Like the rest of my year-round swim team, I spent many years of life trying to impress a man who wasn’t my father. None of us shared any blood with the man, barring the blood we spilled for him in the pool. Or the running trail. Or the weight room. God, I hated that weight room. I was serious about swimming yet vain enough to pretend I was weaker than I was to keep the weights down, thereby keeping the muscle mass down. I thought I was so sneaky, but he was always on to me. He felt like family.
We took instruction from him nearly every weekday starting at 5 a.m. and again after school for two more grueling hours of workouts. I admit to hating him sometimes for the sets that spilled out of his mouth (“20 two-hundreds at cruise minus 5?? Effff you.”) But never-ever would I have said such a thing aloud and always-always did I have the utmost respect for him. He taught us how to make our bodies perform in ways we wouldn't have thought possible, and that was a big life lesson in and of itself.
And was he ever a handsome devil. Some might put him in the silver fox category, but he was too much of a father-figure for me to see him in that light. He was an ex-military man with the work ethic and sailor mouth to prove it, but when he was proud of us, we knew it... and we loved it. We thrived on it. That was Coach.
By the end of high school a shoulder injury had me down about swimming, and at the same time, I wasn’t so driven by the competitive spirit anymore. Coach understood and never made me feel guilty for turning my back on the sport. When I was waitlisted at the university where he was head coach, he sat me down and asked me how much I wanted to get off the waitlist to attend. Even though I was excited about heading to Philly and so answered with uncertainty, he offered me a no-strings-attached spot on the team to guarantee my admission, knowing full well I’d never actually swim another competitive lap for him.
It only took a couple hours of thought for me to let go of my thoughts, go with my gut, reneg on U Penn and accept the generous offer. It was one of those pivotal life-bending moments, and –though I’ll never know what lay in the alternate- I have Coach to thank for much of the direction my life found. And though I no longer swam on one of his teams, for years I couldn't seem to stop shadowing the poor guy. I worked for him during college as head lifeguard, where I met UITBE. And later I took a job as a waitress at his favorite watering hole. Whether he was more protective of his vices or my innocence, I don't know, but boy did he ever hate that I worked at his favorite watering hole.
I finally got out of Coach's prematurely white hair after college, never to return to it again. I've thought of him too many times to count, but I never took the chance to thank him outright for the role he played in my life. My brother came to visit me last weekend, and during a latenight pow-wow over beer and vinyl, Coach made his way into our conversation. K is another of his former swimmers, and we both knew he was very sick. I couldn’t help but express my guilt over not thanking him properly for his influence, but K, in all his matter-of-fact glory responded “Uh, I think he has more important things to think about now, J.” I felt silly but comforted too by the reminder that I was only one little fish of many in Coach's pool. Still, I like to feel like nothing is left unsaid, and now my time to say is up. So, instead... here's my meek alternative, just a small energy of love and thanks directed toward an unforgettable man and a beloved Coach.