OTTUMWA — It was a classic Mike McWilliams reaction.
When it was brought to his attention that the city of Ottumwa was going to name the competition pool at The Beach after the man that has spent most his life teaching to sport of swimming to thousands of students over several decades, McWilliams had a classic response.
“I said I’m going to give the guy that thought of it and give them a noogie,” McWilliams said.
It was a group of swimmers from the 1970s that had an idea which turned into a reality on Tuesday night. McWilliams was honored by the community by having the home pool of the Ottumwa Bulldog swimming program named after the man that developed All-Americans and state champions in the waters of the City of Bridges.
“Too often, they wait on these type of honors until the coach is no longer with us,” Tom McGiverin, one of many former pupils that learned from McWilliams, said on Tuesday. “With some of the colleagues of Coach McWilliams, that’s what happened. They were honored posthumously.
“I’m glad that Coach McWilliams was here to enjoy this. He was like a second father to me. When you swim for someone for 11 years, you’re going to get to know him.”
Multiple generations of swimmers that learned from McWilliams returned to honor their former coach on Tuesday, who turned 78 this past June. It’s been almost 60 years since McWilliams started to teach the sport at the age of 19 as an assistant coach on the team that swam at the Ottumwa Country Club.
“When you love doing what you’re doing, you really don’t expect anything in return,” McWilliams said. “I felt like I stole the money sometimes, especially when things really go right.”
McWilliams was the head swimming coach at Ottumwa High School for 42 years from 1964 until retiring in April of 2006. In the years that have followed, however, McWilliams has continued to teach swimmers in Ottumwa coaching many of the current OHS swimmers when they were just starting out in the sport.
“I started swimming in the Barracudas when I was 8-years-old, so I had Mike as coach until I reached eighth grade,” Ottumwa senior Paige Fiscella said. “He was a really hard coach, but he really pushed us to get better. He basically made me into the swimmer I am today.”
Those that know McWilliams know his coaching style, which was posted on T-shirts sold Tuesday during the Ottumwa girls CIML Metro dual with Des Moines Roosevelt.
“You’re not tired until I’m tired, and I’m not tired yet,” was the McWilliams quote posted on the back of the I Like Mike shirts. Even at a young age, young swimmers like Fiscella had to adapt to being pushed.
“He could be a little scary just because of how he approached situations even with younger swimmers,” Fiscella recalled. “He was very strict, but he wanted to make sure we all knew what we were doing. When I first started, I was a little scared of Mike, but after we were done he would always come up to us and tell how good we were doing and how much we were improving.”
Saige Knight honored McWilliams on Tuesday by helping guide Ottumwa wins in four different races, including the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly. Like Fiscella, Knight learned from McWilliams at a young age.
“I actually swam out at the Country Club for two years starting when I was about 9-years-old. I heard some stories about Mike and how he might throw a kick board at you if you didn’t give it your all,” Knight said. “He pushed me in a way, not to where I didn’t want to swim, but to where I wanted to better myself to get even faster. It’s gotten to me to where I am right now.”
Knight was one of over 50 swimmers to try out for the Bulldog girls swimming team this season. Knight, Libby Moses, Mac Payne and Leah Chelgren were part of impressive wins on Tuesday in the 200 and 400 free relay, honoring McWilliams with swims that might just continue the winning tradition that the former OHS coach began establishing several decades earlier.
“When you have over 50 swimmers on a team, you’re going to find some talent,” McWilliams said. “Getting to state gets harder every year, but once you get to state, anything can happen.”