Who in Swimming has influenced your life? Athlete Manager & Entrepreneur Emily White Chronicles her answer below.
I have no memory of not knowing how to swim. There are vague splashing images of swim lessons around the age of 2, but even that included jumping in and swimming 5 yards or so. I am of course grateful for the ability to write this post, to read, and for other first world skills we very much take for granted. Despite these vital basics, my favorite skill is knowing how to swim.
I swam in my first meet when I was 3. Most people don’t believe this, but the VHS does not lie and I clearly remember just about every moment. My grandmother and parents telling me to get in the pool and wait for Grampa to say “Go!” He was the official at said meet at the Western Racquet Club in Wisconsin. I waited in my backstroke start position looking up at my grandfather for what seemed like forever in the moment until he shot the gun, which meant “Go!” just like my grandmother and parents had explained. Off I went, bouncing off the laneline a few times, but eventually completing the 25 backstroke and winning both a ribbon and a medal for the day’s efforts (I have to assume everyone received awards, but still was proud to have competed with kids twice my age).
All of this seemed normal. A few years later, right around my fifth birthday, I was having a blast playing with the other kids behind the enormous bleachers at the University of Wisconsin natatorium. Eventually I was tired and ready to go but my grandmother had me stay put to watch my Mom receive Arrowhead High School’s first ever Division I team state Championship trophy. My grandmother explained to me that one day I’d be swimming for Arrowhead at this meet. The significance of the moment was lost on me at the time as I couldn’t wait to get to Ella’s Deli, for ice cream and to celebrate with my various babysitters on the swim team. But in hindsight, my Grandmother was not only right to stop me to watch what my Mom had achieved Arrowhead had cracked a dynasty as Madison West or Madison Memorial had won the state championship from the meet’s inception up until I was born. Hard to imagine since Arrowhead has won many team titles since then, including this year; but it was great to be there for the inaugural title, even if ice cream seemed more important at the time. Similarly, my grandfather was a staple of Wisconsin high school swimming coaching to his first Division I team state championship in 1956; therefore all of this continued to seem normal.
When I was 10, I was nationally ranked in swimming. I would call my Grandparents every Sunday night to tell them my times. They were always so impressed (whether they actually were impressed or not :)) that it inspired and motivated me each week. My grandfather was 66 at the time and was breaking American records for his age group in masters swimming. This BLEW my mind. We were also swimming relatively similar times. I couldn’t believe my times were as fast as some people had gone in the country ever! However I still can’t relate to what it might be like to compete in a 60something age body in the races I was doing as an age grouper. Not to mention the 1500m race I just noticed my Grandfather swam at age 64 while looking up these results.
To this day I’m not so great at “fun swimming.” My nonswim team friends would joke about this whenever we were at a lake or ocean. On one family trip at a lake, there was a makeshift lap swim lane. I will never forget hitting heads with my grandfather quite hard when we were both doing backstroke in said lap swim lane in the lake. Painful at the time, but a fun memory as how many grandchildren and grandparents can say they clocked heads with each other while swimming laps?
On training trips growing up, we’d travel down to Florida to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Grampa would always remind me to look for his name in the museum when I was 11 or so. I did, but again, it seemed normal. I was far more interested in hanging out with my friends at the time, but had significantly more pride when I saw my Grandfather’s name there multiple times on a recent trip. In addition to appearing in the ISHOF museum, Grampa White has been inducted into swimming Hall of Fames for coaching on the National, State and local levels, with his most recent induction into the Hall of Fame for Wauwatosa High Schools in which he brought so much swimming success and respect as a coach. I learned that quickly when at an awards banquet as a 14 year old Freshman in high school, older officials would say they knew my Grandfather. Again, all of these experiences seemed normal.
All those laps on vacation and training trips paid off as I did make it atop the podium at the University of Wisconsin natatorium when I was in high school. On a relay, which was fun, but not my greatest swimming achievement in my own mind. To Grampa White however? I was told it was a HUGE deal for him to see me and my teammates win at Division I state. It turns out my grandmother was right, I would be swimming in that meet some day for Arrowhead.
