Coach was unshakably bullish about human potential.
Give him the scrawniest tadpole or the clumsiest teenager and he could make a swimmer out of them.
Coach – in his early seventies and his powder blue pants (trousers, he’d say) – ran the waters of the Greater Portland YMCA pool like our next stop was Olympic Village.
When I, an 11-year-old newbie, showed up on his pool deck, he put me in a lane with swimmers better than me, gave me workouts harder than I could handle, and in his thick Maine accent, asked more of me than I knew was in me.
This was how he made swimmers. And it worked. With me, with Ian Crocker – who did go on to Olympic Village – and with every other newbie who showed up on his pool deck.
Practices were hard. The man wrote up workouts to make your legs shake and arms go limp. Which often left me wondering why I stuck with it night after night.
Because you couldn’t float by half-devoted. Coach would bring down the thunder if you underwhelmed him.
“WHELAN,” that Maine accent would rumble out at me across the water, “WHAT ahhh you doing? DON’T waste oww-ah time here.” Which I knew meant that I’d left potential on the table and what was I doing wasting our time with that?
Coach seemed to know that inside any bundle of skin and muscle was a heart that could do startlingly beautiful things if given the chance.
And the thing about Coach was that he gave that chance night after night. Yours for the taking, his workouts might as well have said.
If you took it, if you set your whole self loose on a workout, Coach would be right there alongside you. “THAT’S what I’m talking about!” his voice would fill up the whole pool deck. “THEY-ah you go! THEY-ah you go!”
And when you finished that workout, your heart would be on fire and Coach would be beaming sunlight and you’d both know that you’d just done something beyond what you thought you could do.
So, that’s why I stuck with it. Because when I took the chance Coach gave, my legs shook and my arms were limp. And it felt incredible. It always does when we rip off the roofs we hunch under and let all the potential shoot out.
Which, as Coach knew, is a startlingly beautiful thing.