OCEANSIDE — Local officials and relatives of the late Bill Wagner, known to many as “Coach Bill,” gathered on Aug. 13 to commemorate the naming of the El Corazon Aquatic Center after the Oceanside High School swim coach who helped thousands of Oceanside youngsters learn to swim.
The Oceanside City Council approved the name change late last year. Since then, signage above the William A. Wagner Aquatic Center entrance has been changed to its new name.
Wagner was born in Chicago in 1931, where he grew up developing a love and talent for swimming after becoming a lifeguard working on the shores of Lake Michigan. Wagner later accepted a swimming scholarship at the University of Utah and competed in the Military Olympics during his service.
As a swim coach, Wagner led the school to nine consecutive undefeated seasons, Avocado League championships, and two CIF championships. Wagner was named San Diego Swim Coach of the Year during this time. Wagner also led the school’s basketball team to three league titles.
From OHS, Wagner moved to Lincoln Middle School as vice principal in 1971, four years later becoming the principal at Jefferson Middle School. In the last decade of his career, Wagner served as the principal at Laurel and South Oceanside elementary schools, earning distinctions as California Distinguished Schools under his watch.
Wagner died in early 2021. He was 89 years old.
According to Mayor Esther Sanchez, Wagner embraced the diversity of Oceanside, encouraging everyone to not only swim but to pursue their goals as well.
“(Wagner) believed everyone was able to swim no matter who you were,” Sanchez said. “He would be the coach to bring 100 kids to a meet.”
Sanchez has a history of working with Wagner throughout her more than 20 years serving on the City Council.
As Laurel’s principal, Wagner started the school district’s first Hall of Fame, which has inducted more than 80 people since 1982.
Wagner was well loved by his students and looked up to as a leader in the community for decades. For city staff and elected officials, naming the brand new aquatics center after the beloved swim coach was a natural choice.
“Many young men and women stand a little taller, walk a little straighter and carry a better image of themselves and their society because of the lessons learned from him,” former Superintendent Steven Speech once said about Wagner.
City staff started planning and designing the new aquatic center in 2015. The council approved the project in November 2018. The aquatics center opened in August 2021.
The new aquatics center has provided a new space for aquatics programs at the city’s high schools, including Oceanside High, El Camino and Mission Vista. Before the new aquatics center, those schools would need to meet at places like Brooks and Marshall street pools, which require several renovations.
At a dedication ceremony in mid-August, Sanchez, along with residents and members of the Wagner family, gathered to honor the aquatic center’s formal name change. Sanchez recalled his family and former students’ many stories about the beloved coach.
“(Wagner) just set a high standard for all of us,” Sanchez said. “He made our community that much greater.”