I loved to swim. Competitively.
My father was an athlete. He played football and basketball. Although he wasn’t a big guy, he had a competitive spirit and enjoyed the game.
He thought I would enjoy football, and signed me up for a school team when I was in elementary school. I hated it. Literally.
When I was in 5th grade, my sisters decided to give the swim team at our local YMCA a try. It was close and we could ride our bikes there. Will be fun they said. All our friends will be there. Our mom was ok with it as long as I went as well, since I was the big brother. I really didn’t want to. Sports didn’t seem to be my thing. They had to drag me there. But, I quickly became hooked. They both moved on to other activities, and it became my sport.
Our schools didn’t have a swim team, so the YMCA was it. Then, a club team for swimmers started in Montgomery. I begged my parents to let me join. It was a big commitment. Practice every day, and not in walking or biking distance. So, my mom would have to drive me. But, they competed on a much higher level, and would provide more opportunities. She agreed.
And so it began. I met a lot of new kids, since the team covered the entire city. Many of them were military and in Montgomery while their dad or mom attended school at Maxwell AFB. I learned to hate that, as their time on the team was typically only a year. As soon as we became friends, they would leave. On the flip side, they were really good, coming from other competitive teams all across the country.
Swimming became my life. Practice, practice, practice. All year long, with the winter and summer leagues. We got into a carpool with other swimmers, which helped when morning practices were added. And, lots of swim meets.
My dad worked a lot. He had his Doctorate of Pharmacy, or PharmD, and worked in a local hospital. Dad was somewhat of an introvert, so hospital pharmacy was a good fit. He also was a Reservist in the Army, starting off as a Pharmacist, then transitioning to leadership over the years.
His final assignment in the Army was Commander of a deployable hospital. Like Col Potter of M*A*S*H fame. My Dad loved his military time. I always thought that was his calling.
Early in my competitive swim days my Dad was able to make it to one of my meets. I was excited! Football didn’t work out, so I wanted him to be proud of me in this new adventure. It was a beautiful day in Montgomery, and I was swimming my usual events – 200 individual medley, 100 and 200 backstroke, and the relays.
I actually started off as a distance swimmer. I swam the mile at most meets, which really took it out of you. I soon found out this really wasn’t my event, and transitioned to backstroke. I started performing really well in the 100 and 200.
I wore goggles when I swam. The chlorine was tough on the eyes, so the goggles were really an important part of daily life as a swimmer.
The day of the meet with my Dad was pretty typical. We would get to the pool early, warm up, and then rest until time for each event. We tried to stay out of the sun, as it would drain your energy. As a team, we typically found an area at the pool to congregate together, and would support our teammates as they competed throughout the day.
My turn for the 200 IM. Piece of cake. I was competitive in this event, but not as strong as backstroke. So, I knew I needed my best performance later in the day. This was like a warmup.
The gun went off, like I had experienced so many times before, and we began the race. Except, unlike most races, I hit the water a little different and my goggles came off. I panicked. Made it to the end of the first lap, and started the second. That was it. My panicking threw me off, and I inhaled a lot of water. Now chocking, I stopped in the middle of the second lap and grabbed the lane divider to catch my breath. Right in front of my Dad. Knowing the race was over for me, I got out and did not finish. I looked up, and my Dad was walking away.
My Mom was also there and came over to see how I was doing. I explained what happened, and that I knew my race was over, so I just got out of the water. She understood, but said we are not quitters, and I should have finished the race once I caught my breath. And, by the way, Dad was not happy.
Today, at 52 years old, I get it. Clearly, I made a bad decision. But back then, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why my Dad was so upset. It’s just a race. And one that didn’t really matter. As I was soon to learn, however, there was more to it than that.
My Dad had left the pool. I finished the remainder of my events, which all went well. And we went home.
It was a quiet ride home. When we got in the house, my Dad was ready to talk. I felt like at that point I knew what he was going to say. Finish what you started. Don’t be a quitter. Got it.
We did touch on these themes. I knew my Dad was an athletic in his younger days and very competitive.
But it was just one race.
He continued. “Life is full of people who don’t finish what they started. Don’t give it their all. Who quit when the going gets tough.”
“Son, what we do in the little things sets a path for how we will react in life. You look at this as just a race. However, that very attitude applied in situations you will face later in life would produce a much more negative outcome.”
Throughout my life my Dad was a man of few words. Didn’t say a lot. But when he did, look out!
I have never forgotten this day. I continued with swimming for years, eventually being selected for and competing in the U.S. Junior Olympics. In the backstroke.
And my Dad was right. From difficult circumstances, to challenging life events, they have all happened. Times when it was hard to breathe (but not due to the water!).
I pushed through. And finished the race. Every time.
Dad, thanks for teaching us that quitting is not an option. It’s not one big thing, but a million little things, which shape and mold us into who we are. Our response, particularly in adversity, must be one of strength to fight for what’s right…to the finish.