Bill Pullis Grew the Piranhas From 14 to More Than 200 Swimmers

 

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Bill Pullis, Head Coach of the Piranhas in the 1980s. photo from The Desert Sun

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.

JO team 1 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.

 

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Piranha Junior Nationals Team in Austin.

 

 

 

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National JO team.

“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.

 

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Parade and celebration for Tracey McFarlane on her return home from the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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.JO team 10JO team 14

 

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Flyer from the City of Palm Springs to welcome home Tracey McFarlane.

 

Chris Duncan, Destined to Coach

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Chris Duncan during “signing day” 2013 with (from left) Devin Newton, Rachel Thompson, Breanne Tran, Michael Schiffer,  Maddie Meisel and Linsey Engel. (photo credit JCC Waves)

As the son of a swim coach, Chris Duncan said his mom was teaching her whole life. “It’s in me and I love doing it, too. I felt destined.”  

He grew up in Redwood City where his mother was a YMCA swim instructor. He went to the pool with his mom every day and started swimming around age six. His mom switched to teaching gymnastics, but Chris kept swimming with a club in Half Moon Bay. By high school, he had moved to Costa Mesa High school in Southern California and played water polo and swam. Following high school, he attended Orange Coast College.

Chris then went off to Chico State and swam backstroke and IM. Chris, who is soft spoken and humble, said he didn’t have any major accomplishments as a swimmer, but that his team won Senior Nationals, and they took 3rd and 2nd in NCAA’s Division 2  while he was part of the team.

His coaching career began while he was in high school at the Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa during summers. He gave swim lessons at Saddle Back Valley Aquatics and then became an age group coach and eventually head age group coach. Unfortunately, Chris said the “team dried up and disappeared.” He coached at Irvine Novaquatics for two years prior to becoming the head coach for the Piranha Swim Team in Palm Springs from 1996 to 2000.

Chris mentioned that Olympic Silver medalist Tracy MacFarlane was the coach for Piranhas before him. She married Rob Mirande and they both coached Piranhas before moving to Buenaventura Swim Club where they coached together.

Chris moved from the desert to become head coach for SOCAL Aquatics Association and Santa Ana Junior College. He took the job as Aquatics Director and Head Coach for JCC Waves nine years ago and is “in charge of everything.” His wife Gina coaches with him and he appreciates that they’re on the same schedule. “Thankfully, I met Gina when she was a swim lesson instructor during a summer home from college.  We have three girls. They love swimming, too.”

Words of wisdom from Coach Duncan: “The main thing to remind swimmers and parents is that this is a long-term sport. Be patient, work towards your goals. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll get there. Kids put a lot of pressure on themselves. They need to know that goals take time.”

One his coaching philosophy, Chris said, “I really coach each individual. Some coaches coach for their own egos and have the biggest team possible. My pride is getting to know and connect with each swimmer. I believe it produces results.” He said that if some teams are known as sprint or distance teams, “My team is an IM team. I give IM-based sets every day for everyone. I stress technique.”imgres

“Coaches that I look up to include Richard Quick from Stanford. I never swam for him, but I appreciate his talks and clinics,” Chris said. Other coaches he admired and learned from include “ Ken Gray, who coaches at Woodlands in TX, but was a coach at Mission Viejo, NOVA, Buenaventura and Simi, as well as Dave Salo, Ken LaMont and Jim Montrella.”

“I learned a lot from other coaches. We used to go to coaches homes and play poker–30 or 40 of us. We were friends and hung out. Coaches from Orange County to San Clemente. It’s not like that now. That was in the mid-’90s,” Chris said.

“Our coach gave me a great experience. We had a fun and exciting time, and our goal is to share that experience with kids today whether it’s water polo, club or high school swimming. My coaches were happy with what they were doing and I was shaped by these coaches.”

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Chris and Gina Duncan

Bio from the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County, JCC Waves:

Chris Duncan, The Merage JCC Aquatics Director, is a career swim coach with an outstanding background training Olympic Trial and Junior National qualifiers. Chris has extensive professional experience directing swim programs including country clubs, ISL, swim schools, masters swim teams and USA clubs for all age groups from preschool through adults.  His swimmers excel in a small group environment where they can individualize the workouts to suit the swimmers talents and work ethic.  He works with each swimmer to effectively strengthen their skills and sharpen their weaknesses.  As the JCC OC Waves head coach he keeps watch for the next great talent in the younger groups and fosters the talent all the way to his group and training.  Chris is a lifetime member of the America Swim Coaches Association attending 15 of its World Coaching Conventions.