Ruth Wild has spent more than half her life dedicated to swimming. Now, after 43 years of coaching, teaching learn-to-swim classes, leading swimnastics programs and managing the old Cleland Pool, she is retiring.
She will be honored at a retirement open house at Bill Heddles Recreation Center Sunday, Feb. 26, from 2 to 4 p.m. Former students and fellow volunteers are invited to bring photos, stories and mementoes from days gone by. You can also share memories on Facebook, under "I swam for Coach Wild."
The Facebook page was set up by Kirsten Alsdorf, who was a member of the Delta High School girls' swim team and later went on to work with Ruth as a lifeguard and a coach. Kirsten is now the children's minster at Delta Christian Church. She set up the Facebook page to honor Coach Wild because she continues to influence how Kirsten interacts with kids.
"She's a big part of my life because I knew her from the time I was little," Alsdorf said. "My very first memory of the coach was when I was six years old. I was at Cleland Park, on the first day of swim team practice, lined up with everybody behind the blocks — big kids and little kids. From the far end of the pool she shouted, 'We are doing underwaters now! Dive in and swim to the far side of the pool. If you can't do it today, you will be able to do it by the end of the season.'
"I thought the woman was crazy. I wondered what my parents were thinking!"
Over the years, Kirsten grew to admire Coach Wild's no-nonsense approach to the sport of swimming, and to life in general.
"My parents used to call her my second mom becauseshe also taught us responsibility, she taught us how to live."
Practices were fun but focused, Kirsten says. If a student was in danger of becoming ineligible, Coach Wild would have them sit out practice to finish their homework. They still had to show up for practice — they just stayed on the side of the pool with their books open in front of them.
The concept of "team" was important to Coach Wild.Kirsten remembers a lengthy lecture on loyalty after an out-of-town swim meet. Some swim team members had headed to the locker room to change before all the events were done, so the competitors in the pool had no one on the deck to cheer them to the finish.
When it came to individual conduct, Coach Wild also had high expectations, as her own son learned. The summer before his senior year, he came home from a party tipsy. Ruth knew he hoped to play football in his senior year, but she also knew there was zero tolerance for kids who were caught drinking. She turned him in, and he was kicked off the team.
"That was the hardest thing I ever had to do," she says. "But because I did that, it let all the rest of the kids know that hey, if I said something, I would do it . . . whatever the rules were."
"She was a strong woman who knew what was right, and that was how it was going to be.
"Yet, I knew she loved us and wanted the best for us. I definitely owe a lot to her. She taught me how to be an adult."
Through Facebook, Kirsten is helping connect the hundreds of swimmers who were touched by Coach Wild during their formative years.
Kelli Sandham Lycas commented: "Thank you, Ruth, for being a part of a special time in our lives . . . thank you for caring about each of us beyond the lanes of the pool — you are a special lady!"
Kellie Kimber Mitchell wrote: "Does anyone else's legs still hurt from doing deep knee bends around the pool for not picking up your stuff after practice?"
Kirsten certainly does. Deep knee bends were the penalty for forgetting your goggles or a towel, or failing to pick up your equipment. Jelly beans were the reward for swimming across the pool underwater, or whatever challenge Coach Wild came up with. "It was amazing what those kids would do for a jelly bean!" Ruth says.
"She ran a tight ship — a fun-loving tight ship," Mary Pfalzgraff, a friend and fellow parent, says. "I can't tell you how many grown kids go out of their way to greet 'Mrs. Wild,' and always with respect and affection."
Ruth says her oldest son still calls her "Mrs. Wild" on occasion.
"I had two sons on the boys' swim team when I first started, and they didn't want to call me Mom, so they called me 'Mrs. Wild.' Later all the kids started calling me Coach, but I was still a mom to them in many ways."
