Throughout his career as a teacher and coach, Gary Swanson had a way of bringing out the best in the countless thousands of students he encountered during his career at Castle Rock High School.
“He was a master motivator and could get the best out of every student,” former Castle Rock runner Bob Pliler said. “One thing he taught me was to push myself beyond my limits. I know my life wouldn’t have been the same without him.”
A two-time state Hall of Fame coach, Swanson passed away on April 23 in an assisted living home in Castle Rock. He was 76.
Swanson was born May 17, 1942 to John E. and Doris Swanson in Longview. He attended and graduated from Kelso High School in 1960, where he played football and was a member of the track team.
After obtaining an Associate’s degree in Pre-Education from Lower Columbia College, Swanson transferred to Western Washington University, where studied history, geography and attained a Bachelor’s degree in Education. He also studied at the University of British Columbia, and attained a graduate degree from the University of Washington.
After a short stint as a substitute teacher at Ferndale, Swanson was hired by the Castle Rock School District in 1965. He later attained the title of History Department Chair at the high school before his retirement in 1992. He also coached track from 1971-2002, along with cross country, football, and boys and girls basketball.
It was cross country and track coaching where Swanson stood out, making the Rockets’ teams among the most successful in the state.
“He was so far ahead of his time when it came to training,” Pliler said. “We’d run twice a day, which meant getting up before the sun came up to practice. I remember when I was a freshman we all went to a special foot doctor and had custom made orthotics.”
Swanson was more than a quarter-century ahead of his time when it came to training techniques.
“Back then we were doing aerobic workouts, we did a lot of mileage training, and we paid special attention to diet,” he said in a Daily News story. “We had our kids running in the sand even before (the eruption of) Mount St. Helens blew in about a billion cubic yards of the stuff.
“It just so happens that now all the scientific research shows what we were doing was the right thing all along, even if it was pretty much by accident.”
During a 15-year span from 1971-85, Swanson’s cross country teams won one state title, placed in the top four 11 times at state, won eight district titles, and claimed the Trico League title 13 times. His 1982 boys’ team won the State ‘A’ title with a record low score of 38-points, and his girls’ teams reached state on three occasions.
Pliler also had fond memories of a particular meet in Ilwaco.
“We had a perfect score (15) and coach chewed us out after the meet for not running hard enough,” he said. “He took us out to Fort Canby and made us run back to Ilwaco to get on the bus and come home. He always had ways to keep us humble.”
In a seven-year span from the late 1970s through the early 1980s Swanson’s teams won 62 consecutive Trico League meets.
In 1994, Swanson and 11 other coaches from across the state were the inaugural class into the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame.
“To go in the first group is a real honor,” Swanson said prior to his induction.”I’m going in with some people that I really looked up to, guys like Lee Cave of Columbia River and Herm Caviness of (Spokane’s) Ferris.”
In track, his 1983 team set a Southwest District record for most points scored with 131. The previous record was 96, set by the 1978 Castle Rock team. His teams also won four state championship titles, placed second twice and third four times. The Rockets also won 13 district titles and produced 32 individual state champions. Nearly 20 of his athletes moved on to compete at the NCAA Division I level, and four became All-Americans. A dozen of his former athletes, including Pliler, went on to become high school track coaches.
“I was running track as an eighth-grader, and I was going to play baseball in high school,” Pliler said. “I remember coach coming to the district meet, and he invited me to come along with the high school team to the state championships in Yakima. I saw a kid place in the 800 in a slower time than I had, and that’s when I decided to join the track team.”
Castle Rock didn’t have a track when Pliler was in school, so Swanson would take his athletes to Kelso High School to use its track.
“Coach would post state rankings outside of class, along with the times of former Castle Rock runners who were in college,” he said. “I remember he used to drive to Seattle on Sunday to get a copy of the Seattle Times to compare times across the state.
“He made us understand the reputation we had to uphold.”
For 10 years, Swanson served as the Southwest District meet director, and as the director of track for Junior Olympics.
In 2005, Swanson was inducted into the Washington State Track Coaches Hall of Fame.
In recent years, a grassroots effort led by former athletes and community members tried to get the track at the high school named in his honor. Instead, the school board approved a Wall of Fame of which Swanson was inducted as a charter member.
Swanson is survived by his wife Pam Swanson (Jackson); a son Brian Swanson; a sister Diane Van Auken; three grandchildren, Brandon Swanson, Taylor Marx and Nick Swanson, and three great-grandchildren.
A Celebration of Life for Swanson will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday on LeBaron Court at the high school. Friends and family are encouraged to show your support for the teams he loved by wearing Rocket red and white, or UW Husky purple and gold.