It’s an old metaphor, to throw a stone in a pond and watch the ripples spread and multiply, to remind us that the things we do have effects that we don’t realize or even intend. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to find out where a ripple goes. A conversation recently with a friend reminded me of one of my own; as usual, names have been changed, and quotes are somewhat paraphrased.

Coaching high school swimming was a mixed bag of frustration and reward. Grueling schedules, uncertain weather, convoluted rules, facility issues, kids not showing, flu season, low pay…the frustrations were many. The rewards felt fewer, but man! The rewards were huge when they came.

I was a great believer in a “no cuts” policy. This was a public school sport, and unlike other sports, swimming is a life skill, and a “save-your-life” skill as well. Over the years, we had many kids come to try the team who didn’t know how to swim at all, and just wanted a chance to learn. We took them all.

In my 2nd or 3rd season with the team, a young woman, a senior,  came to us during the first week of practice, and shared that she didn’t know how to swim but wanted to learn. Tiara was tall, thin and muscular, and looked like she had about 2% body fat, which is not really an ideal combination for an adult learning to swim. Fat floats, and learning to float is immeasurably important when learning to swim, so I knew we had our work cut out for us. It was a challenge, but she was determined, and so was I. We used aerobic float belts, kick boards, pull buoys…basically whatever it took to assist her with the float part so that she could learn the swim techniques that would eventually overcome her lack of flotation.

She was without a doubt our most dedicated attendee at practice, and worked hard. By January (our season began in November), we talked about her racing in a meet. She very nervously and somewhat reluctantly agreed, so we taught her to dive, and in a meet toward the end of that month, she raced a 50 freestyle for the very first time. It was one of my proudest moments as a coach, and I didn’t think I could be happier or more gratified with our work together.

I was wrong. You see, I hadn’t seen the ripple yet.

Fast forward a couple years to another meet, another group of kids. During a break in the action, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a grinning Tiara at my side. We shared a big hug, and the talk naturally moved straight into “What are you doing these days?!”  She caught me up with what she had been up to, and then shared that since she left school, she had been teaching swim lessons to kids like her, teenagers who didn’t know how to swim. My recollection is that it was her appreciation of what we had done for her, what she had learned and overcome with the support of the swim team, that had inspired her to pay-it-forward.

I was floored. I thought that the reward from that stone I’d thrown in the pond was her personal accomplishment, but that was just the beginning. It was a stunning reminder that our actions have ripples, and that we don’t know the lives we end up touching without ever knowing.

This was a humbling moment. Fortunately in this case, the stone I threw created positive ripples, but the ripples of our actions can just as easily be harmful. It is a reminder to be careful and mindful in our interactions with others so that the ripples we make are positive, and that what others pay forward in our names are things we are proud to own. We may never know where the ripple lands, but if we throw our stones with care and love and concern for others, chances are the ripples will carry that as well.

Stronger Than WE Think

(Sequel to Stronger than You Think, published Oct 2014)   Recent events have had me reflecting on the items in this blog, and reconsidering writing. I am inspired by the actions of young people in these early months of 2018, and my writing may veer from my theme of lessons learned from swimming at times. My love of young people is a huge part of my love for swimming, so perhaps the “theme” will not deviate too much.

In October of 2014, I published Stronger Than You Think, a story about the gut-level strength and resilience of young people, and one swimmer in particular. I was in awe of her, as I am currently in awe of the young people leading the #MarchforOurLives movement. I’m not sure how many people are aware of what an important and pivotal moment we are in. I hear too many adults either being dismissive (“kids shouldn’t be doing that, saying that, thinking that, leaving school, marching, blah, blah, blah…”), or being completely patronizing (“you kids should be so proud of yourselves…look at you taking action like you’re grown ups!”)

We need to hush for a moment and really pay attention. We need to hear them, really hear them and what they are saying. We need to think long and hard about how difficult it is to stand up and stand apart when you’re in middle school or high school…you know, that age when conformity is EVERYTHING. We need to see, feel and appreciate the gut-level strength it takes to do what these kids are doing, and their persistence in the face of some pretty ugly backlash.

Working with teenagers taught me a lot of valuable lessons, perhaps the best of which was that as an important adult in their lives, I needed to not just react to them, but to think, to listen, to consider, to look underneath the surface, to seek understanding. The other lesson I learned was that teens tolerate ZERO bullshit, and they can smell it a mile away.

Watch the talking heads and you will see adults patronizing, dismissing, condescending, and generally engaging in bullshit trying to deal with the young people in this country. They couldn’t be responding in a worse way. They have no credibility, no trust and no traction. These kids have discovered their strength, both individually and as a group, and they will not give it up. I, for one, am a huge fan.

Swimming is an individual sport in many aspects, but one with a team element. The best individual swimmers have a strong and functional team they train with. Their focus and strength, their ability to persevere in the face of adversity, to fight for their goals…this all comes from the support of the team. #MarchforOurLives is a team worth watching.