It was because of those two sons and a daughter that she initially got involved in aquatics. At the time, her family was living in Custer, S.D., where husband Fred worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Custer had a small, outdoor pool but the community was struggling to keep it open. So Ruth and a group of friends drove the 40 miles to Rapid City once a week, all winter long, to get qualified at the YMCA to be able to teach lessons to kids during the summertime and keep the pool open.
In 1976, Fred was transferred back to Delta, where they'd lived briefly in 1964-65. By this time, the kids were in elementary school and Ruth became acquainted with Ollie Leighton, who ran a learn-to-swim program for fifth and sixth graders. She got involved in the program, then eventually took it over and expanded it to include fifth and sixth graders from throughout the county. At that time, few women worked so when the students from Paonia, Hotchkiss and Cedaredge got off the bus, they were accompanied by a large number of parent volunteers ready to jump in the water as well.
Ruth got her first taste of coaching with the Delta Barracudas, a competitive swimming program offered during the summer. Naturally, the active Wild kids were also involved in that program. Ruth coached the Barracudas for about three years before she built up enough support to get approval for a high school boys' swim team.
The year was 1979, the same year the city threatened to shut down Cleland Pool due to the cost of operation. A group of parents and citizens banded together to create a non-profit corporation to take over the pool's operation. A board was formed and Ruth Wild and Sharon Helmick were named co-managers. Both the city and school district continued to provide some financial support, but those funds barely covered the cost of keeping the pool heated. For the next 13 years, the pool survived only through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who spent hundreds of hours manning the front desk, teaching classes, cleaning the facility and serving as lifeguards.
"Ruth held Cleland Pool together with just a prayer and a promise those last few years — much longer than anyone believed it could last," says Jeanie Hellman, a fellow Red Cross volunteer. "She gathered in friends, friends of friends and made new friends to teach swim lessons, lifeguard, clean bathrooms — whatever needed to be done. She taught non-swimming adults to swim and they in turn became teachers and lifeguards."
Cleland Pool continued to operate under volunteer management until 1983, when Bill Heddles Recreation Center was opened.
Now Ruth had fewer managerial responsibilities and could focus her attention on the boys' swim team. The girls' team followed in the 1981-82 school year.
Ruth had no training as a coach, but read all the books she could find (there wasn't much in those days) and learned what she could from the kids. "In the beginning, the boys knew a lot more than I did," she says. "Now I realize there were a lot of things they taught me wrong! But I got better."
Stopwatch in hand, she refined her practice techniques, focusing on distance training, starts and turns. She expected every swim team member to learn and compete in all the strokes. Then when districts rolled around, she would move the boys and girls into their top events.
"The other coaches never knew for sure what the heck I was going to come up [at district] with because the kids swam everything during the season," she says. That meant they didn't win every meet during the regular season, but at district, the individual swimmers and relay teams would generally do extremely well.
"When she started the high school swim programs she inspired hundreds of young people and sent many on to state competition," Jeanie Hellman says. "She helped them all grow up and they all left with newfound confidence that Ruth quietly and steadily instilled.
"When she made the transition to the new rec center she added CPR instruction to her repertoire. She still taught adults and kids to swim but more important to me and those of us at the pool, she was a mentor and advisor. When she quit coaching she immediately made the switch to officiating high school swim meets. She is always helping the sport in any way possible."
Though she received some compensation through the years, Ruth considered herself first and foremost a volunteer. She was also active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts when her kids were growing up. Although she had a teaching certificate, Fred never wanted her to work. "So I channeled all my energy into the kids. Then after they'd grown, I kept going.
"I always felt I could volunteer as much as I wanted, and if I didn't want to do something, then I didn't have to.
"I worked harder than if I'd been paid, but I had the enjoyment of enjoying the work and not having to do it."
"Not many teachers have impacted more lives of Delta County youth than 'Mrs. Wild,' " Mary Pfalzgraff says, "and I can't imagine the number of adults she's taught to swim. She's a woman of infinite patience."blog comments powered by Disqus