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by Barbara Dunbar

July 18, 2005

Navy Seal and Masters swimmer

Bill Earley was born in Portland, Oregon, and first demonstrated the ability to swim at age four when he accidentally slipped out of an inner tube at the North Kansas City, Mo., municipal “plunge” and dog-paddled his way to safety at the edge of the pool. By age eight, he was mastering body surfing and ocean swimming in the Pacific Ocean off of Topanga, Calif., where his family lived. After the family moved to Lindsay, Calif., Bill began to compete in AAU age group swimming and in high school swimming where he became Lindsay High School’s first All-American swimmer in 1953. Bill attended Yale University on an NROTC (Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) scholarship from 1954-1958. He swam for Yale under the world renowned coach Bob Kiphuth, was predominantly a backstroker, and greatly enjoyed the “Bull Dog” swim team spirit and camaraderie. He was named NCAA All-American swimmer in both 1957 and 1958.

Upon graduating from Yale in 1958 with a BA degree in architecture, Bill was commissioned as Ensign, U.S. Navy. 

During his 26 year Navy career, Bill served aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown and was stationed in California, Virginia, Rhode Island, Florida, Hawaii, Vietnam, and the Philippines. His numerous tours of duty included assignment to UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) Twelve, and proud service as Commander of SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) Team Two. He was a decorated Vietnam war veteran, receiving the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars with Valor, the Meritorious Service Medal, two Navy Commendation Medals with Valor, the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star and Honor Medal, and other medals, insignia, and awards.

While stationed in Coronado, Calif., in 1973, Bill returned to competitive swimming. He helped co-found the Coronado Masters Association (CMA, the second Masters club established in the San Diego County area) and entered his first Masters swim meet in December 1973. Swimming in his first national Masters championships, the long course meters championships at Santa Clara (Calif.) in September 1974, Bill finished second in the men’s 35-39 100-meter back, third in the 50-meter free, and fifth in the 200-meter back; he anchored the national record setting CMA Coed 35 and over 200-meter free relay swimming with George Worthington, Debbie Peckham, and Janet Lamott. He made his first of many Masters National Top Ten lists in 1974 by ranking in the top ten for men 35-39 in six events (50-yard back #3 - 29.10, 100-yard back #2 - 1:05.40, 50-meter free #5 - 27.60, 50-meter back #2 - 32.90, 100-meter back #3 - 1:13.91, and 200-meter back #5 - 2:49.34).

As Navy duty permitted, Bill continued swimming Masters during his tour of duty in Pearl Harbor from 1976-1979. He was Masters All-American in the men 40-44 age group in 1977, ranking number one in the nation in the 100-meter back (1:13.67). After serving three years in the Philippines, Bill returned to San Diego in 1983 for his final Navy assignment.

He joined the San Diego Swim Masters (SDSM) club, swam on many national and world record setting SDSM relays, enjoyed the camaraderie and competition, and continued as a social member of the Coronado Masters Association. Following retirement from the Navy in 1984 and until his untimely death in 2002, Bill worked part-time as a Navy lifeguard and volunteered at the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. He mentored and supported the young men undergoing special warfare training and Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado and was an active supporter of a number of different organizations. He served Masters swimming in numerous voluntary capacities at both the local and national level. He has acted as chairperson of the San Diego-Imperial Local Masters Swimming Committee (SI LMSC), helped to run and officiate numerous local Masters meets, served on various SI LMSC committees, and remained active with the CMA group. He was an SI LMSC delegate to USMS national conventions on a number of occasions. He served on the USMS Legislation Committee as a member for thirteen years (1990-2002) and as that committee’s chairperson from 1996-1997 at which time he was also a member of the USMS Board of Directors. In 1987, Bill set men’s 50-54 age group national and world records in the 50 short course meters backstroke (32.91) and in the 100 short course meters backstroke (1:14.77). Bill ranked number one on the USMS National Top Ten list in both of those events and was named USMS All-American for the second time in 1987. He earned All American status eleven more times in 1988, 1990-1992, 1994-1999, and 2001. He set numerous San Diego-Imperial LMSC records throughout his Masters swimming career. Bill enjoyed traveling to New Zealand, Hawaii, England, Germany, and Morocco for international Masters swim meets. He fondly groused about his tough age group and having to compete once more against fellow backstroker, Yoshi Oyakawa. Yoshi, the NCAA 200 back champion from Ohio State during Bill’s freshman year at Yale, resurfaced years later in record-breaking form to compete in Masters meets. Bill was affectionately known as “The Buffalo” and is fondly remembered wearing his buffalo hat with horns or his unique camouflage dress dinner jacket. The license plate on Bill’s car read “MIWS.” Bill would explain to the curious that his sport was swimming, his stroke was backstroke, and "MIWS” was SWIM backwards. He was the proud inventor of his patented Buffalo Chips “15-Meter Lane Line Markers” which attach around lane line buoys to visually denote the 15-meter mark. He was an enthusiastic supporter, recruiter, and motivator of fellow Masters swimmers and a superb promoter of the Masters swimming program. As teammates quickly learned, “no” was often not an option when one was asked to swim on a relay for team points. Bill quickly convinced you to swim even if it meant staying for the last heat of the last event of the meet. He could be highly opinionated and fervently vocal about subjects near and dear to his heart. He was a stickler for following the rules and for proper punctuation and clarity. Heaven forbid that you should receive correspondence from Bill signed “dryly,” as you knew it would be a challenge to work your way back into Bill’s good graces. “Wetly” was, of course, his closing of choice.

Commander William L. Earley, USN (Ret), a Masters swimmer and Navy SEAL, died on July 4, 2002, Independence Day, during the Coronado Fourth of July Rough Water Swim. His ashes were scattered at sea with full military honors from the stern of a Mark V SEAL support craft in a location three miles offshore from the SEAL training beach and Gator Beach, two sites with very special meaning for Bill. The inscription on the commemorative naval chart, which was given to Bill’s son, included the words, "A wonderful father, friend and officer." Bill was also a generous person who freely donated his time, energy, and expertise to Masters swimming and other worthwhile causes. For that dedication and strength of character, we are forever grateful.

Contributions from Marilyn Fink, July 18, 2005