Friday, March 9, 2012

Not as Bad as Swim Practice

None of us has the right to claim whatever success, big or small, we have had in life as being solely of our own making. All of us are the products built in part by those who have influenced us, usually when we were children, teenagers or young adults. For many people the prime influence was a loving parent, a particularly gifted teacher, or a grandparent. I have had the benefit of positive influence from all of those people, and many more. But the person who has had the longest, continuous impact on my life, even to this very minute, was not one of those people. The person most responsible for molding whatever character I have, apart from my dad, was a coach. His name was Mal Cofield.

I do not remember how it came about, but I ended up in the YMCA pool one afternoon when I was six years old to try out for the swimming team. My Dad had been a swimming instructor in the Navy (as well as a fighter pilot), so I know that he thought being able to swim well was important. I suspect that the swimming team idea resulted from the fact that I was a very skinny red head, completely devoid of any discernible muscle, who had displayed no notable athletic promise, so the swim team offered an opportunity to toughen me up, although I am just guessing about that.

The workout was underway when I hesitantly slipped into the pool. I think that Mal had the team running 20 100’s freestyle. This meant that each heat of 6 swimmers would do an in the water start, swim 4 lengths of the pool and recover for the next heat, twenty times. Since there were heats at both ends of the pool, the heat at the other end would chase you home on the fourth length. The faster swimmers, all of them in my case, took great delight in running over me as I struggled to get to the end of the pool. My heat had always left by the time I got to the end of the pool, so I was constantly behind. Within ten minutes I was utterly exhausted, demoralized about how slow I was, and was half-drowned. I dog-paddled over to the side, coughed up half the pool, and hung on desperately.

Looking back on this seemingly miniscule event, which turned out to be monumental in my life, I am sure that Mal did not miss any of what was going on. Immediately, he was on his hands and knees beside me. “Thinking about quitting are you?” he inquired. “Yes”, I gasped. “Your Dad wouldn’t quit, he’s too tough to quit. Are you as tough as your old man?” How did he know exactly the right thing to say to a weak, scared, drowning six year old, who he had never met before? I thought about his question for a few seconds and then defiantly stated “Yes, I am," and I started to swim again. I finished the workout and came back for more.

Swimming is not like basketball, baseball, track or tennis, all of which I did. Those sports involve reliance on and participation with teammates. You can shout at and encourage them. If the team wins, there is a cheering crowd, slaps on the back from your teammates and admiring looks from the spectators.

None of that is true in swimming. You cannot hear anyone cheering. You are looking at the end of the pool coming up, your heart is going 180 beats a minute, at least, and your entire body is screaming for more oxygen. Your body is so stressed that the “red mist” clouds your vision. (If you have not experienced this, you have not maxed yourself athletically. If you have, you know what I mean. Welcome to the club.) And when the race is over, you can barely drag yourself out of the pool. You look over at the coach and he flatly states your time for the event.

I rarely knew in what position I finished a race, nor did I care. Mal didn’t care, either, because only the time for the event counted. Had I gone faster than last time? Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. Weeks of agony in practice sometimes translated into a time one tenth of a second faster than before. Such is how a swimmer’s progress is measured. In fractions of a second.

I dreaded Mal’s daily workouts. Most workouts started the same. 20, 20, 20’s. That meant 20 lengths of kicking, 20 lengths of pull, followed by 20 lengths of freestyle. That is a mile, just to warm up. Of course, Mal had ideas about making the warm up as stressful as possible.

Normally, you used a kickboard to do the kicking. Put an arm along each side of the board, tuck the back end up under your chain and start kicking. It is a pain, but it is doable. When kicking became easy for most of the swimmers, he took the kickboards away, so you had to do it on your back with your arms stretched out in front of you with your fingers interlocked. Try it sometime. It is a good way to take in half the pool up your nose.

