What I remember of Dick Hannula is a guy standing on the pool deck at Wilson High 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 class 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 was his student.
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 three or four mornings a week, and five afternoons a week in the same pool. They also practiced twice on Saturdays for nine or 10 months a year. That is where young guys grew strong and Hannula became legendary. The commitment required was unstinting.
Founding Coach Dick Hannula is one of the most successful coaches in Washington state history at any level of any sport. Hannula’s swimming teams at Wilson High School won 323 consecutive meets, including 24 consecutive state championships.
In time, Hannula surveyed a considerable dynasty. He not only coached at Wilson, he coached the Tacoma Swim Club. He ran the aquatics program for the parks district. He trained the lifeguards and the swim instructors.
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. “Hannula 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.”
“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.”
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.
At WSU as a senior, and in the process of getting a teaching certificate at Washington, he recalls writing a term paper on coaching swimming, something he never dreamed he might do.
After he received his certificate, 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.” One of the interviewers 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.
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.
There was a 1966 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. That wasn’t the only time Hannula heard that.
Now, he’s 91, and his life is family. There’s some volunteer coaching at the Tacoma Swim Club, and the occasional speaking engagement. And, he does 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.”