Courtesy of Franco Pacheco
I think when I wrote the very first entry to this intended series in June, I had imagined writing at least one quirky story every couple weeks about the lighter side of being a swim coach and the crazy things life and travel can present. Then, of course, weeks flew by and the summer came to a close in a sudden and unexpected whooshing sound. So a month and some small pocket change later; onward!
To give you some background information about this entry’s subject matter, I am currently transitioning from living in Maine and working at Colby College to moving to Colorado Springs and beginning anew at Colorado College. Whenever committing to any transition, it’s easy to gloss over the emotion wrecking ball the whole transition is. Further consider that, as Mr. Lennon might say, I am a dreamer. I love the big concept and how enticingly grand it can play out in the mind’s eye. Once it comes down to the little details, however, I am like a cat on its way to the bath; I know I am getting in the tub but I am going to slow the process down by clawing anything and everything. Prior to writing this particular article (admittedly a lesser dream), I have made a point to start and discard two different articles, pondered the larger concept of the human condition, washed at least two pairs of socks, and finally, boarded a plane to leave a place I called home for three years.
When this all happened, it never set in that I would have to leave people behind. Maybe it had early in the job search, but it took a back seat to the idea of something new and shiny. My next job opportunity is so exciting and the locale so beautiful that I let myself be blind to the reality that I have made a family. I don’t mean in the traditional wife and 1.5 children ideal, but rather in the larger sense that the athletes I worked with have changed my life. In looking back, I said my goodbyes but I think somethings often go unsaid as a coach leaves or an athlete moves on.
So I am sure you are probably saying, “Get to the list already, Buzzfeed doesn’t waste my time with exposition.” Therein lies the rub, unlike some jobs, coaching can’t just produce faceless products. Sure, every door frame, can of tomato soup, and insurance policy has a story and is a work of art in some way, but being a coach is affecting for all involved. I couldn’t give you a list without any background and substance, it would cheapen this shared experience. Hemmingway would never do that. Now, I am no Hemmingway, but again, it’s nice to dream.
Those things you do that really annoy me (and you know exactly what I mean) are things that I will secretly miss. There is a swimmer on Colby’s team who would constantly get to practice ludicrously early and I would always act as if I had this obligation to chat with her about the most inane stuff until the rest of the team arrived. Be assured that I constantly played up the fact that I somehow resented her presence on deck for making me be social. In truth, it became something of a ritual. I don’t know how I am going to get ready for practice without that yammering. Every coach has these type of things that will be greatly missed, they just will never let on.
It’s the small things that resonate. There are dozens upon dozens of big moments, breakthroughs, and great swims that stick out but the things you would never think make a difference can be the most endearing. For two years, I asked a swimmer to give me whatever was in his hand. Once he handed it to me, I would unceremoniously drop it (as long as it wasn’t breakable) and walk away. It would always get a laugh out of him and I would do it often on days we had a rough practice on tap or after a big swim. We did this probably hundreds of times because humans are creatures of habit. Last season, he asked me to hand him my clipboard, and once I did, he immediately dropped it. I will never forget that moment and how strangely happy watching hours of splits being dropped on wet pool deck made me feel. Every athlete has a moment like that for a coach. Even if you think we don’t like you (we do), you are making memories even in the most miniscule ways in addition to your triumphs.
Even when we don’t show emotion in our goodbye, we feel it. There was a moment today when I was approaching airline security that it felt like I had been punched in the gut. It was final, I was moving on, and as self-important as any coach might be, I know the world I am leaving will move on without me. I teared up and even as I handed the very kind TSA agent my mistakenly printed mobile boarding pass that is intended to be scanned from the phone screen, I felt sadness instead of the gripping embarrassment I should have felt for not having a grasp on basic technology. As we say our goodbye’s we hold it together for a number of reasons: to look cool, to avoid having to try to comfort a crying individual, but mostly because being stoic is dignified. Just know that underneath is a total mess of emotion.
You are special and memorable. During dryland practices, I often like to pepper motivational sayings in. In reminding everyone that success is team driven and talent doesn’t make you immune from hard work, I truly enjoy shouting some variation of the following line: “Regardless, of what people may have told you, you aren’t a unique snowflake. You will work and sweat just like the next person, it’s how hard that makes you special.” While I stand by my barking, you are special. Any swimmer that swims for a coach is special to that coach. In the grand scheme of things, we are just consciousness floating through a reality bumping into each other for a finite amount of time. What makes coaching great and what keeps us coming back isn’t necessarily winning (at least not for me), it’s the ability that we might have to affect the lives of others for the better. It gives all of that existential floating a significant meaning. It goes both ways. You, as an athlete, have changed your coach’s life for the better. We don’t necessarily tell you or let on, but we are better because of you. So on behalf of all of your coaches, let me just leave at the ever stoic, but perhaps not incredibly poignant, thanks.