My grandparents drove about 1,000 miles or so to watch all of my high school state championship meets. They carried that into college, coming all the way to Maine for various conference championships. I overhear my grandfather bragging to his friends to this day that I was an All American in high school and conference champion in college. Again, none of these feats seemed as important to me as trying to qualify for Olympic Trials, but as my grandfather was a lifelong coach for schools; those achievements were particularly significant for him. I didn’t even know of the existence of the “Bob White Invitational” swim meet named after my grandfather until I was in college and a friend mentioned she had swam in it. He volunteered for years at NISCA to be the official record keeper for National High School records, until that went digital. I never understood the appeal of him going to the NCAA Division I Men’s meet every year as a spectator, but do now. He placed value on team and quality coaching. And of course he had to see the fastest short course meet in the world each year.
And speaking of the Olympic Trials, Grampa White had success as a star swimmer out of the University of Indiana and had he made the team, it would have delayed his wedding with my grandmother. A quick Google search turns up a runner up finish in the 150 Back at NCAAs in 1945. This set up my Grandfather up for the 1948 Olympic Trials. I showed him the results recently and although many athletes go through some sort of adversity, it was amazing to see his face light up as he read his peers names that he hadn’t seen in decades. Stories emerged such as “The winner of diving was shot down in the war a few years earlier. So everyone was really happy for him that he made the Olympic team.” Puts things in perspective to say the least… Other stories emerged from past Olympic Trials. Such as watching the lane officials during the Men’s 100m Freestyle Final, which took place outdoors at night with a low watt lightbulb hanging above each lane and no electric timing to determine who made the Olympic team or not. One can only now imagine the stress of selecting the Olympic team under such circumstances.
When he retired, the community he and my grandmother moved into didn’t have an indoor pool. So my grandfather successfully petitioned to build one. Apparently my family likes to build pools. I only found out recently that my Dad was the coach committee member that helped secure the grant to build the Schroeder Aquatic Center. A facility which eventually hosted Nationals and spawned World Records, amidst much additional history.
Most former athletes will agree that the skills they obtained through their sport far outweigh any accolades or athletic achievements. And that is certainly the case with me. Work ethic, time management, teamwork and beyond are all skills I use every day as a successful entrepreneur. I grew up wondering if I was going to be a swim coach too, since that’s what my grandfather and parents have done so successfully. Instead I couldn’t wait to get a break after college, only to be naturally drawn back in by the idea of managing elite athletes and executing on ideas I’d always had for our Olympic swimmers from afar. There is no way I could be doing so without what my Grandfather started so many years ago. Whether it’s that I’ve never felt held back because of gender inequalities in society because if I could beat the boys in swim practice, how is career any different? Or when a fellow lap swimmer stops me now just to complement my technique or ask a question on how they can improve. All of these experiences can be traced back to everything my Grandfather did in swimming and the influence it has had on my family and myself both personally and professionally of which I am thankful for every day.
Last year my grandparents moved into a very nice retirement home. I was complimenting various things about it when my grandfather said “Only one problem.” I could not even imagine what that was. He said, “No pool!” But despite no pool, last year my grandfather said to me “What do you think about Phelps’ 24.0 50 Free?” I was astonished he knew about Michael’s first meet back since my Grampa doesn’t really use the internet. I said “I think it was pretty good considering he swam it butterfly!” Which my Grandfather knew and was trying to trick me as he must have read the result in the paper. Not bad for age 87 and no internet.
My Grandfather turned 88 this week and I’ve been meaning to try and type this out for awhile. This is my attempt to chronicle my Grandfather’s presence in swimming and the influence it has had on my own life trajectory. I’m sure I accidentally omitted a few memories and I will continue to update this post on my personal blog as those thoughts come to me. But in the meantime, I am eternally grateful for my favorite skill and everything my Grandfather has done in swimming to influence me and those around him.
Emily White is the co-founder of Whitesmith Entertainment & Dreamfuel. Robert White Sr. is her grandfather, who is chronicled above as Emily’s “swimfluence,” not to take anything away from Emily’s parents, Bob and Ann White, who are currently coaches overseeing Schroeder YMCA Swim Team’s South program.