Hall of Fame swim coach Bill Spahn has died after suffering a heart attack at a Masters swim meet this weekend. Spahn was 79 years old.
Former swimmers of Spahn’s tell SwimSwam that Spahn was taken to the hospital after becoming unresponsive while swimming the 1650 free at a meet in Colorado on Friday. He died early Saturday morning.
An exact cause of death has not been confirmed.
Spahn, born in Austin, Minnesota, is a member of the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame. He coached for 46 years at the University of New Mexico, University of Kansas, Wichita Swim Club, Albuquerque HYAC Swim Club, Notre Dame (as a volunteer), and the Fort Collins Area Swim Team, among other places.
Spahn’s first collegiate job was at the University of Kansas from 1977-1981 before taking over the men’s and women’s programs at New Mexico. By 1986, he led the Lobos men to their first conference title.
Spahn coached the New Mexico men’s team from 1981 through 1999, when the program was cut, and the women’s team from 1981 through 2005, bar a short-term cut of the program. He was named the WAC Coach of the Year four times in his career.
Prior to starting his collegiate coaching career, he also coached the HYAC Swim Club in Albuquerque to seven state championships.
Spahn himself was a multi-sport athlete: At Austin High School, he lettered four years in football, four years in swimming, and also was a district champion in track. He went on to swim collegiately at Texas Tech, where he was a two-time captain of the men’s team.
Spahn is a bit of a star-crossed coach: Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas Tech have all since eliminated their men’s swimming & diving programs. The New Mexico women’s team was also disbanded for several years during his tenure before being reinstated. The loss of some of those programs most associated with Spahn presents a risk to the loss of his legacy as well.
But Spahn’s former swimmers have kept that legacy alive. Over 90% of the swimmers from his teams at Kansas showed up to a reunion honoring Spahn in 2011, as have swimmers to numerous New Mexico reunions.
Among the athletes that Spahn coached in his career are five-time Olympic gold medalist Tom Jager and Ron Neugent, who in 1983 became the first male swimmer in 11 years to earn All-America honors for the Jayhawks. Neugent swam for Spahn at the Wichita Swim Club.