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Originally published February 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 13, 2007 at 11:26 AM

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Coach has a lot in common with UW swim programs he's trying to resuscitate

Washington's new swim coach almost died 11 years ago. The swim programs he took over in September had its own near-death experience six years ago.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bacterial meningitis spread through his body at a vicious pace, destroying its ability to clot, forcing blood into his joints. He suffered from migraine headaches and a 106-degree fever. He couldn't walk. He lost 24 pounds in eight days. Washington's new swim coach almost died 11 years ago.

Whitney Hite swam for Texas then. After his junior season, at home in Denver in May 1995, he contracted a virus that killed four people and paralyzed another from the waist down. Doctors told his parents Hite wasn't going to make it. A priest read his last rites.

"I feel fortunate I got the disease," says Hite, now 33. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

The swim programs Hite took over in September had its own near-death experience six years ago. Mickey Wender, then the coach, never saw it coming.

He met with former athletic director Barbara Hedges in July 2000. Both knew the Huskies' pool — all of six lanes, each only 25 yards long — rendered competing nationally difficult, if not impossible. And the thinking went: If Washington couldn't compete nationally, why compete at all?

Wender left the office and started making phone calls, informing recruits and athletes and their parents that the program they poured their sweat into had but one season left.

"It was like reporting a death in the family," Wender says, "a total shock."

Leap of faith

Even when doctors warned of the possibility of seizures and amputation, Hite never considered hanging up his Speedo. He had no business swimming at Texas in the first place, arriving on campus 6 feet 4 and 140 pounds, a swimmer his legendary coach Eddie Reese says "didn't reach puberty until a couple years ago."

Swimming tamed his hyperactivity as a child. Swimming taught him the toughness that pushed Hite through the Chicago Marathon with a broken leg. Pushed him through qualifying for the Big 12 Championships with a hand sliced so deeply it needed stitches he refused until after he secured a spot. And swimming saved his life, got him through the migraines and the meningitis and two years' worth of rehab.

Hite went home after his college career ended and landed a job in the Broncos' ticket office. This was the dream job for any kid who grew up in Denver, but Hite didn't want to sit in a cubicle after almost dying.

So he quit. Started writing letters to college swim coaches. First looking for an assistant job, then a graduate-assistant job, then a volunteer job. Not even a sniff.

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Hite drove his mom's Toyota Camry to Summer Nationals in Fresno, Calif., sleeping on the floor of a friend's hotel room, begging for someone, anyone, to listen. On the last day, he met Georgia coach Jack Bauerle. In 10 minutes, Hite had a volunteer position.

He loaded everything he owned into a trailer, withdrew the $1,700 in his bank account and arrived in Athens, Ga., looking for a job. He found one in a bagel shop and sandwiched his work hours between swimming practices. He worked 14 hours a day, earning $5.35 an hour for only six of them.

"At least it was free lunch," Hite says. "Life is about sacrifice. What are you willing to do? What are you prepared to do? It was a leap of faith. Five years later, I took another leap of faith, going to Cal. Three years after that, I'm here.

"And this is a little bit of a leap of faith."

At Georgia, the women's team Hite helped coach won three NCAA titles and placed second twice. At Cal, Hite helped turn around a program and steer Natalie Coughlin to one of the most decorated careers ever. At Texas, Reese always told his swimmers to write their own history. Hite thought of that when the Washington job opened up.

"He's always lived the tough way," says Tommy Hannan, a UW assistant and Olympic gold medalist. "I would call him a blue-collar-type coach. He's going to earn everything he gets."

Programs revived

Even after Hedges stamped his programs with an expiration date, Wender never gave up hope. He rallied the swimming community, the media, even the state senate, which promised $10 million in matching funds. Wender's biggest disappointment is that the Huskies never raised that.

Four weeks after the Washington swim teams learned of their imminent death, Hedges brought the programs back, despite recognizing they wouldn't be competitive nationally.

"There was a real cry from our state," says Marie Tuite, a UW senior associate athletic director. "Barbara listened, even though that was a little bit of a contradiction of our mission."

Decimated by transfers, the women's team competed with 11 swimmers the next season and, despite starting every meet behind on the score sheet because of not having a diving team, finished in the top 25. Wender always said the facility didn't matter — "we could train them in Lake Washington, and they could be successful," he says — and now he had the proof.

