Your Light Burns When All Else Fades: A Tribute To Don Kimble

Courtesy: Kalina Emaus

Don Kimble, an esteemed swim coach in Michigan dating back to 1980, died one year ago, May 25, 2020, after a battle with cancer at the age of 60. Below is a tribute to Don from one of his former swimmer, Kalina Emaus.

You have got the gift of mercy, don’t ever think it’s strange. Not a curse, but it is a blessing to feel other people’s pain. And always love without condition and trust with all your heart. There’s healing in the story of your scars.

-Ryan Stevenson, When We Fall Apart

In memory of my swim coach and mentor, Don Kimble. Thank you for the memories we shared deep in my heart and today finally shared on paper. Your legacy is an inspiration of the impact an individual can instill on many others if we choose to see their  potential. I am and will forever be thankful for the light you were and still continue to be in my life. Please give my Dad a famous Don hug for me – I miss him so much too! I hope my tribute today can illustrate the profound light and impact you had in my life and the countless kids you will continue to inspire.

I’m thirteen years old and the cross country season is winding down which means it is time to get back in the water. This time instead of going to Jenision my family made the decision to give swimming in Holland a chance. We have heard nothing but good things about head coach Don Kimble and thought it wouldn’t hurt anything to try. I’m so excited and it shows as my English teacher is reminding us to write in MLA format but as she says this I start doodling “MLA” on my paper. This is the abbreviation for my new team once I become attached. My parents encouraged me not to tell people from swimming about switching programs but it’s so hard to keep quiet. I look up my name on the USA swimming database and my team now says “UN” for unattached as I will have to wait a certain amount of days until I am attached to MLA. I look up my name whenever I want to say something to someone about joining MLA to someone. It helps me keep quiet,

It is already the end of the season. I was just shy of qualifying for sectionals and received an invite to the senior group for the long course season which means I’ll get to swim directly under Don. I’ve observed and been coached a little by Dons until now. Most encounters have involved a whistle and conversations about being confused by his tattoo on his left ankle which is in Latin and says “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” From Kurt Cobain. I don’t understand what it means but he tells me I will one day. As a team we watched the Junior Nationals 200 medley relay final on a computer screen in the aquatic center office and somehow Dons whistle was still heard as if he was right next to us. Don coached me at a few USA meets one of which was a 500 at the Rockford Sprint Spectacular. He paced the pool deck with me and whistled for what felt like the whole five minutes thirty nine seconds. I couldn’t understand why he was doing this, it was so unlike other coaches and if I’m honest I tried to swim faster so he wasn’t in my face. After the race he put his hand on my head and says “Kiddo, that was a great race, you held off the girl in the middle of the pool, but I bet you couldn’t see her. That’s why I was trying to keep you going cause you took it out fast and she was gaining gradually the whole race. We’re going to have to work on control in the beginning of your races because you got lucky. You can’t run on luck or talent forever, it’s going to take hard work.” I didn’t want to believe him that I was lucky, but he was more than right as I look back, the girl I held off is now World Champion Mallory Comerford.

Senior group has been less than enjoyable so far. I try not to but end up sprinting warm up as it’s my only chance to keep up. I don’t measure up to the rest of the group’s ability or so I feel. Don broke us into groups within a few weeks and put me with stroke and distance. Stroke is hard because there are a lot of “all balls out” 25s and my body just doesn’t seem to want to go fast, and distance is hard because I don’t know what I’m doing. I take it out hard but I fall apart. Natural rhythm and exhaustion get the best of me and my effort appears to be minimal at best.

At one of our long course meets Don encouraged me to swim the mile. I held 1:17 across the board and as a young 14 year old was able to qualify for the open state meet I’d be able to attend once I turned 15. I was happy with it, but Don wasn’t satisfied.

“You held 1:17 and the circle swam the whole race. You’re holding 1:20 at practice. Do you see the problem?” Like many moments with Don, I didn’t know what to say. So I gave a blank look.

“You have potential to be a great distance swimmer kiddo but you need to be doing the work in practice. We will start by working on the distraction piece. That’ll help with the circle swimming.” As I warm down I must not have understood what Don meant by being distracted because within a 100 I zoned out and hit the underwater lifeguard chair.

Two years have now passed in Holland. Don continues to encourage us swimmers by doing everything he can to teach us about the importance of work ethic and how it applies to life. He tells us stories of strong young ladies and gentlemen and the kind of athletes they were and that he could tell based on our work ethic if we’d be successful in life. Along with this he does everything to make himself available including conversations before or after practice either casual or serious, as well as giving nicknames that he finds to be clever, personable or funny. As a group we are referred to by many names including “Young Grasshoppers” or “Dingbats” or my favorite “Jingeweeds.” Whatever a Jingeweed is. All of these are said with love but also a firm and fair kick in the butt to get to work. Don is great and gives lots of feedback throughout practice and makes us do burpees whenever Thunderstruck plays. Sets are based on research and things he has given credit to everyone but himself for. But at last my family has decided this isn’t the best place for me to be so we left Holland.

