Swimming With Sharks Part 2

I will never say anything bad about a coach again. For you can show up every day with the best of strategies and intentions and still end up with pudding on your face. Coach Vlad and I spent our afternoons for the past three and a half months teaching and prodding so these kids could have their moments of glory. The League Championship came and as I chronicled in Swimming With Sharks all of a sudden kids came up with excuses of why not to show up for the competition. Dance practice, grades making them ineligible, sore backs. So for all those coaches I criticized in the past from Erik Spolestra to Cam Cameron, here’s my apology.

But in spite of all of our missing talent, the kids who did show up performed well enough to snag Hollywood High second place in our league. Five relay teams and three individuals made times fast enough to be invited to the Los Angeles City Championship. I shared the good news with the kids. I imagined they would be ecstatic over their success. One of the best swimmers was happy, but only because she didn’t qualify for the more excruciating of her events. She said her doctor said she shouldn’t do anything that gives her too much stress.

“What doctor did you go to?” I asked. “It didn’t say anything like that on your physical.”

She hesitated before answering. “I’m pregnant.” Somehow I doubt even the great Pat Riley ever had to deal with this.

At the league championship our kids performed admirably. Some of them swam their best times. The pregnant girl begged me not to put her in her individual event. She was close to tears. I told her to go to the starting block and when she got there if she didn’t feel able to swim, then she shouldn’t swim. She started and finished the race and got her second best time ever. But our athletes were overmatched. Most of them had only been swimming for a year or two and were competing against kids for whom swimming was as much a part of their daily routine as video games.

But we have one swimmer who’s exceptional. I call him the Russian Rocket. He’s fifteen, swims four hours a day and last year at fourteen placed third in the entire city in backstroke. This year he had the fastest time in two different events. I have nothing to do with his coaching. He has a private drill instructor who schools him in the early morning hours. I just select his event and let the kid work his magic.

Since we only had one swimmer qualify from our high school for City Finals we did not have a school bus. I drove us to the site of the race which was also where the 1932 Olympics were held. Coach Vlad sat shotgun. The Russian Rocket sat in the back seat with two of his teammates which he invited to cheer him on.

The Russian Rocket’s father is a little overbearing. The day before the race he asked if he had to pay admission to see his son swim. His kid was also asking me how his dad would get in. I was thinking he pays seven dollars just like all the other parents. He did not want to pay and the kid was stressing out about it. Since I’m also cheap I wasn’t going to pay for another cheapskate. So I put my wristband on loose and once I got in, I gave it to Coach Vlad to give to the father. The father came in with his video camera and was quickly fingered for being a parent in the swimmer’s section. His wristband was snipped off with a pair of scissors and I was scolded for my unethical behavior.

The first of his events was the 200 individual medley. He swims all four strokes. It starts with the butterfly, goes into the backstroke, followed by the breaststroke and then fifty yards of freestyle. The kid killed it. He smashed his best time by four seconds winning the city championship. The father was proud but said, “he could have started better.”

We had another hour until his second event, the 100 yard backstroke. The Russian Rocket was hanging with his friends and competitors. The father warned me he was having too good a time. “He needs to be focused.” I told the Russian Rocket to get to the pool to warm up. The kid stalled, but finally got to the warm-up pool. I took my place by the pool by the other coaches to get a good viewing spot. There was a pretty assistant from another school who I squatted next to. She said, “Your assistant is out of control.”

“Who? Vlad?”

“Yeah, he’s asking for my phone number.”

“You should go out with him. He’s a big spender. He’ll take you out to expensive dinners and give you pearl necklaces.

“He looks like my grandfather.” I told her not to worry. He’s harmless and married, but that didn’t put her at ease.

The race began. The Russian Rocket was falling behind. I wasn’t worried. His specialty was his flipturn. His efficient streamlining turned deficits into leads, but somehow this time he never could catch up to the kid from Palisades. He lost by a second, but still breaking his best time of 56.5 seconds. His backstroke would have beaten most of the kids’ freestyle and would have won the city championship the year before. But this year there was someone faster. I saw the Dad waiting by the swimmer’s exit. He was furious. “Too much playing. Not enough focus.”

I reminded him, his son swam his best time ever. He reminded me, “That no matter if he no win.” He chastised his son all the way back to the locker room. This kind of pressure goes against modern American parental philosophies, but perhaps to excel at such a degree a kid needs a taskmaster to push him toward the elite level.

The kid rode back with his Dad. Leaving me alone with Vlad and the two other kids on the drive back. Vlad gave me a t-shirt from the City Championship. “For good memories.” he said.  It’s a crummy white t-shirt, but I was touched.  Then the kids behind me got my heartstrings a little more. “Rolland, next season you’re going to be our coach again, right?”

I looked in the mirror and saw all the gray hairs I had from kids who flaked out and didn’t really seem to give a damn about all the life lessons I tried to instill in them.  “Let’s enjoy the end of this year before we start worrying about 2011.”

“But you’ve got to do it. It won’t be fun without you.”

I guess  all you need to nullify the whining and complaining is just a drop of appreciation.  I’m a pushover toward validation. Kind words beat a victory any day and while I wasn’t ready to commit to something a year in the future I was ready to offer them something else. “You guys want to get some ice cream?”

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3 thoughts on “Swimming With Sharks Part 2

  1. Very nice, story. Don’t know why but images of Eastern Promises kept popping into my head while reading of the rockets dad’s involvement. Like the “cheapskate” line, too.

  2. Before the last season of hockey, I considered not coaching that season. I had plenty of valid excuses and I had struggled with whether I had the gumption to be an example for these kids. It’s easy to blame yourself for a tepid season that you thought could have been done better. However, I decided to do it. “One more year,” I told myself. And I’m glad I chose to do it, not so much because of the result (they did extremely well), but because of the things I’ve learned about myself. The pressure of being an example to the kids makes me scrutinize myself more often, and often I see facets of my personality that would not have surfaced in a more banal setting. That and the unpredictability of kids — I do something inappropriate, and some would laugh it off, some would ridicule me, some would use it as an excuse to do it themselves. But there are always the few would actually defend me. 🙂

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