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October 25th, 2016


Me on the left and best buddy Kevin
Me on the left and best buddy Kevin "Wang" Nonaka. Photo: Santa Rita HS Yearbook '81-82.

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 which, 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.  Me and a couple of other kids were the only non-Speedo wearers on the pool deck.  I’m not sure who was more weirded out by the sight – me or the Speedo wearers.

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 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 – cut-off jeans and all.

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 my second 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 I would learn valuable life lessons.

Many of his swimmers understood this too.  They did not judge, and encouraged me to focus on my progress, my journey.  I knew I was the slowest swimmer in the pool.  But because of them, I never felt like the slowest swimmer in the pool.  Instead, I felt like a success and part of a team and family.

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 and kindness added meaning to life, and to form lasting friendships with teammates.

Looking back also reinforces that there are many out there searching for friends, community, and purpose.  If we honor their journey regardless of the destination, it’s likely they will end up in a better place from which they started.

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