When my fellow middle-aged, amateur swimmers and I came up for air after a particularly hard workout, the last thing we wanted to hear was “swim an easy 50 to cool down.” We wanted to rest and recover. But Coach Ray believed in recovering while we swam. He said it would boost our stamina and endurance. This turned out to be a brilliant foresight.
The first time I met Ray, he made me feel right at home even though I was a nervous wreck on the inside. I came to him because I wanted help leaving my comfort zone. I feared I had reached a point in my life where I might never again learn a new skill, which was depressing. I was an old dog in search of a new trick.
That’s why, in my mid-40’s, I finally mustered the courage to sign up for the Masters Swim team at my local YMCA. I was shivering but determined as I walked gingerly across the wet tiles toward the edge of the pool. I admitted to Ray that I was a total novice with no swimming experience. He was nonplussed.
He told me to get in the pool and start swimming.
I soon realized what Ray’s other swimmers already knew – the guy was a genius when it came to coaching. He knew exactly what to say to get a better result out of each of us. With the patience of a saint, he tried to correct my lifetime of bad habits. Pretty soon, this former-band-geek-with-absolutely-NO-athletic-ability started to think of herself as a swimmer (I’m still not sure about the “master” part).
As we gazed up at Ray between sets, he flailed his arms and swung his hips from side to side in surprisingly helpful demonstrations of perfect technique. He shared anecdotes about other swimmers he’d coached; he was especially proud of the youngest ones. He could not hide his love for the sport, and for his swimmers of all ages.
In the moments between our drills, we also got to know one another. Relationships formed gradually as we exchanged breathless tidbits of personal information during our 30-second rests between laps. We all had different reasons for being in the pool, but Ray was absolutely determined that we’d all get faster. He was our biggest champion and an eternal optimist about our swimming abilities.
One of his favorite drills allowed for no rest at all, but rather an ‘easy lap’ between one set and the next. “Recover while you swim!” he bellowed. He knew we could do this because to Ray, our hodgepodge collection of lawyers and professors and consultants were real athletes. Because he believed this wholeheartedly, eventually we believed it, too. We swam, we recovered, and we swam some more.
But then Ray didn’t show up one morning, or the next. Worries were shared; inquiries were made, until our absolute worst fears were confirmed. Ray had passed away at home. He was only 57.
Sometimes when I swim, I let my mind lapse into a gentle rhythmic complacence as I stare at the black line on the pool bottom for lap after endless lap, focusing only on my next breath. Like that black line, Ray was always there to provide direction and guidance. His presence was as certain as the rising sun, until it wasn’t.
I am devastated that my coach is gone, but I’m not alone in my grief. I have my team. We are strong; we are athletes now. At our first practice after Ray’s funeral (standing room only and overflowing with his young swimmers), we traded memories of the sets and drills he had taught us over the years. With no choice but to get back in the pool, we mustered the stamina and endurance Ray had built within us.
We recovered while we swam.