COTTAGE GROVE – For a small backwater, Cottage Grove sure seems to have produced some outsized personalities. One that still holds water is longtime swimming coach Bud Taylor. Some of his former swimmers, realizing that they too were getting up in years and having attended memorials of classmates, felt it was time to tell Coach Taylor exactly what they thought of him to his face.
It is one thing to hold a eulogy over the grave; it’s quite another to have the person you are honoring hear your words – the latter being much more satisfying.
Each former student that spoke with me mentioned the bond that was formed through their time with Coach Taylor. Even if they haven’t all managed to stay in touch, they are connected by the efforts of one man.
Bud Taylor grew up in Cottage Grove, a town surrounded by water. Kids were naturally drawn to the rivers to swim and fish, or the lakes for more of the same. Concern about frequent drownings had prompted physical education classes. Another couple of legends took the pool under their wings and helped develop a strong swimming culture in Cottage Grove. Coaches Wally “Chick” Ciochetti and Ron Pupke managed the then open-air pool as their summer jobs and it soon was the hot spot for Grove youth to cool down in the summertime. To assist in operating the pool they recruited students with talent for swimming to serve as lifeguards, check in swimmers and generally help in running things. Bud Taylor was one of the early recruits. He continued to work the pool until being hired to coach the emerging Aqualions, a job he held from 1966 until 1980. Swimming wasn’t quite done with him, and after his retirement in Cottage Grove he did a stint in Tacoma and then Mt. Hood before returning home to Cottage Grove.
As one of the smallest schools competing in athletics as Class AAA, Cottage Grove had several disadvantages. One of the biggest was the town’s working class nature. Many of the larger schools Cottage Grove competed against were in urban areas and their students swam year-round, often as members of private swim clubs. Gritty Grover students, by contrast, mostly spent summers throwing hay bales or working in the woods logging, which meant Taylor was only able to train his swimmers off-season from September to March or so.
To help make up for this disparity, Bud turned to science and research. Taking a page from Coach Ciochetti’s playbook, Taylor became a student of the sport of swimming. One of his standout swimmers, Bob Wiltse, recalls how Taylor was in many ways a pioneer coach doing research on, among other things, removing swimmers’ body hair. By shaving the skin Taylor found that not only did you lose the slight drag from the hair, but the razor’s effect of removing the outer layers of skin heightened its sensitivity, giving a better feel for the water. While standard today, Taylor was one of the first to try it. This and many other nuances Taylor uncovered were the ways he helped his teams overcome the Goliaths of bigger, more affluent schools, something the Aqualions frequently did,
But their success wasn’t all due to academics – lots of grit, hard work, and teaching discipline, went into their winning streaks. All of the former Lions that I spoke with echoed the same refrain. “This guy was hard as nails but somehow he drew from you a strength and endurance you didn’t know you had. He believed in you and that belief made you believe in yourself. This belief unlocked something deep inside you that made you realize that you could do much more.”
Chris Rasmussen, who swam for Bud from 1973 to 1975, described himself as a fat kid when he was a freshman and before Taylor transformed him through uncounted pushups, leg lifts, and hours in the pool.
“I ended up still being husky but really fit. Coach Taylor taught us about life and somehow got us to dig deeper and get 1000 yards when you were already spent,” Rasmussen said. “And then just when you didn’t think you could, get another 1000 yards. I still remember the sounds of the pool and Taylor’s voice.”
One of the chief organizers of the gathering to honor Taylor, Patrick Russell, who specialized in the backstroke and the medley relay for Taylor in 1974-77, recounted how the discipline and lessons he learned from his coach prepared him well for “Hell Week” when going through the USMC boot camp and beyond.
“At the end they were asking us to describe how hard it was, and it was probably good that it was over, because I told them it was easy compared to swimming for my high school coach,” Russell said.
Russell described Taylor’s unique ability to form and maintain relationships with his swimmers. “He had hundreds and hundreds of swimmers, was really hard on us but still built deep and long-lasting relationships. He remembered our names, swimming times, and our situations. It wasn’t unusual for Taylor to hear about something going on in our lives and call us up, sometimes daily, until things improved,” Russell said.
As a way to show that the feeling was mutual, Russell, when he had been away, would stop and see Bud first before heading on to his parents.
Even though the stream of swimmers stretched across years and grade levels, the Taylor connections have made it easy to organize the gathering. These bonds were formed by working hard and time spent in the water together. Taylor also coached water polo and several students implied that if you wanted to be on the swim team you’d better go out for water polo too. As the P.E. swimming teacher for South Lane, along with running the pool, Taylor was in the perfect position to spot kids with natural aquatic ability and cull them into his program.
In 1976 Cottage Grove made national news by failing to renew the school property tax levy, causing the local schools to close their doors at Christmastime. It took several votes to overcome this forced vacation. Bob Wiltse’s parents, who were professionals, decided not to take chances with his education and not really giving him much say in the matter and started looking for a school where he could continue the college path they intended for him. Much to his and his teammates’ chagrin, they chose Sheldon High, the Lions’ archrival. The silver lining was that the coach there, Bill Hausman, was one of the large coaching family that Bud had grown over the years. Despite this apparent betrayal there was little bitterness as all could see that the school budget situation was outside of everyone’s control.
Wiltse went on to swim for USC and when he qualified for the 1980 Olympics, he knew that the coach he had been swimming for since he was seven was the only one who could help him make the cut. Despite having their relationship cut short in high school, Taylor graciously worked with Wiltse to the point that he was ready for the Olympic team. Alas the Russian invasion of Afghanistan led President Carter to boycott the games preventing Wiltse from coming home with any medals, but the story is yet another example of the bonds formed in the Cottage Grove pool.
Wiltse emphasized that he now realizes how much Bud Taylor did to develop a program that helped local young men and women teetering on the verge of juvenile delinquency find their way based on the discipline and lessons drilled into them by their coach, “He taught us that hard work pays off and if you follow the rules you can turn your life around.”
There were tales of some former student brothers using their swimming skills to save the lives of passengers in an auto that they saw fly into the river. The stories of early-morning workouts in the pool, in the afternoon if you were a teacher’s aide and after school if Taylor could pry you loose from your job. But one way or another Bud Taylor turned small-town kids into winners and gave them the skills. Many of his swimmers took their mental and physical training out into the world with them and found themselves equipped to succeed in just about anything they put their hand to. From a grateful community and a group of swimmers that you wove together, Thank you, Coach Bud Taylor!