Courtesy of Bridger Bell, son of Dr. Keith Bell
“My dad is better than your dad” has instigated playground fights since Woolly Mammoths roamed playscapes. By calling my dad “the best swim dad of all time,” I don’t mean to pick a fight: I am simply celebrating my own father with a superlative. It’s not really about a comparison; it’s not a put-down to others. It’s just the way my feelings about my dad come out in words.
Paternal relationships take all forms. Some are biological, some aren’t. Some people don’t have dads or have ones that aren’t present in one way or another. Some have great relationships, some not. I wouldn’t assert that having a great relationship with your dad is necessary for happiness or even better than many other happy alternatives. It is simply one of many sorts of relationships to celebrate when your dad happens to be one of the people you hold in the highest regard and feel closest to.
While “swim mom” is ubiquitous, I don’t often hear “swim dad.” (I don’t even call my dad “dad.” I follow an old Texan practice of sticking with “daddy” even through adulthood.) While I have a “swim mom” too, I am celebrating my dad here in observance of Father’s Day. But I will say that one of the ways in which my dad is the best (swim) dad of all time is that he picked the best (swim) mom of all time for me. All of this is thanks to my grandparents, Elsie, Evelyn, Jerry, and Chuck, who inspired, nurtured and set examples for my exceptional parents and their loves of swimming.
When I was seven, I wrote to The Guinness Book of World Records asking them to add my dad to their book as the best dad in the world. They wrote a kind reply but didn’t grant my request. I don’t blame them: I didn’t offer any evidence. Here’s my effort to rectify that omission, at least with respect to swimming.
KEEPING IT FUN AND LIVING THE VALUE
My parents learned from my maternal grandparents, who were not swimmers and who, even when my mom was a younger teenager winning Nationals and the Olympics, never knew her times. They would only ever ask one question after a meet: “did you have fun?” My parents, who are swimmers, never asked my times. They only ever asked if I had fun.
The first lover of competitive swimming I know of in my family was my dad’s dad, who used to say his two favorite things were “swimmin’ an’ women.”
A love of swimming can not only be passed down through generations, it can also be enjoyed by one man (or woman) for generations during his lifetime. Of the many remarkable swimmers my parents have introduced to me, one group, the “old guys,” inspired me to carry my love of swimming beyond college. My parents coached—and I got to watch—the first ever 360+ Masters relay (average age over 90) swim a 4 x 100 free relay and a 4 x 100 medley relay legally in a long course pool.
My dad himself, in his late 60s, is another inspiration for my lifelong love of swimming. He hasn’t missed a single day of swimming in over 27 years. No exceptions. He swims Sundays, holidays, travel days, day of and day after knee surgery, etc. etc. And we’re talking 4,000-8,000+ yards a day, almost always over 6,000. That’s around the equator more than 4 times.
GIVING ME SPACE TO EXPERIENCE SWIMMING ON MY OWN
My parents met through swimming, and I’ve met many amazing people through the sport thanks to their example and the opportunities they’ve given me. I spent much of my childhood on around pooldecks and spent much of my time with the best swimmers in the world. As a nineyearold sitting next to a towering Alex Popov in the hotel shuttle over to the Baylor Sprint Classic, I became a lifelong fan. By that time, another swimmer in the meet, Angel Martino, was a very familiar face. She was my mom’s direct competitor and my frequent conversation companion on deck.
I think I first met Angel Myers Martino at ’88 Olympic Trials when I was five years old. I was sitting in the athlete bleachers on deck, and she just started talking to me. For the next five years or so, I’d see her at big meets, and she was always exceedingly friendly. In ’88, she beat my mom at Trials in my mom’s early comeback effort. There were many potential reasons my parents could’ve discouraged or minimized those interactions, but they never said anything negative about Angel or anyone else. My parents steadfastly refuse to speak ill of people, even when they might have reason to. Angel was always so kind to me, and my parents never tried to limit, diminish, or disparage that.
As coaches and swimmers, my parents could’ve easily played coach to me. As a toddler always around pools, they invited but never forced me to participate. Though I had been in the water from near infancy, I refused to put my face in until I was five years old. There was ample opportunity for my parents to force me under—and who would’ve blamed them for making me take that leap at some point over those long four years?—but they never did. And then when I was ready at age five, the first time I ever put my face in the water I swam a 300 freestyle.
