Remembering Coach Bill Spahn

Last weekend, we learned of the passing of esteemed swim coach Bill Spahn, who suffered a heart attack during a Masters swim meet last Friday and died early Saturday.

One of the many former swimmers of Spahn who have shared memories of the Hall of Fame coach since his passing is Jim Sauer, who recalled some stories with SwimSwam during his time swimming under Spahn on multiple occasions.

Sauer joined the Heights YMCA swim team in Albuquerque, N.M., when he was eight years old, swimming under Spahn until he was 12.

“I was having quite a bit of success in the Southwest swimming only fly events during those years. Bill taught me how to swim fly and all the strokes,” Sauer recounts fondly.

“Bill taught a small skinny kid at 8 years old how to swim fly in Albuquerque in 1965 in my backyard pool.”

Spahn would teach swim lessons at Sauer’s house in the summers, training Sauer during lunch hour with extra stroke work, a trade-off for the free pool access.

Sauer in his backyard pool where Spahn taught him. Photo: Jim Sauer.

By the age of 10, Spahn had developed Sauer into a formidable butterfly swimmer.

“I became a pretty good flyer and was winning races in New Mexico and all over the Southwest,” Sauer said. “I had great technique, but little strength or stamina. Bill did not want to wear me out in warm-up, so he devised a warm-up plan of a single hard 25 fly for me.

“That’s all I ever warmed up during those age group years and it worked!”

Fast forward 10 years. Spahn has taken over as the head coach of the University of Kansas men’s swimming team, having previously coached the Wichita Swim Club, and Sauer was compelled to go train under his childhood coach once again.

“In 1977 I transferred in from UNM to swim for him again.”

Sauer recalls one particular story where Spahn’s traditional warm-up for him would pay dividends when he needed it most.

“At the 1979 Big 8 Championships I swam a great fly leg on the medley relay on Thursday night, and I was hyped for the individual event. However, at Friday morning prelims I let nerves take over and swam a horrible race and barely qualified in sixth place for the finals,” Sauer said. (Only the top six qualified for finals in those days.)

“After that terrible prelim swim, Bill got on me really hard. I was down in the dumps. That night before finals Bill took another approach. He pulled me aside and said ‘I want you to think you are 10 years old again and we are going to warm you up with one FAST 25 fly and you will be ready.’

“For whatever reason, that clicked in my head, and that night in the finals from Lane 1 I swam the race of my life to win the 100 fly at Big 8s.”

Sauer and Spahn at a New Mexico reunion. Photo: Jim Sauer.

In addition to coaching with the Wichita Swim Club and the University of Kansas, Spahn also spent time at HYAC in Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico and also helped coach FAST in Fort Collins, Colo.

“Bill was an incredible on-deck coach and he got me and many others to believe in ourselves and swim fast!

“30 years later when I took up Masters swimming Bill would always follow my races and times and he would text and email encouraging me before and after every meet. I shall miss him dearly but am so grateful for the impact he made on my life.”

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