Back in the late Seventies, when 11-year-olds Tim Bass and Steve Willan were raising pet piranhas — large freshwater fish with razor-sharp teeth and a voracious appetite for red meat — the Sun Prairie Recreation Department sponsored a “name the team” contest for its fledgling group of swimmers.

Guess what name Bass and Willan submitted.

“Sun Prairie Piranhas” stuck.

The rest is history, a diverse and colorful history in which the team, now in its fifth decade, grew from one coach to 10 and from dozens of swimmers to almost 250, most between the ages of 6 and 18.

Although Sun Prairie’s Recreation & Aquatics Department oversees the Piranhas and hires coaches, the team is a parent-run organization in nearly every sense of the term, with multiple sponsors, an elected board of directors and a long list of volunteer slots that must be filled for every home meet the team hosts.

“Over the years, the parents have done a lot of good things that helped the Piranhas grow. Without the parents, there are no Piranhas,” said Bob Holling, retired Sun Prairie Parks, Recreation and Forestry director, whose long tenure with the city included the transition from the broken-down Angell Park swimming pool that opened in 1958 to the award-winning Family Aquatic Center in 1992. “The community has no idea how successful this program is.”

On July 26-27, the Piranhas will welcome 2,500 swimmers and spectators to the Tri-County Conference Swim Meet at the FAC. Each of the conference’s eight teams — Sun Prairie, Baraboo, Cross Plains, Mazomanie, Mount Horeb, Sauk Prairie, Spring Green and Wisconsin Dells — take turns hosting the annual Saturday-Sunday event. The Piranhas last welcomed this big meet to the FAC in 2006, when thunder, lightning and a major downpour postponed swimming for a couple of hours Sunday morning.

Even the name “Tri-County Conference” has roots in Sun Prairie, thanks to Ernie Brooks, the first director of the city’s YMCA who also happened to be the first Piranhas coach back in 1973.

“It’s been so long ago that I don’t even remember everything I did,” Brooks, now 77 and still a Sun Prairie resident, said. “We had workouts in the morning. Kids just showed up. I taught them what I knew and did a lot of demonstrating. The only thing that really sticks in my mind is that I suggested the league be called the ‘Tri-County Swim League.’ ”

The team and conference names aren’t the only things that have stuck. So have the friendships, for both swimmers and parents. “I still have dinner once a month with the swim moms. Sometimes the kids join us,” said Connie Johnson, a former Piranhas president whose three sons swam on the team in the Eighties and Nineties. “Once a swim mom, always a swim mom.”

Many former Piranhas also have gone on to enjoy success in swimming and other athletic endeavors. Jackie Arendt, a professional triathlete, was the 2013 Ironman Wisconsin women’s champion and placed sixth earlier this year in the Ironman 70.3 Florida. Jared Scharenbrock, a highly recruited two-time Division I high school state wrestling champion who signed with the University of Wisconsin, is also a Piranhas alum. Countless other Piranhas have gone on to decorated high school and collegiate swimming careers.

“Once people see that kind of success, success breeds success,” said Larry Tuschen, whose four daughters all swam for the Piranhas between 1992 and 2011 (oldest daughter Halee also coached, and Larry was a longtime meet official). “The Piranhas swim team has spurred more swimmers to do year-round swimming.”

Indeed, the team has become a feeder program for the Sun Prairie High School swim teams, the upstart USA Swimming affiliate Sun Prairie Storm and long-established USA Swimming clubs such as DFAC in Deforest and the YMCA of Dane County. There’s even a Piranhas Mini team, designed to help swimmers develop strokes and increase endurance before moving to Piranhas, which requires all participants to swim at least one length of the pool.

‘Eat Raw Meat! Eat Raw Meat!’

Not bad for an organization with such humble beginnings that the red wooden starting blocks at the head of every lane at the Angell Park pool weren’t even attached to the ground. “Someone had to stand on the blocks to hold them in place,” remembered Lisa Hovel, a teenage lifeguard at the old pool who later became a Piranhas parent of two swimmers; she now works at the Sun Prairie Public Library.

Back in those days, there were no computers to tally times and scores; everything was done manually. Jill Kullmann, who was the Piranhas head coach from 1976 to 1978 and is now a retired physical education and health teacher still living in Sun Prairie, remembered one parent volunteer who “had her coffee pot to plug in, her typewriter, her ashtray, and her cigarette, and she’d type up the results for everyone,” she says. “It was just a stitch.”

Portable bleachers were brought in for parents and other spectators to watch swimmers compete in the rectangular six-lane, 25-yard pool. “It was pretty cramped,” Holling said. “But everybody made it work.”

By that time, the pool itself left a lot to be desired, too. Sometimes the water was green, and every so often, swimmers would find fish in it. “I think a big reason more people didn’t swim was because the old pool was so gross,” Bass said.

Despite its many deficiencies, that pool still evokes fond memories in longtime Sun Prairie residents, even if they weren’t Piranhas. A recent post on the “If you grew up in Sun Prairie, you remember when…” Facebook page generated some nostalgic comments, including these two:

• “Top three [memories] … awesome friendships formed that are still going on today, the amazing coaches that instilled a strong work ethic while at the same time taught and showed us how to have tons of fun along the way, and all of our team cheers! I am so grateful and proud of my roots. SP Piranhas for life!”

• “We all rode our bikes down for swimming lessons in the morning and then swam all afternoon! Remember the baskets to put your clothes in? So much fun!”

During those early years, many Piranhas traditions began, including the parent-run concessions stand, memorable bus rides filled with overzealous team chants (“Eat raw meat! Eat raw meat!” was a favorite) and numerous rivalries that at one time or another included Spring Green, Baraboo and Mount Horeb. But because this is Sun Prairie, Middleton and Cross Plains emerged as the biggest rivals.

