Swimming for his life

By Matt Dentone

UH swimmers training on campus

Growing up in rural Wichita, Kansas, the University of Hawai‘i might have been the last place Assistant Men’s and Women’s Swimming Coach Chuck Riggs thought he would end up. For the first 17 years of his life, snow and cornfields as far as the eye can see was the norm.

In 1957 at the age of 10, Riggs was diagnosed with a rare disease called Legg Perthes Syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic the disease is a childhood condition associated with an inadequate blood supply to part of the hip joint. Without adequate blood flow, a process can occur in which the bone becomes unstable, and may break easily and heal poorly. “I was told I may never be able to walk again,” said Riggs.

For three years Riggs was forced to use metal leg braces and crutches to get around. “I felt like a guinea pig,” Riggs said commenting on how he was one of the first in his area to be diagnosed with this disease and cures were uncertain. “All I could do was leg press and swim,” said Riggs. It was the swimming though, that really started producing results. “Swimming saved my life,” explained Riggs. Putting little to no pressure on his legs, swimming was able to increase the blood circulation ultimately resulting in a complete recovery from the disease. Riggs cracked a smile through his tough, sun-wrinkled skin saying, “swimming has followed me ever since.”

In 1964 as a senior in high school, Riggs who was now a successful diver, moved to Riverside, Calif. Riggs attended Riverside City College for two years where he earned All-American honors for his success in the pool. Riggs spent the next two years at Cal State University of Los Angeles, again, receiving All-American honors.

Riggs was not even a year out of college when he got his first assistant coaching gig at Altadena Town and Country Club. It was April 1, 1968. Three years later in 1971 he moved up and got his first head coaching opportunity when he started the Riverside Aquatics Pool Association. Riggs coached at Riverside for nine years and gained national attention as an elite coach. He coached multiple Olympic Trial qualifiers and even a World Record Holder in Sippy Woodhead.


Riggs at RHS after a long day's work

In 1982 Riggs moved to Redlands, Calif. where he coached at Redlands High School for 28 years. There, Riggs also taught history, philosophy and English. Riggs’ tireless work ethic, consistent training regiment and likeable personality created a trust between him and his swimmers. Riggs became the only coach in swimming history to ever coach two high school men to sub 20-second 50-yard freestyles. The Redlands powerhouse team also one a National Championship in 2008.

Riggs and his record-breaking relay team

In 2009 after 37 years of mind and muscle molding along with a healthy pension, Riggs decided to put swimming in the rearview mirror. It took the seasoned coach two months before he began looking for new coaching opportunities and a new adventure.
Already an owner of a condo in Hawaii, Riggs began searching for possible coaching jobs around the Honolulu area. University of Hawaii Head Men’s and Women’s swim coach Victor Wales was instantly made aware of this and knew what adding such a high profile coach could do for his program. Riggs was offered an assistant coaching job at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I’m getting paid peanuts, and the cost of living is 40 percent higher than inland Los Angeles,” explained Riggs. Why, one would ask, would a veteran coach take such a high pay deduction? “It’s a passion, a sickness…when you find something you do well in and can watch young men and women grow simultaneously, that’s the reason I get up in the morning,” said Riggs.

Riggs was given the reins and complete control of the distance group. These are the swimmers that compete in the longer events such as: 500- 1000- 1650 and the 400-yard Individual Medley. Riggs’ coaching methods made an instant impression on many of the UH swimmers. “I was nervous and intimidated at first” said senior Rainbow Warrior Colin Coombs. “He is a very no bullshit type of coach, you do what he says or you don’t do it at all.” Riggs’ group is always the first to enter the water and usually the last to get out.

In February of 2011, his second year at UH, Riggs was put in a tough situation because the men’s and women’s championship meets were held on the same weekend at different pools in different cities. He was the only on-deck coach to accompany the men’s team to their conference meet in Houston, Texas. The team was salivating for their first conference title in over a decade. “From the second we got off the plane to the moment where we raised the championship trophy at the end of the meet, he (Riggs) was in control,” said sophomore Rainbow Warrior Ryan Pickett. “He has a calming confidence in his swimmers that I think brings the best out in all of us.”

In 2011 Riggs will be at it again, mentoring and coaching his swimmers who strive for another conference title. When asked what the future holds for the legendary coach, Riggs answered with another half smile saying, “I have no plans…I’m in Hawaii enjoying and living each day.”