Swimming With Sharks

Every afternoon for the past three months I’ve been coaching a high school swim team. I yell and cajole and pass on hints of wisdom. I have to listen to more whining then the football or baseball coach, but they’re good kids and I get to swim my frustrations out after practice is over. Last week I swam more laps than usual.  The whole season came down to a fourteen year old girl.

Let’s call her Lulu as she looks like the comic strip character Little Lulu. She’s a brace face from New Jersey who doesn’t look like a powerhouse but when she gets in the water, she’s a shark amongst minnows. She skipped out on the meet last week and this Wednesday was the big League championship. “You’re going to be there right?” I asked her.

“I don’t know if I can. Mr. Tall says my technique isn’t good enough to miss more rehearsals.” She dances too and her teacher apparently told her she had to choose dancing or swimming.

“Look, we really need you. And I need to know if we can count on you.”

“You need me to tell you yes or no right now?”

“I need you to tell me yes right now.”

“I can’t do it.”

Now I didn’t really care about her individual events, it was more the relays. Her teammates had been practicing hard all year and I told them they would make it to city championships if they kept working hard. And they would, but they need Lulu to be there. I told my colleague, Coach Vlad, the situation. “I need to drink.” He said.

“I’ll go talk to her dance teacher.” I told him. This Mr. Tall is a dreadlocked fifty year old man who moves with the plodding grace of a brontosaurus. He’s reputed to be a pain in the testicles, but I remember him once speaking to me of how he swam competitively in college. So maybe he would be understanding.

I walked into the dance studio. He was seated putting a cassette into a boom box as his students were frolicking. I shook his hand. “I need to speak to you about one of our students. Lulu.”

“She’s not a good enough dancer to be missing a single rehearsal. We have our show in three weeks and we need to build the ensemble.”

“But she is an exceptional swimmer. The team really needs her.”

“I gave her the choice. She could swim or she could dance.”

“But she’s fourteen years old.” I reminded him.

“Fourteen year olds are already professional dancers.”

“Is she good enough to be a professional?”

“If she comes to rehearsal every day.”

“But you just said she wasn’t that good.” I stopped myself. “Look, I don’t want to fight over her like divorced parents, but can you please still let her be in the show if she comes to the meet Wednesday.”

 “It’s her choice. Swimming or dancing.”

I left the school to get away from this madman. Another teacher stopped me. She asked what was up. All I could say was “That Mr. Tall is a piece of… work.”

“That’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever said of him.”

It’s not like we get bonuses if our team does better or we’ll get hired by some college program, but you put time into something and you start caring. Coach Vlad cares even more then I do. The strands of hair covering his bald spot were standing straight up when I told him of the previous day’s conversation with Mr. Tall.

“Where he? I talk with him.” Vlad came back a few moments later. His hair was even more erratic. “You know Hitler? Hitler nice guy compared to him.” After the high school practice Coach Vlad coaches a younger group of swimmers who are mostly of Russian descent.

One of the parents came up to me and Vlad. He was aware of the situation and asked, “Is Lulu swimming Wednesday?”

“I don’t know.”

“You want me to take care of this guy?”  The Russian father asked.

I figured he was joking so I went along with it. “I’d love you to, but you can’t get anyone who speaks Russian or they’ll figure it was us.”

“I get you someone. Black guy. He take care of it.”


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