Pulling consisted of putting half of a kickboard between your knees, so you had to propel yourself only with your stroke. The board was held in place by a band of old inner tube. Not difficult, particularly if you put the board up close to your knees, so the main part of your body would float high in the water. When Mal figured out that trick, we had to put the board down on our ankles, which served to bend your body like a bow. Try it sometime.

Finally, there would be 20 lengths of freestyle swim. As Mal looked at the team doing the warm up, he could see when the faster swimmers were transitioning to the swim part. As soon as he saw this, he would wait until you had about 15 lengths done and start yelling to pick up the pace as we were loafing. Rarely could anyone finish the warm up and rest before the serious part of the workout started.

The serious part of the workout was always run in heats, with the start of each heat timed to allow almost no rest between heats. If we were swimming 100’s, which is four lengths of the pool, you might get 10 seconds rest before doing the next one. Try 20 100’s. A five or six thousand yard workout was routine, although I swam a lot of them that were ten thousand yards, too.

The large clocks positioned at both ends of the pool mercilessly kept track of your times. Mal patrolled the perimeter of the pool, yelling out times on each heat, which was set off by the staccato shriek of his whistle. Every heat was timed by Mal’s all seeing, omniscient stopwatch and you never knew when you were being individually timed. As you can figure out, he knew how fast you could go and knew immediately when you were loafing. The stopwatch would snitch you out. You did not want to be individually timed. Loafing would get you a thunderous wallop with a kickboard on the top of the head in the middle of a turn. Sometimes the kickboard broke.

There are at least five immutable truths about swimming. One, the stopwatch never lies. Two, since the stopwatch never lies, you can’t delude yourself about your performance. Three, your progress is proportional to the pain endured in practice. Four, nobody is going to do it for you. And five, when you win, or your time is two tenths of a second quicker, it is only you who gets the credit, which is as it should be.

Mal had ways of dealing with swimmers who missed a workout. Bear in mind that we swam 6 days a week, mostly. If you missed a practice, you had to get on the high diving board and dive in. All the team would stand on the pool sides surrounding where you would land. As soon as you hit the water, Mal would blow his whistle and the entire team would be unleashed on you. There were no rules. They could hit you, kick you, try to drag you to the bottom, or just try to keep you under water for as long as possible. The free for all against the malfeasor lasted until Mal blew his whistle, calling off the dogs, as it were. It is a miracle no one died.

Did I ever miss a practice? Was I ever late? Yes, unfortunately. I developed a technique to minimize the damage. I would dive in head first, allowing me to get to the bottom faster. On the bottom of the pool was a metal grate over the drain. I could get a grip on the grate with both hands and curl up in a fetal position, with the biggest breath I could hold and there I would stay, while my tormentors would have to expend energy diving down to get at me. I never surfaced from this punishment damage free, but it was survivable.

At each end of the pool were two buckets. Why? They were there so you did not have to run to the men’s room to throw up. Going to the bathroom would allow you to rest. Completely unacceptable. Throw up if you must, but keep swimming. Over the door to the pool was a sign which read “Hurt, pain, agony. Which have you achieved today?” Need I say more?

Mal was not without a sense of humor. At a dual meet in high school, John Trent was scheduled to swim the 100 yard freestyle event. Unfortunately, John forgot his team swim suit. Furious, Mal detailed a swimmer to go to the locker room and get John a suit. The only suit found was about 8 inches too big. When John got up on the starting block, he had to hold the suit up and told Mal it was going to come off when he dove in. Mal said he didn’t care and to swim the event. The gun went off and John dove in, immediately losing the suit. When it came time to flip the first of three turns, there was a gasp from the crowd, followed by much hilarity, anticipating the remaining two turns. John finished the race in his birthday suit and was handed a towel when he climbed out of the pool. Thank God he wasn’t scheduled for the backstroke events.