When I decided to swim year-’round, rather than having me swim on their own team, my parents signed me up with Texas Aquatics (now Longhorn). When I’d ask my dad a general swimming question, he’d answer; but when I’d ask him about my own stroke or race strategy or training, he’d only ever respond: “ask your coach.” I’m certain there were times when he didn’t agree with my coaches’ methods, but he kept mum both to me and my coaches about it. He lived the advice he wrote in his Parent’s Guide: “let the coach coach.”
STEPPING IN WHEN HE KNEW BETTER THAN I WHAT WAS BEST
It can be tempting as a coach, parent, or uncle to give young people too much control, too much say. While my dad was really good at giving me space to develop my own love of swimming (which I chose as a sport: my parents never forced me into swimming; they just said I had to do something active/athletic), he also stepped in when necessary, even despite my adamant protestations.
The first major conflict I had with my dad over swimming was when, around age 11, I just didn’t want to go to practice one day. That didn’t fly. “You don’t have to swim; but you say you want to; and if you’re going to swim, then you’re going to swim. You make a commitment, which is one big decision to make a bunch of little decisions in advance. You don’t ask yourself every day whether you’re going to practice: you already decided that by choosing to swim. The decision has already been made.” At the time, this was about the farthest thing from what I wanted to hear. Now, looking back, I’m glad I learned the lesson. That same conflict only came up one more time, six years later.
It was the middle of summer training my first year on a new team. I hadn’t chosen to switch teams. My parents just switched me, and I had been furious and devastated about it. After five years learning much of my love for swimming from my Coach, Sharon Churchin at Texas Gold, I had finally found a place I felt I belonged. I loved my Coach, my team, my teammates and every single practice. My parents had chosen a wonderful place for me to swim and had given me space to thrive there. Then, without consulting me, they notified me that I was moving to the newest team in town, Circle C Swimming, with Randy Reese. At the time, the senior group at Circle C had a grand total of five swimmers, only one of whom was my age.
By that next summer, we were up to about forty swimmers in the senior group and were practicing with the UT guys who competed for Circle C in USA Swimming meets. We had triples three days a week, doubles three days a week, and one practice on Sunday: 16 practices a week. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t stay awake to drive myself to practice. So, I told my dad that I was staying home to sleep. I thought that in my condition, the outcome would be different this time from when I was 11. Nope. He said I should go and talk to Randy about it rather than not showing up. My mom drove me and waited in the car to see whether I was going to stay. When I got there, I explained my physical exhaustion to Randy, that I had to get my mom to drive me, and asked what he thought I should do. He said, “I think you should swim.” Silently, begrudgingly, I hopped in and proceeded to have my best practice yet that summer, making intervals I’d never made before.
Not only am I glad that I swam that day, but I’m glad my parents switched me to the new team. I couldn’t have had a better experience on Texas Gold, but I also benefitted from growing into a new challenge at Circle C, learning a new way of training and sharing a lane with World Record holders. I grew to love that experience as well and became a better swimmer and future coach from having done both. I am grateful that my dad stepped in and made a few decisions for me while also stepping back and giving me the space to make the most of those experiences.
THE MORE YOU KNOW ABOUT SOMETHING, THE MORE INTERESTING IT BECOMES.
THE BETTER YOU ARE AT SOMETHING, THE MORE FUN IT BECOMES
I wasn’t especially into swimming as a younger child. I was more into classical music, computer graphics, drawing, collecting baseball cards, and figuring out The Way Things Work. But my parents insisted I do something active. I tried soccer, tennis and golf, played baseball for many years, but finally settled on swimming.
After being exposed to so much of the swimming world, growing up surrounded by the best swimmers and coaches, traveling with my dad to watch and participate in clinics, camps and practices (including practicing with the Canadian National Team / Pacific Dolphins training trip on Maui trying not to be run over every lap), it was almost inevitable that an interest would develop.
It also helped that it gave me a way to beat my dad at something. My dad is tough to beat: he created his own profession (performance enhancement psychology in swimming); always worked for himself on his own terms; wrote a number of bestselling books; was muscular and handsome; had multiple Masters World Records and dozens of National Records; and was steadfast and unfailing in his adherence to his ethical principles. But I was taller. And soon, competitive with him at swimming.
My dad always said “I’ll never let you beat me, but I’ll be thrilled when you do.” This included Scrabble as well as swimming. I only ever beat my dad once at Scrabble, and I have almost never lost to anyone else. Around age 14, the Bell swimming challenge was on.