The athletic department hoped the near-death experience would increase interest — and donations — toward a new facility. It never did.

"I consider bringing swimming back to be one of my greatest memories," says Wender, now the coach at Army.

Doing more with less

The Huskies practice at their campus pool, built way back in 1937 without a diving well (they compete at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way).

A quick tour: The facility appears to double as a storage area for the athletic department. The hallways on the bottom floor are strewn with piles of sand bags and broken weight benches and old tires stacked on top of each other.

The pool itself has six 25-yard lanes. At a recent practice for the men's team, swimmers shared them in groups of three. Hannan laughs when asked to compare this pool to his college facility at Texas. With eight lanes, each 50 meters, a diving well and stands that seat 5,000 people, there is no comparison. Hannan's high-school pool was like this, he says, until it renovated recently.

Hite calls a new facility a "base need." He says that humans need food, water and sleep to live — and swim teams need a 50-meter pool to be successful.

Without a proper pool, Hite and his assistants do everything twice, holding morning and afternoon practices for both teams, spending seven hours a day at the pool.

"We do more with less than anyone in the country," he says. "Washington is better than that facility. Overall, are the athletes getting the experience and expertise they need? No. Are we still going to be successful? Yes. Are we going to be as successful as we could have been? I don't know. That's the bummer of the whole thing."

A quick fix could be on the way. The UW is looking into building an above-ground, temporary pool at a cost of about $3 million. Hite says it needs to be on campus, but due to a lack of space, he's also looking at space on Sand Point Way.

Tuite says "discussions" are taking place. She says Long Beach built a similar site for the 2004 Olympic trials. She also says there are other "facility challenges" ahead of the pool. Namely, the football stadium and a combination baseball/soccer facility.

Hite says he understands there are also more burning issues in the region, pointing to transportation and the basketball arena. "But to be on the stove, on any burner, is important," he says.

The ultimate goal is a $30 million to $40 million aquatic center, complete with an indoor, 50-meter-by-25-yard pool, an outdoor 25-yard pool and a diving well and tower.

"If we get that temporary pool up and running, that's going to change this program drastically," Hannan says. "The recruits that come along with that will move us in the top 20 overnight."

"At a breaking point"

A quote from Lance Armstrong hangs on the bulletin board in Hite's office. It reads, in part: "I'm not known for my patience. Patience is a polite quality and often appropriate, but it rarely gets things done. Impatience, however, is the hunger for results and the intolerance for excuses and delays ... "

This explains Hite, his philosophy and his direction for the program.

"We're at a breaking point," Hite says. "No disrespect, but the program has been on a slow bleed since the early '80s. The direction of the program, it needed new life. It is a critical time. That's why I'm here."

When Hite interviewed for the job, he told administrators that if they weren't interested in winning or building a facility, then they had the wrong guy. He says after Wender left for Army, in August, would have been the "perfect time" for Washington to cut the programs. Hite recognized both the challenges and the potential.

"I knew I was not going to be bored," he says.

So he hired Hannan, a national champion at Texas, and kept Brendon Bray, a former UW swimmer who coached with Wender, on staff. Hite introduced cycling workouts in a boiler room at the UW pool. The team sweats for an hour each morning, lights off, music blaring. Typical Hite toughness.

Now all he has to do is change the culture. Impose standards, his standards, non-negotiable and unwavering, built at three of the top programs in the country.

By the time Hite took over in September, the Huskies were already months behind. The workouts alone were overwhelming. Two swimmers quit. Hite cut another one.

Along the way, something happened even Hite couldn't have anticipated. He landed Ariana Kukors, the nation's top recruit from nearby Auburn and the headliner of one of the top classes in the country.

"One of my goals is to produce a program that is a viable option for kids in state," Hite says. "Not an afterthought. That it's, 'one of my first choices, of course it's Washington. Why would it not be?' "

The goals are big. After the temporary pool, Hite wants to endow the program at the cost of about $11 million. Then he won't have to look over his shoulder anymore. The university hasn't imposed a timeline, but Hite has imposed his own. Two years to get this moving.

There's little time to waste. The coach who almost died controls the program that almost died, and together, they have some history to write.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

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