The Game Changer

game changer (artwork by Hannah Grace)

This is a true story, and one that changed my life. I lost touch with the people in the story, as we do with so many who cross our paths, and they will never know that their moment laid bare was so momentous for me. I have no idea if they even remember it, if it was profound or meaningful in any way for them, or if it was just another moment like so many others in the life of their family. I have changed their names, to preserve their anonymity, but the rest is their story. And mine.

Jenny was a prodigy. At 6 years old, she knew all four strokes, did them legally, and flew past the other 8 & unders who were still swimming as though they had just had arms and legs installed the day before. Her parents were super-involved with the team, and strutted the deck as though swimming had been invented to showcase their daughter.  Jenny’s older brother, Luke, age 9 and very sweet, still limped awkwardly through his races and was largely ignored. I wish I could say Jenny was a nice child.

Fast forward 7 years. I was a young coach on the team, aged 17. Jenny’s prodigy status had faded, as the height and curves of puberty had taken hold, changing her hydrodynamics significantly. The other girls had figured out their own arms and legs in the intervening years, and grown in strength and ability, and Jenny was no longer easily winning every event. Luke was now one of the best in his age group, while Jenny struggled to keep her place. Mom and Dad, never particularly pleasant people to be around, were NOT happy with the change.

It was a Saturday morning meet, and freestyle was the first event up. This had been Jenny’s biggest struggle lately, and the place where most of the other girls were catching up to her. She had talked to me before she swam, nervous about the race. Jenny was a nice kid by this point, having learned some humility through her struggles, and we were all on her side in wanting her to succeed. She raced well, and out-touched her competition to win the race. I remember how happy she looked, and I remember cheering. She hopped out of the pool and was coming toward me, big smile on her face, when it happened.

Jenny was intercepted by her father, in front of the clerk of course where about 20 kids were sitting and waiting for their races; there were also about another 30 spectators and volunteers in the area, so this was not what you would call a private area. In my mind’s eye, it is a tableau:  Jenny and I facing each other, about 10 yards apart, smiling and excited, with Dad in between us, his back to me. Then he began to yell. He berated her for the race, calling her names, thundering at her for being slow, being lazy, being out of shape, for not beating the girl by enough. I felt frozen to the deck, horrified as I watched her smile fade and her body shrink, tears filling her eyes. He might as well have been hitting her with his fists, the way those words, those hateful words, pummeled her.

I hated him, and I hated myself for not moving, not making it stop, not knowing what to do. The moment finally broke when Jenny, unable to take any more, bolted for the locker room. I followed, and did what I could to console her. To her credit, she rallied and swam the rest of her races, but didn’t enjoy any of them. I have always wondered what happened to Jenny, and whether the events of that day stuck with her, or whether that was just normal life in their family.

That awful moment changed me forever, and became the defining story of my approach to coaching. I promised myself that day that I would NEVER AGAIN allow anyone, parent or not, to treat one of my swimmers that way as long as I was around. This is why I did not allow parents to hang over the pool or fuss at their kids in practice, this is why I have physically intercepted a large, angry dad on his way poolside to yell at his child, this is why I told parents not to “help” me coach, this is why I tried to help parents understand productive ways to give their kids feedback about their races. Parents probably have wondered about my approach, some have certainly called me tough (and worse), and I know it’s bothered some, but the truth is, I wasn’t  there for the parents. I was there for their kids. I was there for Jenny, perhaps trying to make up for the fact that I was too young and shocked to help her that day.

To this day, telling this story gives me goosebumps and makes me cry. I will never forget her face. I will never forget that feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched her get beaten with words. I will never forget her.

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