I could go on about how radical a coach Mal was, but I won’t. We won the state championship. To Mal’s credit, I will tell you that nearly all my swimming buddies were state champions. Most of them got full rides to swim in college. Even I got paid to swim at Wheaton College. (Lest you think I was good, I wasn’t. I was just better than what they had.) Most all of us were honor students and I do not know of anyone getting into trouble in school. We were all too tired to do that. I do not know of anyone who did not graduate from college. Almost everyone obtained an advanced or professional degree. I think this is remarkable. In my view, most of the credit should go to Mal.

Mal taught us be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. If you were loafing the practice, you knew it. Your times were hard reality. Either they were dropping, or they weren’t. If they weren’t, there was no one to blame but yourself. You could not blame the failure, and that is exactly what it was, a personal failure, on a teammate who dropped the ball or bungled a play. Nobody was in that pool but you. You were responsible, no one else. What an incredibly important life lesson to learn so young.

I cannot overemphasize how difficult the daily practices were for me. To merely say they were hard does not do it justice. I threw up often. Routinely, I could hardly get out of the pool without resting at the end of the workout. But I wouldn’t quit. Quitting would have been dishonorable. Quitting would be admitting defeat. I knew I couldn’t live with being thought of as a quitter. Another important life lesson learned young, before things started to count when you were an adult.

So, what’s the point of all this? It is simple. In addition to learning personal responsibility and to never quit, I learned that almost nothing in life is as bad as swim practice. I remember lying in a hospital bed for twelve days with 80 stitches running from my breastbone down to where you cannot cut anymore. My colon and rectum had been surgically removed as a result of my first run in with cancer. When your rectum is removed, you are left with a gaping hole which must be left open to heal from the inside out. For two days after the operation I was not able to have any pain medication. I was in agony, but I told my wife, who held my hand all night, “It is not as bad as swim practice.” It was true.

When I broke my neck being careless on my mountain bike and paralyzed my left arm, I told the nurse that as bad as it was, “swim practice was worse.” Again, true. Ditto for when I took out four ribs and my left lung in a motorcycle misadventure.

When I had to deal with difficult legal problems, for clients and myself, I told my wife “as bad as it is, it isn’t as bad as swim practice.” Absolutely.

You may think I am overstating my case. I am not. I am not putting you on, either. I just haven’t run into much that is as bad as those practices. It is still true to this very day. You might think that being terminally ill with gallbladder cancer would be worse. I don’t think so. Different, maybe, but not worse.

I am in pain. Most all of the day and night. This is because I refuse to take morphine during the day. I will take it at night in the forlorn hope that I might get a few hours of sleep. When the pain is really bad during the day, I just say to myself “Well, it is not as bad as swim practice” and go on with whatever I am doing. It seems to work.

I know that at a divinely appointed time in the near future I will die. My beloved physician, Dr. Annette Moore, tells me she will make a house call and that I will not be in any pain. I worry about that. I plan on dying in my bedroom with my Lynne beside me. My dog, the Iverson, will likely be on the bed beside me. I suspect that there will be many family members present for my final send off. Knowing them, they will probably stand around looking bored and impatiently tell me to “get on with it”, because they have a lunch or dinner appointment scheduled. Maybe I will have some last words to say.

So, after I am gone, you might hear someone say “I heard his last words were something about swim practice. What is that all about?” Now you will be able to say that you know exactly what I said and that my last words were “Well, it is not as bad as swim practice.” Maybe it will be true. And then you should smile and laugh.

Mike out.


  1. Upon reading this, I think of how as a society we have "successfully" demonized & eliminated all the Mal Cofields from our youth. And I wonder if we are on some level paying the price for it. Thanks for sharing, Mike.

  2. I agree with Morgan. Thank you so much for taking the time to capture this story and put it in writing, you are still & always will be, my favorite story teller. Best part of your stories is they are all true. So glad you had men like Mal Cofield in your life to make you the amazing man you are. Love you, Sandra

  3. I too swam for Mal one short season. It is all true. And it is so good to have had people in your life who can push you beyond your limits, and when you succeed they stand back and let you have your glory. You earned it. Lisa Bolinger LeMasters