Thursday, November 11, 2010

Just Have Fun

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 second in what will probably be a nostalgic, three-part miniseries of posts about the people who've had the most athletic impact on my seemingly life-long path to Ironman craziness.

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When my family moved from Alaska to Delaware, I was heartbroken. I was leaving behind all of my friends, my swim coach and everything else familiar and I was not happy about it. When we arrived, I immediately joined the swim team deemed "the most serious" of the teams in our immediate area, because, well, I was "serious" about swimming.

I think I knew after the first practice that it wasn't a good fit. The coach, Dennis, was an ogre of a man, an ex-Navy S.E.A.L. with an anger management problem. He ran practice like a boot camp. The pool was small, dark, and over-chlorinated, and the swimmers... they were fine, by they weren't my friends from up north.

After a few months, the team was entered into a large swim meet in Newark - some kind of championship. I came down with a terrible flu just before the meet, but I went anyway. I think I swam one event, posted an absolutely miserable time, and then decided to bag the rest. I just didn't feel well, and I just wasn't motivated to perform. I wasn't having fun. My parents had me call the coach and tell him I was heading home early. He yelled at me. I never went back.

I went several months without dipping so much as a toe into the water. I'm not very good at meeting people, so making new friends was a slow process. By the end of the school year, my mom couldn't handle all of my moping. She looked into some summer swim teams. I don't know how she did it, but she managed to convince me to give one of them a shot.

Kent Swim Club was a sunny, outdoor pool about fifteen minutes from home. The coach, Benny Divita, was probably Dennis' polar opposite: young, relaxed, friendly, more than a little overweight and frequently hungover. His workouts were the same way (minus the alcohol) - he'd crack jokes, have conversations, give everyone funny nicknames... it was like being coached by the big brother I never had.

During that first tryout, I did a few laps of each stroke, and then Benny started talking to me about the team itself. I had questions about goals, weekly yardage, swim meets... He stopped me short. "Dude," he chuckled, "It's summer! Just have fun!"

As it turns out, Benny was a much better coach than he appeared to be on the outside. He was awesome: friend first, coach second. He revived swimming for me - I began to look forward to swim practice again! He and I went pretty far together, but the thing he tried his hardest to impart upon me wasn't stroke technique or work ethic - it was that very same thing he told me on that first day: "Just have fun."

Unfortunately, I struggled with this throughout high school and college. I qualified for Nationals during my Sophomore year in high school, but then hit a plateau. I found myself under a lot of pressure to perform - I felt like the expectations of my teammates (and of "lower Delaware") were too great. Looking for a quick fix, I decided to "upgrade" to a "more serious" swim team upstate with a "former Olympian" head coach. Benny was heartbroken. I still remember the hurt look on his face when I told him I wanted to be a part of a "stronger program."

The change eventually backfired - I forgot to have fun. By the end of my senior year (in high school), I was burnt out.

Benny passed away a few years ago - heart complications at 33. He went to the hospital complaining that he didn't feel well... and never left. I never had a chance to mend the fence with him. Looking back, leaving Benny for the upstate team is probably one of my biggest regrets.