Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Foundation

All of this training has me thinking of how I got to this point. Athletically, I owe a lot to the various coaches I've had throughout the years. This post is the first in what will probably be a nostalgic, three-part miniseries of posts about the guys (other than my dad) (not being sexist here - coincidentally, all of my coaches have been men) who've had the most impact on my seemingly life-long path to Ironman craziness.


My family moved to Alaska in the early 90's. I was ten. I was into Marvel comics, Jurassic Park and Sega Genesis. The winters in Alaska can be long, cold, dark and boring - especially for the new kid on the block who doesn't know anyone in the neighborhood - so my parents set out to find something that would keep me busy.

They found Bob Solow. Bob was the head coach of the local swim club. He took me under his wing. He planted all the seeds. He taught me the fundamentals of being an athlete. He taught me how to set goals and work toward them.

I went from a scrawny, pale kid who could barely make it one length of the pool into a scrawny, pale kid with an extreme passion for the sport.

I went from having to be dragged to swim practice kicking-and-screaming to dragging my parents out of bed to drive me over to the pool for the first of two practices a day. Bob would drink coffee and read the paper. Ryan and I would spend the hour doing whatever "dryland" work was prescribed. I have a vivid memory of the two of us throwing a medicine ball back and forth each other's dead as hard as we could. It must have been pretty comical for Bob, watching two ten-year-olds try to decapitate each other with a 10-pound rubber sphere at 6 o'clock in the morning.

I went from needing a kickboard to complete my first race (two lengths of a 25-yard pool) as a ten year-old to breaking a minute in the 100-yard freestyle as a twelve year-old.

Every summer, the team would hold an awards banquet. These events are always awesome - a great way to recap a season and highlight the team's accomplishments. Bob would always time to present unique, often humorous gifts to each and every swimmer, with a few "usuals" toward the end: most improved, most valuable, etc. At the last banquet before before my family moved away, he gave me this:

Every Spring (in Alaska, we called this season "Break-Up"), Bob would pick dig up one or two nails from an old, abandoned set of railroad tracks just outside of town. He'd bring them home and spray them black. They'd become the Spike Award, and he'd go on to give them to the swimmer(s) with the most drive, the most discipline, the one who took all of the punishment without complaint. "Tougher than Nails," it'd say.

This might sound weird, but I think that nail was the most important object anyone ever gave me, except, perhaps, the blanket I was basically born with. It's what I have never been prouder of anything than I am of having earned that nail.

The criteria for that award became a kind of manifesto for me going forward. Years would pass and my goals would adjust (most young swimmers eventually realize they're probably not going to the Olympics), but that... "motto"? It stuck.

Maybe I'm not the fastest guy on the team. Maybe I don't have the most talent, or score the most points. But I can sure as hell take punishment whatever punishment you can deal, and I sure as hell won't complain about it. I'm not the most dedicated, disciplined, determined kid on your roster, you can have this nail back.

I don't stick to it consciously. I don't think about being disciplined, or whatever. I don't have to. It just happens. That's just how I'm wired. It's been with me so long, the award's in my bones.

Bob lives in Texas now and is an assistant coach at a local high school. We exchanged a few emails a year ago. If I'd never joined his swim team, I'm pretty sure that today I'd be an overweight computer nerd without even the smallest of athletic aspirations. I wonder if he has any idea how much impact he's had on my life? Crazy how that works.