Monday, March 13, 2006

A Swimmer Named Joe

In high school, I coached a youth swim team for a city pool in Kansas. We had some good swimmers. A lot of hard workers. But we lost every meet. There were better coaches and bigger teams.

In fact, we were so small that I'd have to fill freestyle heats with swimmers who only knew the dog paddle. I stood by the edge of the pool, on the pretense of cheering, but really was prepared to dive in and save their lives. They always made it. And they must have thought they were close to winning with the way I was in their face the whole time.

Some kids won individual heats and that made the rest of the team cheer.

Joe was about 10 years old when he joined the team. Nicest kid. I got the impression that he'd never swam before, just played gutterball with his friends at the pool. He hung out with the wild kids, but he had the vocabulary of a bookish person. He'd come to practice and meets in faded swimtrunks. He never had goggles, which didn't matter because he wouldn't put his face in the water anyway. I tried to teach him to breath to the side, but he wouldn't do it, and that made it hard for him to swim fast.

He did everything else right.

At practice, he'd ask a lot of questions. "Do you hold your hands like this (fingers together) or this (fingers apart)? What did you mean by lift your elbows? What's a flutter kick? How do you glide?"

He'd stand there and think about each answer. Then he'd say, "okay" and get in the water and do exactly what he was supposed to. Never complained. Always worked hard. Swam hard at the meets--thrashing around like crazy even when he saw that everyone was a mile ahead of him. (He had a clear view, obviously.) He was the perfect kid to coach.

But I always knew that his hands could be fins, his feet fishtails, and none of it would matter if he didn't put his face in the water. It came down to being scared of the water. And as a coach, there's not much you can do if a kid is scared of doing what he needs to do.

Then toward the end of the season, Joe came to a swim meet wearing speedos and goggles. His friend Chris, who also swam with his face out of the water, was laughing at him like crazy for wearing speedos. But Chris, who had long hair, was wearing a swim cap that day and was embarrassed for himself, too.

Joe asked me, "Do you breathe to both sides, or just one?"

I suggested he take four strokes and breathe to the right side, for starters, but I didn't think he'd do it.

"Do you breathe out and in to the side?" he asked.

"No, you just breathe in to the side and breathe out in the water," I said. I honestly thought he was asking for someone else, like his friend Chris, who didn't breathe to the side only because his thrasher hairstyle got in the way and he refused to wear a swimcap, until that day.

Joe stood there and thought about it and said, "okay."

When they fired the gun for his heat, he jumped in--that was the other thing, he couldn't dive.

Then I watched him lift his elbows like he was supposed to and cup his hands like he was supposed to and flutter kick fast--not in giant thumps--like he was supposed to, but this time it mattered because his face was in the water.

I couldn't believe my eyes.

"Yes!" I yelled, pumping my arms. "Go. Go. Go!"

Though it was 90 degrees on that 5 p.m. concrete pool deck, I felt chills. Tears filled my eyes.

Joe closed the gap between himself and those who dove in the water. He took like 10 strokes before taking a breath. He was fast. He looked like a kid from Lenexa (the league powerhouse.)

"Go, Joe!" I was yelling like those kids in the G.I. Joe commercials.

I'm sure the other coaches didn't understand my reaction over a swimmer who was simply doing what he was supposed to do. You wouldn't get it if all your swimmers came to you as four year olds who already knew how to breathe to the side. If you could fill your fast heats with three swimmers who knew how to do a racing dive and your slow heats with kids who were, well, fast.

Joe didn't win the race, but he came close.

After he climbed out of the pool and heard his time, which was like a minute faster than his last race, I said, "Joe, you did it. You breathed to the side."

"Yeah," he said like it was no big deal.

I always think about Joe whenever I coach or teach someone. You think you're making no difference. What you're teaching doesn't click. Then one day--and you might not even be around anymore--they take off. You never know when or why it's going to happen.

Maybe Joe looked his fear in the eye and decided he was tougher. Maybe he thought, "My mom bought me these goggles today so I better use them." Whatever the reason, he did what he had to do to swim fast. I wouldn't trade a swimmer like Joe for a thousand Lenexa swimmers. He had to work twice as hard and put a thousand times more heart into the race in order to beat other swimmers.

I hope he remembers that day whenever he faces something difficult. Situations where he's not the smartest, suavest, fastest or most naturally talented, but needs to win anyway. I sure do.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love it! I was cracking up thinking about the "thrasher"...i remember swimmers like that! Great story, Bridge!

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go Fairway!! I love that you gave your brother, Josh, the most improved swimmer award his first season. Go fam!! Good heartwarming story~!

6:52 PM  

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