Longtime Lebanon coach Arzner still resonates with swimmers

Lebanon Aquatics Director Lorlee Engler has known Gus Arzner for decades, dating back to when she was a young swimmer in Lebanon.

In those days, the early 1980s, Arzner was coach at South Albany, and Engler competed against his swimmers as a Lebanon Warrior. When she took her current job at the Lebanon Aquatic Center, he was instrumental in bringing her in.

Arzner’s still a coach – in his 40th year, depending on who’s counting, the last 13 with Engler at the helm of the Warriors swim team.

Arzner loves kids and he loves coaching, say those who know him best.

It’s obvious as he sits on the pool deck during a recent swim meet at the Lebanon Aquatic Center, Arzner, 69, is surrounded by Warrior swimmers. He chats with them, congratulates them on their performances, hands out Gummi Bears from a plastic produce bag clutched in his left hand to those who have done well.

“He’s an amazing coach,” said  Casey McEuen, who now swims for the University of Nevada in Las Vegas after a high school career at Lebanon. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. He’s extremely humble, but he knows his craft very well.”

Arzner’s retired now, at least from directing Lebanon’s pool program, but he can’t quit coaching, he says.

“To me, as I’ve aged, swimming just keeps me young with the kids,” he said.

Arzner has been involved in Lebanon swimming since 2005, but his association with the sport goes all the way back to his boyhood in Lakeview where, yes, there was a pool, built when he was a kid.

“My oldest sister was a member of the first swim team, about 1952 or so,” he recalled. “All of our family swam during the summer. I did other sports, but I fell in love with swimming.”

He was a lifeguard during the summer and handled pool maintenance as a high-schooler. Lakeview High didn’t have a swim team – it still doesn’t, but Arzner excelled in other sports, and moved on to Willamette University where he played football and wrestled.

“I had a pretty strong athletic background,” Arzner said. “But I thoroughly enjoyed the aquatic environment – swimming, lessons, lifeguarding.”

During his time at Willamette  he worked summers at Lakeview, but swam at the YMCA in Salem because the university didn’t have a pool. He developed a friendship with Southern Oregon College Coach Lee Howard, who saw Arzner at a week-long swim clinic and became a mentor to him. When Arzner graduated from Willamette in 1973, Howard helped him, newly married to his wife Andrea, get a job in Crescent City, Calif., in 1973.

He coached the club program there, then was asked to coach at Del Norte High School. Three years later, he was offered a position as aquatics supervisor in Yakima, Wash., where he ran five pools for the parks department.

“They did not want the guy in charge of pools involved in coaching,” he said. “I sure missed it.”

In 1979, the city of Albany completed its community pool, located at South Albany High School. Arzner took the job as pool supervisor and coached the high school and club programs for 14 years.

In 1993, with most of his four sons nearing college or already there, he decided to make another move – to Crawfordsville, Ind.

“They’d opened a spectacular new facility there at a brand new high school.” Incidentally, “one of our opponents in Crawfordsville was Lebanon, Ind.,” he said. “They’d really get after each other.”

He coached the Athenians and the Sugar Creek Swim Club for 12 years, then decided to return to Oregon when Lebanon had an opening for a pool supervisor.

He’s been here ever since, retiring from the facility management in 2013, but continuing to coach the Warriors with co-Head Coach Lorlee Engler.

“I look at managing the facility as my profession and coaching as my hobby,” Arzner said.

He noted that he “was fortunate” to coach all four of his sons, Ryan, Nick, John and Bill, and all swam in college, Ryan and Nick at Indiana University and John and Bill at Purdue.

“I had 16 years of coaching my kids,” he said.

Though Arzner himself has never competed at the high school or college level, and he’s turned down invitations to compete at the master’s level, although two of his sons do, he still enjoys the sport personally, even if it means getting up early to get a lane in the pool for some laps swimming.

He did compete, in a relay with his sons, a few years ago at the Best in the West Triathlon at Foster Lake.

“We won our division,” said Arzner, who handled the swimming leg.

He still loves the pool.

“Once you get into that routine, it’s not any harder,” he said. “It just becomes part of your life.”

He’s had some of his charges go far. In Lebanon, three of his swimmers have moved on to college – Maddy Kelly to College of Idaho, Wyatt Engler to Southwestern Oregon and then to Keiser University in Florida, and McEuen to UNLV.

Kelly, now a senior, was a four-time 5A state champion for Lebanon before moving on.

“She’s continued on and been really great,” Arzner said.

Going into her senior season, Kelly has earned seven NAIA All-American honors, three in individual events, tying the school record last year in the 50 Freestyle with a third-place finish at nationals, and then setting a school record in the 100-yard Butterfly (57.33).

Engler, a state champion for Lebanon in the 500 Freestyle, was team captain at SWOCC and then won a national title in the 200 Freestyle as a senior last year at Keiser, posting a personal best of 1:39.83 in the process. He is now coaching at Keiser.

McEuen, a sophomore at UNLV, was a  seven-time state champion (5 individuals and 2 relays) at Lebanon and posted 5A state records in the 100 Freestyle and 100 Butterfly and an OSAA record holder in the 50 Freestyle.  He was twice named the prep male Swimmer of the Year in Oregon.

“What a joy to coach all three,” Arzner said. “Each was a different individual. But they all had a common love for the sport and great focus on accomplishing and succeeding.”

He said he loves the black-and-white nature of swimming, and the way his athletes can set and meet goals.

“It’s an objective sport in terms of performance. It’s easy to evaluate. Either you’ve improved your time or you didn’t.”

Lorlee Engler said Arzner emphasizes personal achievement for each swimmer, no matter what their level, with a focus on delivering big by the time the district meet rolls around.

“Every swimmer is going to have their ‘Olympic moment,’ whether they’re a JV swimmer or a great swimmer who goes on to swim in college. For a lot of kids, (district) will be their last meet. We want them to have their best time and have a great meet.”

All that takes goal-setting, commitment and plenty of pool time, she and Arzner said. The payoff is personal and, Arzner said, hopefully a lesson for life.

“The kids’ season ends on a positive note when they post their best time. They’re excited. They’re successful. They may not go on to be competitive swimmers, but they will go on to challenges of life – disappointments and setbacks, and the discipline sports require and their effort will transfer into their daily lives, I hope.”

Lebanon Athletic Director Kraig Hoene said he “can’t speak highly enough about him as a person” and credited Arzner, Lorlee Engler and Assistant Coach Jim Knaup with building a program at the Warriors’ pool.

“Gus is awesome,” he said. “He’s good people, good with kids. He’s more concerned about building kids. Those kids turn into good athletes because they’re building character first.”

Engler, who considers Arzner her mentor and head coach, said she “couldn’t have done this job as director of the facility if I hadn’t been under him all these years. Same with coaching.”

She said their swimmers love him, even though he’s “old-school.”

“He’s tough, but lovable. I think that’s why most of the kids respond to him.

“Swimming is one of those sports that, to be good at it, it takes work and so much dedication. He knows what it takes.”

McEuen said Arzner’s background in other sports also pays off on the pool deck.

“He knows lots of the ins and outs of other sports, and he can take that mentality and cross over to swimming as well. It’s helpful.”

Engler said she doesn’t see Arzner quitting  anytime soon, though since he retired as aquatics director in 2013, he’s “busier than ever” as a Rotary Club member and Strawberrian, she said.

She said Warrior swimmers enjoy his dry-land yoga workouts, his pep talks and “the wealth of information” he has to offer.

“Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Is this his last year?’

“I could see me dragging him out in a wheelchair. This is a perfect gig for him. He just loves it. I can’t imagine him quitting as long as he stays healthy.”