Both of my parents COMPETED IN my meets! My mom was still a professional swimmer, and I began to qualify for some of the meets she was in, and my dad just loved to compete, so he entered in the open age group (or 15&up). Not only did this give me motivation, but it also further taught me the value of assertiveness and unselfconsciousness.
My dad used to give us “assertiveness exercises” like selling our public parking spot on the beach (approaching the car waiting for us to leave and saying “we’ll sell you our spot for $5” then returning the money to them after we pulled out). He also set his own example of assertiveness, doing things like giving a lecture as the featured speaker at a black tie banquet wearing nothing but his “speedo.” It also takes some assertiveness and unselfconsciousness to be oldest swimmer at an age group meet by over 30 years.
As cool as it was that my dad was still competitive with high school and college aged swimmers, it was much more gratifying when I beat him. We love to race each other, and it’s something we have enjoyed together for most of my life. We still have a great back-and-forth duel in the Capital 2k Open Water Race every year and then are teammates in the Lake Travis Relay whenever I can make it home for that.
FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT FUN. DO WHAT YOU LOVE.
We don’t always inherently enjoy everything. My dad has taught me that we always have more options than what society says we’re supposed to do, and that if you’re going to do something, you might as well find a way to make it fun.
As a teacher, I experienced all manner of students’ parents. It made me appreciate my dad’s way of handling it when I had a complaint about a class or a teacher. Rather than blaming the teacher and taking my complaint as gospel (which I’ve seen parents do), he’d say, “you’re not going to like every teacher; you’re not going to like every class. Find something valuable in it, make the most of it, play the game, get the grade and move on with your life. If you’re going to be there every day, you might as well find a way to enjoy it; otherwise, you’re just choosing to make yourself miserable in that class.”
Having seen my dad forge his own career where no path existed before him, and seeing my dad do exactly what he loves to do every day: swim and “play sports psychologist,” I have discovered ways to spend my time doing what I love and finding ways to enjoy things I might not have known yet how to enjoy from the outset.
IF YOU WANT WHAT YOU HAVE, THEN YOU HAVE WHAT YOU WANT
It was always exceedingly difficult to find gifts for my dad, because he wanted what he had, so he had what he wanted. One year, he even adamantly proscribed us from getting him birthday gifts and instead collected wish lists from each of us to buy us presents on his birthday.
But the one thing I have been able to do for my dad on his birthday since I was 15 is to join him for his annual Birthday Swim: his age in 100’s freestyle on 1:30. We’ve often had dozens of people join us, and sometimes the local news comes out to cover it and we have a potluck breakfast afterward. And thanks to my parents doing what they love, they’ve held many swimming events over the years to raise money to improve the public pool where my dad swims every day and where we enjoy his Birthday Swim. They’ve also raised money for various charities to fight diseases and provide swim lessons to those who wouldn’t otherwise have them. And my dad and I always get to enjoy competing in the events too. When you want what you have (rather than what you don’t have), it’s easier to decide to give back to the community.
I don’t live in Austin anymore and so see my dad much less often. Nothing is more gratifying than when I got to surprise him a few weeks ago by showing up unannounced at Deep Eddy Pool just after it opened that morning, without any doubt that he’d be there, diving in to join in the latter portion of his quotidian 1000-4000 yard freestyle warm-up.
I dove in and matched him stroke-for-stroke for 66 2/3 yards until he noticed me and grinned but never stopped swimming until we had finished warm-up. That smile communicated much more between us than anything I’ve written here. I feel I have the best (swim) dad of all time. What more could I want?
Bridger Bell is the Head Coach of Donner Swim Club and Columbus North High School in Columbus, Indiana. He was previously an assistant at Johns Hopkins University while head-coaching the St. Paul’s Schools in Brooklandville, Maryland. Prior to that, he coached with Pete Higgins at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta when the boys and girls teams each won Georgia High School State Championships. Bell served for six years as the National Director of Collegiate Club Swimming for the American Swimming Association while also representing collegiate club swimming to the CSCAA. A competitive swimmer all his life, Bell was a USMS National Champion and All-American in the 2-mile cable swim. He was featured as a coach in the July ’14, August ’14 and June ’15 issues of Swimming World Magazine and has written articles for SwimSwam, Swimming World Magazine and Swimming Science.