“I remember beating Middleton for the first time,” said Bass, now a health teacher at Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School. “That was huge.”

Always a formidable swim team, the Piranhas also had divers. “I can tell you diving practice was very casual,” said Judi Luciani, who was on the diving team in the late 1970s and early 1980s and now works in the Madison Metropolitan School District. “Our practices were more like sandlot baseball. We’d get together, put on Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, and just dive and ‘coach’ each other. It was an awesome way to spend the summer.”

“I hated to see it go,” Kullmann said about the Angell Park pool.

‘It’s a Social Thing’

But by the late Eighties, it was time for it to go. The pool was “worn out,” Holling said, and it became a struggle to keep the mechanical systems running for an entire summer.

Holling finally gave city leaders an ultimatum: “I said, ‘Fix it, or it’s going to close. And if you don’t want to fix it, you’re going to need to build a new pool,’ ” Holling remembered.

His demand shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As far back as 1979, the Dane County Extension Office, in its “City of Sun Prairie Recreation Plan” commissioned by the Sun Prairie City Council, suggested that “the city should consider a new swimming pool within the next two years.”

Thirteen years later, on May 30, 1992, the $2.3 million Family Aquatic Center opened at 920 Linnerud Drive with eight competitive lanes, a 208-foot waterslide, an 18-foot drop slide into a separate diving well that also housed two 1-meter diving boards, and a 210-foot zero-depth beach entry believed at the time to be the largest in the Midwest. Even today, the FAC remains the jewel of all pools in the Tri-County Conference.

By July 10, 1992, the facility surpassed its projected attendance of 38,000 on its way to more than 100,000 users that first summer, according to an October 1992 report in Athletic Business magazine. Revenues were more than double what city officials had anticipated.

Thus began a new era for the Piranhas. Participation increased significantly, as did the number of coaches. Many coaches have been former Piranhas themselves, leading the team with the same sense of pride they felt as swimmers.

Brian Johnson, Connie’s son who began swimming for the Piranhas at age 9, eventually became the team’s head coach and cumulatively logged two decades with the Piranhas.

“The fact that it got bigger made things a bit more difficult,” Connie Johnson said. Organized day trips for swimmers and coaches away from the pool no longer happen, and team dinners and parties previously held at parks and churches, or in swim families’ backyards, have been relocated to Sun Prairie High School.

Portable bleachers were replaced with sun shelters, wide-open decks and large expanses of green space, where families now bring their own chairs and set up tents and portable canopies to make the swim-meet experience comparable to a cookout with family and friends ¬— but without the grills and alcohol.

As former city administrator Rick Finn told The Star at an open house for the new pool on May 29, 1992: “The entire facility was built as a family aquatics center. It is the city’s commitment to you and your families.”

“Our kids would rather go without a vacation than miss a swim team meet or practice,” said Tuschen, who admits he misses being part of the Piranhas family since his youngest daughter left the team in 2011. “It’s a social thing for the kids and the parents. Yeah, the team got bigger, but it also got closer.”

Perhaps that closeness is best illustrated by Brian Johnson’s lasting memory from the 2006 Tri-County Conference Meet at the FAC. At the time, swimmer Jay Haraldson was 11 years old and undergoing treatment for his second bout with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer in his jaw. Although he was not allowed to swim because of the Hickman line administering chemotherapy in his body, Haraldson was selected to carry the Tri-County Conference flag and lead the traditional Sunday-morning parade around the entire pool area.

Five years later, three trees were planted at the FAC in Haraldson’s memory after he passed away unexpectedly in June 2011 while working out at the high school.

Holling remembers the last conference meet held in Sun Prairie, too. “I was told that a lot of people come to it,” he said. “When the parking lot was full at 9 a.m., you knew you had a lot of people there. I couldn’t even find a parking spot. And at the end of the meet on Sunday, all of the parents had the facility cleaned up in time for swimming lessons Monday morning.”

Actually, the FAC’s parking lot is typically full by 7 a.m. during most Saturday home meets, and buses carrying swimmers to away meets depart as early as 5:45 a.m., with a long line of parents en route, too.

‘I Love the Energy’

Nevertheless, new swim parents show up on deck every season, which currently runs from the first weekend in June to the final weekend in July, with practices beginning in mid-May. Swimmers are divided by age group, not ability, and the emphasis has always been on recreation, sportsmanship and team camaraderie.

“Piranhas was more fun for my kids than high school swimming and going to state meets,” said Hovel, whose son, Christopher, competed in three state meets.

“You’ll see kids come in dead last, get out of the water, ask for their time and still pump their fist, saying ‘Yes!’ ” Tuschen said. “If you can get your kids to swim against themselves instead of everybody else in the pool, they become successful very fast, and I think later in life they measure their success by what they’re able to do, and doing it the best they can.”

Being part of Piranhas teaches such life skills as learning discipline, creating structure, showing respect, and developing and adhering to a schedule of daily early-morning practices and eight straight Saturday mornings of competition.

“It’s a commitment for all of us,” said Mary Benzine, a Piranhas parent since 2007 whose two teenage daughters currently swim for the Piranhas. “We would not have been in it for this long if we did not enjoy it. I never swam, so we didn’t know what we were getting into. We have made some great friends, and I love the energy. You just really hope you have a sunny and warm Saturday morning.”

Michael Popke, a Piranhas parent of two swimmers since 2004, is a freelance writer and owner of Two Lakes Media Group, which provides writing, editing, content marketing and consulting services. Contact him at michael@twolakesmedia.com.

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