Wall of Fame inductee coaches open water athletes

Reagan Glidewell, Managing Editor

Look at a map and you can see why Palau—a small sovereign nation in the western Pacific Ocean—is the perfect place for open-water swimming. Palau (rhymes with “allow”) is about 300 small islands, totaling just 177 square miles. The country (1,000 miles east of the Philippines) registers as a tiny dot on the map.

So when FUHS alum Billy Brown, class of 1996, got the call from Palau aquatic officials begging him to coach their national team, it was surprising they wanted him to train athletes for swimming pool events in addition to open water.

After all, Billy is an expert in open water (swimming in outdoor bodies of water) and Palau is surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean.

Brown was living in Hawaii in 2013 when he got the job offer.

After graduating from Fullerton in 1996, Brown attended the University of Massachusetts, where he became the 100 and 200 breaststroke Atlantic-10 Champion in the 1999-2000 season, qualifying for the Olympic Trials that same year.

“I said no to the job at least eight times, but they negotiated for me to come out for seven months to teach their team. I’m like, ‘All right, fine. I’ll go out for seven months.’ And then eight years later, oops. I was only supposed to be there for a season, but eight years later, I went to two Olympics [with the Palau team].”

Although only a few Palau swimmers qualified for Olympic competition for Brown’s 2016 and 2020 teams, Palau has a population of 20,000. It’s amazing to have even one athlete qualify. Brown is proud of helping swimmers build their confidence by having athletes frequently train in open water.

Brown said that his pool swimmers were competent in the 50 and 100 meter freestyle, but they were intimidated by trying to swim a 200 backstroke or 200 freestyle. “Then you’d take them on an ocean swim and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘oh crap, I just had a three mile ocean swim. I can do a 200 free.’”

Brown also taught other skills such as navigation, currents, and catching your boat. The Islands of Palau serve as one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the world. Brown said coaching the Palau team and swimming open water gave him the opportunity to promote ocean safety and respecting the environment.

I’ve almost touched the pilot whales right off the coast of Morocco. I’ve swum over a great white two miles off one night. I’ve seen two tiger sharks. I’ve swum with countless dolphins. ”

— Billy Brown, Class of 1996

“It was so cool teaching them ‘here’s this fish, here’s that reef, here’s how we protect it.’ We had a lot of tie-ins with that, how to treat the ocean,” Brown said.

This week, though, Brown is on dry land 7,000 miles east of the islands. He’s scheduled to be honored at the Oct. 7 homecoming game, along with his father Bill Brown, as an inductee to the FUHS Wall of Fame. The annual award is given to alumni who have made significant contributions to the FUHS community and to their fields of expertise.

Billy was the 1996 CIF Swimmer of the Year, and captured the CIF record in the 100 breaststroke. After graduating from Fullerton in 1996, Brown attended the University of Massachusetts, where he became the 100 and 200 breaststroke Atlantic-10 Champion in the 1999-2000 season, qualifying for the Olympic Trials that same year. His 1:58.66 in the 200 breaststroke passed the qualifying mark and Brown became the only swimmer in UMass history to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

After college, Brown grabbed his USA Swimming National Championship backpack and some board shorts and traded in cold Massachusetts for warm Hawaii.

He coached club swim, including at Pearl Harbor Aquatics and Swim Kauai Aquatics. As an aquatics director in Kauai, Brown helped start up a YMCA, which included building Kauai’s first Olympic-sized pool. Billy also founded the Kauai water polo program.

But his strength as a coach comes from his passion as a swimmer.

Billy Brown was the 1996 CIF Swimmer of the Year, and captured the CIF record in the 100 breaststroke. (Photo courtesy of The Pleiades)

In 2010, Brown competed in an open water relay from Oahu to Kauai. The 48-hour event is a non-stop 107-mile relay with five other swimmers. The swimmers take turns swimming one hour on and five hours off. Brown admits it was tough.

“I was going about 2.5 miles an hour usually. But then the current was so bad 8 to 12 miles off of Kauai,” Brown said. “It was 11 at night when we started to hit the bad current that was head on and the guy before me, no joke, went only 350 meters in one hour.”

Because the relay was non-stop, the team had to swim at night, which Brown says was intimidating even for him.  Brown swam his first turn at 10:30 p.m.

“I can remember just jumping in. All those bubbles come around and you just don’t know what you’re jumping into? There were five minutes there when I was internally screaming and having a five-year-old temper tantrum while holding a good game face. ‘No, it’s great, team. I got it. No problem,’” Brown said sarcastically.

Open water remains Billy’s passion. “I’ve almost touched the pilot whales right off the coast of Morocco. I’ve swum over a great white two miles off one night. I’ve seen two tiger sharks. I’ve swum with countless dolphins,” Brown said. “Out there, it’s just really cool. It’s a very fun thing to do. And that’s really been a big highlight of my life for the past 20 years.”

Brown and his father Bill currently live in Idaho. Billy has been spending time with his dad since Billy’s mom, Beth, passed away in 2021. Father and son, however, plan to move to Hawaii together in the near future. A fitting plan for two of Fullerton’s all-time best swimmers.

From the 1996 FUHS yearbook.