I am unsure what I’m looking for at this point but I find myself now in Grand Rapids at 5:00AM over Christmas break. Our warmup is an 800 choice followed by 20×200. This must be a joke. “Ready go.” I hear my new coach say in a European accent. My goggles aren’t even on yet. I fight to make an interval and swim for the next hour straight. The next set wasn’t much better but at least I made two of the intervals.

I’m now seventeen and a senior in high school. I committed to Northern State University this past fall. I’m a distance swimmer now like Don expected which has been a nice change however I am not doing well on this team. After one too many straws my family decided to leave the program. The problem is I’ve now been on six teams in twelve years and west Michigan is only so big. I’d quit swimming at this point if I could; however if I don’t swim, my Dad says I can’t go to the Northern State. There’s nothing I want more than an education, to go to Northern State where I felt so much at home on my recruiting trip and to get out of Michigan.

I have one last hope. In 2013 Don left Holland to coach Byron Center, a growing program about 20 minutes from home. Out of desperation to go to college I emailed Don if they’d be a possibility of home for me on his deck. In response he told me to show up ready to be in the water at 4:00 and asked if I could stay after to talk. Graciously I thanked him and told him I’d stay late.

I don’t have a lot to say at this moment. It is clear to Don I am burned out and not very interested in swimming. Instead of being upset he focused on the person I am becoming. He asks about college and summer plans. I told him how I was hoping to become a teacher, I want to run the Fifth Third 25K this spring and this summer I am going to serve at a Younglife Camp in Colorado. “Very good girl. Watch the hills at the Zoo in the 25K, it’ll get yah if you’re not careful and be back Monday to tell me how it goes. It’s April and you leave in August for college. I’m not done with you yet.” He says with a grin.

It is now the end of July. I’m back from Colorado and decided to swim at state. A couple moments ago Don and I both misread the heat sheet which led into a sprinting escapade to not miss my 800.  As I hop on the block part of my suit just ripped and my face is burning red from the sprint across the pool deck. The next ten something minutes will not end. I am giving it my best but I am out of shape at its finest level. As I get out of the pool to talk to Don greets me with a big hug. “That was my bad kiddo. I am so sorry. The effort and heart was all there. You can get stronger again just keep showing up ” I can’t help but laugh at the reality of everything that is happening. I muscle a few words out.

“It’s more than okay. Thank you for everything.”

Don gave me one last hug. “Best of luck in college kiddo. Let me know how it goes. Come back if you need somewhere to train over Christmas, just let me know ahead of time so I can plan for lane space.” Afterwards I got a much needed new swim bag that is bright red in honor of my face before my 800. I don’t want to forget this fun meet.

My freshman year has come to a close. I loved my first year at Northern State in regards to academics and for someone who doesn’t like school, this means everything. For swimming I will never go a best time again. I am okay with that though because my coach puts a major emphasis on a team which I really enjoy. So I’ve decided to train with Don this summer and do my best to swim well for my team.  Don isn’t letting me off the hook that easily after watching me race at the Calvin Classic.

“Kiddo. You can have a best time again. That was the best I’ve seen you actually race in years. You’re looking good in practice, you just need to keep working hard, remember you have two things behind you called legs and to use them and not forget to race.”  It was nice to have someone who believes in me, so I wrote down Dons advice to not let him, my team or university down.

“How can I help you celebrate?” My teammate asks ecstatically after counting for my 500 at the Rochester Invitational. She’s so happy for me, but I am not ready to face the emotions of a best time.

“Please just text Don Kimble and say you were right.” As the mid season weekend and end of the season unfolded it would turn out Don and I would have a lot more to talk about than a one time 500 fluke best time. I love swimming and I want to learn everything possible before it’s too late.

“Don in honor of my last practice with you I bought you a thing of nuts, because I think you were pretty nuts for coaching me all these years.” I say to Don as tears are drenching down my face. I’m not goodbye to swimming in one month and I’m most certainly not ready to say goodbye to Don and the home he has given me. I know I can always come back and visit but something in me is afraid of how different it may all be. I handed Don a letter hoping to express my endless gratitude but despite my best efforts thank you just doesn’t feel like enough. We talked about future plans and at this point I really don’t know. I mention maybe coaching, maybe wilderness therapy. Don was a runner back in his prime so we talked about my dream of running a marathon in all 50 states. He agreed to consider doing a 5K with me. We side tracked back to the last month of swimming.

“Just don’t get hurt. I know that’ll be hard for you.”

It’s now my last meet and for the first time ever I was the first one off the bus and my back being smacked on the floor is the only wet floor sign to be seen at the hotel. Taking one for the team, I think to myself as I wait for the trainer. I’m in so much pain and text Don for a suck it up buttercup talk.

“Soooo guess who fell flat on their back and now has a bruise the size of a fist? Remember when you said don’t get hurt?”

“Weenie. Good luck.”

