls Club in Sunrise Park, adjacent to the Palm Springs Aquatic Center.
“We had a swim parent, Mr. Jewell, who repaired and replastered the COD pool for us. That’s how we got use of it,” Pullis recalled.
His top swimmers included Silver Medalist from the 1988 Seoul Olympics breaststroker Tracey McFarlane and Ricky Gill, who was a potential qualifier for the 1980 Olympics, which the US boycotted. Other standouts included Bill Summers, Bill Corrigan and Daniel Spires, who with Gill had the number one medley relay in the country. That relay team still holds Piranha records. Among his top women athletes were an exchange student from Finland Tuija Kyrulainen, plus Laura Ambrosius, Lisa Dean, Kathleen Burns, Tina Case, Kali Christensen as well as official Jack Argue’s daughter, who commuted from Hemet.
“Harvey Wheeler was my high school coach in Maine,” Pullis explained. “He had an amazing way of motivating kids. We wanted to work so hard for him.” Wheeler was his inspiration to coach and he often incorporated his ideas into his workouts.
A native of Maine, Pullis said he was “a good, not great swimmer.” He swam in high school and at Bowdoin College. He coached the Sea Coast Swim Club for four years in Maine and realized that if he wanted to make a living as a coach, he had to come to the epicenter of swimming—Southern California. As a level 5 ASCA Coach, he said he interviewed with the Garden Grove Gators and Palm Springs Piranhas in October. Standing on the deck of the Palm Springs Aquatic Center with the 50-meter pool and the breathtaking view of Mt. San Jacinto made it an easy choice. At that time, he had no idea about the summer heat.
Other accomplishments Pullis mentioned included a contract with Arena for team gear and having Arena use the Palm Springs pool for their catalogs. Famous models and swimmers such as Matt Biondi would give the Piranha kids clinics while on location. He introduced the “splash points” method of awarding swim meets to the Eastern Section. “The process was arbitrary before that,” he said. He also got the city to cancel the annual fishing tournament in the pool! While he was head coach, the blocks and lane lines were expanded into the deep end of the pool.
He said his favorite thing about coaching was the kids. He has many great memories of travel trips, with the tradition of the swimmers camping out in his house the night before big meets. He said he was very dedicated and although they did pretty big yardage, his goal was to not burn them out. With all their hard work, they also had lots of fun.
Pullis recalled one of his coach friends who was in Des Moines came out to swim in Palm Springs for Christmas break. The Piranha families hosted Des Moines Swim Federation kids. Then, in the summer, the Piranhas went to Des Moines for a week.
His success with his swimmers was evident with placing 10th at National JOs. Also, at Junior Nationals he had relay teams and nine swimmers. Many of his swimmers went onto the next level of swimming at major universities including University of California, Berkeley and swimming for Richard Quick at Texas and Jim Montrella at Ohio State.
Several coaches he mentioned from those ’80s days included Mark Schubert, Mission Viejo, Pat Tope, formerly with Riverside Aquatics Association and now Heartland, and Ed Spencer, Industry Hills, Reno Aquatics, Dynamo and a USA Swimming Master Coach Consultant.
He was offered the position of head coach for the Reno Aquatic Club and coached there for several years before returning to Maine to spend time with his father who was ill. He now lives in Palm Springs full-time and works at his property management company, Community Management Associates.