Between the ages of 10 and 14, I spent a lot of time walking, hiking or running on desert trails, running up a steep hill behind our house time and time again, literally for hours. A friend helped me build a “BMX” bicycle from scratch – junkyard parts. On this bike I rode hours at a time in the desert and on the road. So I was in shape and I was an athlete of sorts, but I was not in organized sports until I decided to join my high school swim team in an attempt to distance myself from behavior that, for reasons that should be part of another story, I am not proud of.
I will never forget my first day of swim practice at Santa Rita High School. I wore cut-off Levi’s and Fruit of the Looms – for real. Coach Craig Westfall announced that warm up was a 500 swim and a 500 kick. I asked the boy next to me what a 500 was and he said, “500 yards – 20 laps, man.” I vividly remember my internal (thank goodness) response: Holy Shit.
I could not finish the 500 swim/500 kick “warm up” and Coach Westfall told me I should get out early until I got used to practice. This was perhaps out of pity but also out of necessity: Rolling Hills pool was small (5 lanes) and we had one of the best swim teams in the state – I was in the way.
But I came back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Partly because I had nowhere else to go, partly because there were places I did not want to go, and partly because no one told me I couldn’t come back. Coach Westfall and his team were stuck with me.
I was the slowest swimmer on the team that year – male or female. Coach Westfall told me I was a distance swimmer (translation: you’re slow). He entered me in the 500 yard freestyle in my first meet. My time was 8:20 and the winner went 4:41. The other swimmers in the heat waited a long time by the wall for me to finish.
At the next meet Coach Craig entered me in the 50 free. He told me the 50 would be good speed work for my 500 (translation: we don’t want the meet to run long while we wait for your ass to finish 20 laps). My time in the 50 free was 38 seconds. The winner, Eric Finical (future UT all-American) went 21.7. I almost got lapped in the 50 free.
Needless to say, I was not part of Coach Westfall’s plan to win the State Swimming Championships. In fact, I may have actually been a hindrance. But he respected and rewarded my perseverance and hard work and understood that I was there for something more than just swimming. He assigned swimmers to mentor me and to encourage me. Coach Westfall knew that through my participation on the swim team – the journey; I would learn valuable life lessons. Many of his swimmers understood this too and because of them and despite fact that I was almost lapped in the 50 free, I never felt like the slowest swimmer in the pool. I felt like a success and part of a team and family.
Now, after a 20 year career as a professional triathlete, 10 years as a coach, and 10 years as a parent of children who enjoy sports and exercising, I look back on my four years of high school swimming as pivotal, life changing, and perhaps lifesaving. I am so fortunate to have met Coach Craig Westfall and other coaches and teachers like him – people whose actions and words add meaning to life.
Last Sunday, I was inducted into the Pima County Sports Hall Of Fame. Its mission: To promote, recognize and preserve the history of athletic achievement and to inspire individuals of all ages to reach their full potential in sports and the career of their choice.
After listening to the heartfelt and eloquent speeches of my fellow inductees, it’s crystal clear that my induction was more about becoming part of the Pima County Sports Hall Of Fame’s mission to inspire individuals to reach their full potential than the honor of becoming a member. Each of them told a story similar to what I’ve written here – coaches, teachers, friends, and family made and difference in their life and this encouraged them to want to make a difference for others.
I realize that Pima County is a long ways from Cooperstown, NY or Canton, Ohio but it’s as close as this tri-geek is going to get. For my inclusion, I am humbled, honored, and proud.
But mostly I’m grateful for the exposure to the examples of all that is right with sport and with life. To be mentioned alongside such great men and women gives me a renewed sense of purpose – in part because my accomplishments pale in comparison.
Thankfully, as my 10 year old son is fond of saying – I still have time.