Sunday, June 14, 2009

Swim, Sweetie

Mike’s never been much of a team sports guy. He played a little baseball as a child and tried, like every red-blooded Hoosier boy, to make the basketball team. But by high school, his size separated him from that dream. They grew ‘em big in Kokomo, even in the ‘60s.

He found his athletic niche in the chlorine of the local pool. From his early days, he has swum competitively. He began as a tad at the YMCA and moved on to high school to compete at the state level. All the while, he and his buddies were coached by the legend, the man, the MAL. Stories about Mal the coach are mythic around here, and they grow with the passing of years and the aging of the story tellers. Mal was demanding. His coaching style was often ‘physical.’ Mal used kick boards in all sorts of creative, motivational ways. If only a fraction of what the boys claim is true, let’s just say that he was not overly concerned with their fragile self-images or backsides..or heads; he pushed them to win.

And WIN they did, the longest dual-meet, consecutive win streak in Indiana history. They were never beaten in four years.

When he retired from coaching, Mal became a guidance counselor and he and I became colleagues and friends. One day, when I casually mentioned that I had eaten lunch with Mal, Mike’s jaw dropped. I don’t know if it was that I actually conversed with Mal or that he ate lunch like normal people.

Recently, Mike said, “You know that whenever I saw that man, into my 50s, he still hit me.”

“Hit you?” I asked.

He then demonstrated. A punch to the shoulder and “Are you still working out, you worm?” This ended in Mike’s 50’s as Mal moved on to that chorine pool in the sky.

I mentioned, in that context, that HE will also be waiting to greet the hub when he walks into heaven. A momentary wince crossed his eyes. “He probably won’t hit you in Heaven.”

Unless he needs it.

And for the record, let me say that the Mal I knew was a gentle, soft-spoken man, married to a teacher and father to a brilliant daughter on whom he doted. He served as a church deacon and Sunday School teacher and when he passed on, the church was filled to the walls with friends, fans and former swim team members.

Mal’s influence on Mike is also legendary. Mal inspired Mike to push himself to be the best and that has shaped his career as well as his marriage and his relationships with his family and friends. And to this day, Mike finds something ethereal when he plops into a body of water and swims. For some, the monotony of lap swimming would bore them quickly. For athletes, I believe, this is their special refuge. They are alone, with their thoughts. In recent weeks, Mike says, he uses this time for prayer.

On a practical level, the skills that Mal helped hone won the hub a scholarship to Wheaton College where he competed during his freshman year. He might not have chosen Wheaton had they not sweetened the deal. THEN, he might not have met his future wife on that cold November morning when, fresh from swim practice and with his hair still dripping, he watched me slip and sit into the street, up to my waist in slush.

Wet and cold met cold and wet.

Love would bloom later when we had both dried off.

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