Before I can blink I am a swammer and on the pool deck meeting up with Don. Don plans on retiring and assistant coaching for Davenport University after state this summer. I’m happy for him. He has done so much for the sport of swimming in forty years and deserves nothing less than the best. He told me although I gave him gray hairs I was now an example of the athletes he once taught us about, a strong young lady. I take his words to heart and write them on my hand in my next marathon.

It is January of 2020 and l am so fortunate to be in touch with Don even though I am retired. He gives me running tips and told me eventually some things can be taught in regards to working on my speed work but I’ll end up being what God gave me. When we talk about Davenport he seems happy to be just coaching and excited for conference and nationals coming up. I reached out to him about coaching advice this week as I just got an awesome gig assistant coaching for a team in Maine. His advice is a reminder of what he did for me and so many others. “Look for the potential in every kid.”

Could Friday the 13th in March of 2020 get any worse? You betcha. On top of ridiculous memes on Facebook about toilet paper, waiting in line for 20 minutes at the grocery store to buy a thing of peanut butter, my job being on the line because of something called the Coronavirus, there is a link to a Caringbridge to follow for Don. They’ve found two tumors in his brain causing swelling. I collapse sobbing walking to my car as I read these daunting words.

It is May 25th 2020 and I just got a text message from a family friend. All it says is. “I am so sorry. Thinking of you.” As I check my email it feels as though everything in the world is stopping as the words that Don passed away peacefully this morning fill my screen. Tears fill my eyes and come down like flood as the song “Well Done” by The Afters plays on the radio leaving work. Don is home and although I’m glad he isn’t in pain there is the biggest Donald shaped hole in mine and so many hearts.

Don’s life has far from faded away and it has become clear in peoples tributes that he’d live in the hearts of those he touched in his sixty legendary years. Each story that is vulnerably shared is beautiful and different but all have a hero named Don who lived out the meaning of the words he once taught that “it’s better to burn out than fade to away.” All these years later I think I am starting to understand what those words mean as I promise to never let Don fade away.

It is now May 25th 2021. I am starting to understand why Don spent much of his energy wanting to raise strong young ladies and gentlemen because we are now the ones carrying his legacy. I catch myself often trying to call Don and ask him about coaching, to share some news or just some question I have that he would have wisdom to answer. I hear him in the songs on the radio, in the middle of a run where I know I need to not go so far and focus on quality, when I get back in the water every once and natural rhythm all comes back and when I see accomplishments of many of those he coached. As I am on my way to work this morning the song From The Inside Out by Hillsong Worship plays. The actual written lyrics are “your light will shine when all else fades.” I have always heard lyrics to songs a little different than they are written and as the song played my mind heard “your light will burn when all else fades.” That phrase made me think of the quote once shared “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Don, as he had done many times, met me where I was at knowing it was normal for me to not hear lyrics in the way they are written. Because of this and many other encounters I have full confidence he will always be with me. Don gave much of himself and taught me to never throw the towel and to always see the potential in others. Maybe that’s why thank you never felt like enough. My thank you now is strived to be lived out in a promise to fight another day and to let his light burn when all else fades.

Don, you welcomed me to a place that was home on earth when it felt like everyone walked away and gave me a chance. I’ll never understand why but I’ll always spend me life in gratitude of that. I cannot wait til the day you welcome me to our eternal home. I love and miss you, but the sorrow of missing you pales in comparison to the 10 years of memories, lessons and wisdom you shared so selflessly. Thank you for being who God made you to be.

ABOUT KALINA EMAUS

Hello hello! My name is Kalina and there is nothing more fun to me than celebrating people, learning something, working hard for something, listening top 80s music on a car ride and getting to know people. I enjoy traveling and seeing different places and hope to run a marathon or ultra in all 50 states. I’m a bit of a geek and consider traveling to be like learning “the story of the glacier” because glaciers formed much of the United States but what it carved out looks dramatically different depending on where you are. In many ways my love for seeing different things always teaches me about ways in which we are all beautiful.

Once someone told me my home is like a homeless shelter for people’s unwanted belongings which summed me up well. Antiquing is one of my favorite things to do and from antique stores I’ve found myself with a collection of vintage stuff animals, license plates, postcards and wall pendants. Somehow I blinked and have a ridiculous amount of t-shirts from my swim career, runs, and also I am a big sucker for helping out people when they have a fundraiser for extracurricular activities which usually involve buying a tshirt. 

I am a former student athlete from Northern State University where I studied Elementary Education and Geography. Swimming brought many people into my life in which I’m forever thankful for the sport and all the people, memories and lessons it brought me. I’m a firm believer that people make places and for that reason and because of the swim world I feel fortunate to have many places that I can go all around the country that feel like home.

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Swimpop
26 days ago

Thank you for sharing, it was beautiful.

Regarding the quote. Many have used it, Including Kurt in his suicide letter. but it is Neil Young’s.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hey_Hey,_My_My_(Into_the_Black)