Swimming was my first competitive racing sport leaving me with good memories and providing a rite of passage not realized until later in life. I swam for the Whippets at Windham High School located in the worn town of Willimantic Connecticut trying to revive itself after a prosperous early 19th century. In 1828 the young American town was home to one of the largest thread mills in the world and the first to use electric lighting.
Willimantic, the Native American Algonquian term for “land of the swift running water” hosts the river with the same name flowing more aggressively in past years. The rapid Willimantic River powered the mill who’s riverbed provided grey granite blocks for the large structure housing hundreds of embedded windows. A current landmark of the river is Frog Bridge with two eight foot high bronze frogs atop concrete thread spools. For a reason I don’t know of, the slogan Romantic Willimantic was given to the town, if only for the reason it rhymed. The town is getting back its lost charm, but my memories from the 70’s and 80’s recollect there was little romantic about the unfortunate drug ridden town with a main street drug haven hotel named Hotel Hooker which is now thankfully shuttered. A star for Willimantic is the plethora of excellent Greek style pizza restaurants.
I grew up in the much smaller neighboring former dairy town of Columbia not populated enough to house its own high school. The town has a lake for residents that provided years of successful largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing. There wasn’t a fishing hot spot on the lake I didn’t know of from fishing there for over 15 years. In grammar and high school I was rarely seen without a fishing pole in hand or taped to my bike. Columbia Lake provided, recreational swimming, swimming lessons and my first job as a lifeguard making joining the Windham High swim team a natural progression.
Swimming provided dedication and perseverance to tough practices and new athletic goals individually and as a team. During my sophomore year I earned the coveted high school letter, repeating the award each year after. Through a team vote senior year I was selected as a co-captain of a competitive Central Connecticut Interscholastic League team. Thin framed, eyeglass wearing Mike B. was the other co-captain who I only saw once after high school at a busy rest area along the Massachusetts turnpike. I wasn’t too surprised when he slowly pulled his maroon hood back to show his shining shaved head and small braided pony tail announcing he became a Hari Krishna being influence by the Beatles. Our leader, Coach Ken, was a great coach and University of Connecticut swim star who created just survivable practices and race line-ups to plan strategic swim meets with positive outcomes. Coach taught us to train hard, win with excitement, lose with grace, have fun and promote team spirit.
At times I dreaded going to the pool area to read the grueling workout marked on the blackboard but knew the results would make me a better swimmer and, unknowingly at the time, building the core of lifetime athlete. I still remember clinging to the edge of the pool exhausted between sets, tasting the chlorinated water and watching the second hand of the lap clock counting down to the next set of laps. With clipboard in hand, stopwatch around his neck, and whistle in the corner of his mouth like James Dean lipping a cigarette, Coach knew how to push us and shortened rest times when we weren’t delivering our best performances. He taught the harder we worked through a set a longer break would be our reward before beginning the next set. Besides a few of life’s challenges this is something I carry forward with life today, work hard and enjoy a personal reward whatever that may be, a vacation, a wish list item, or time with friends.
Swim meets were anticipated with excitement, especially swimming at home where our ritual was leaving the school grounds at the end of classes to visit one of the many pizza places in town for pre-race carb loading. A few of the best choices were Mama’s, Papa’s, Tony’s, and Giant. Mama’s was the closest serving thick crusted pies and Italian dishes. We could smell the small pizzeria from blocks away. Walking into the booth filled restaurant I always admired a black velvet paining of a toned Bruce Lee holding short fighting sticks. Eventually I bought that classic painting and regret not having it today.
Twelve of us Windham Whippets would pile into a few booths being silly, as typical young teenagers are pulling pranks on each other. The best was when Rich pranked himself after loosening the top of the salt shaker and emptying it on his own fries in a rush to eat them when returning from the bathroom. My staple was shells and sauce coated with a layer of Parmesan, washing it down with an over carbonated Coca Cola. After scoffing down race fuel and thanking Mama we had a few hours to let our full stomachs settle. How we didn’t purge in the pool is beyond my comprehension.
Back at the pool, first year christened freshmen were preparing school colored maroon and white lane buoys, and multi-colored backstroke flags for the meet. A duty we all had to endure as underclassmen. When the opposing team settled in the pool area we gathered in the locker room wearing our Whippet logo’d sweats for words of encouragement by Coach. Marching in line from seniors to freshmen we’d enter the crowd cheering pool, some of us wearing U.S. Marine style hats as if preparing to line up for a boot camp locker check. Cheers echoed in the pool area making twenty fans sound like hundreds. We’d peal down to our little maroon Speedos for warm-up laps before the National Anthem then chant “Go Windham” begin the meet. It was time to put to action the hundreds if not thousands of laps given during training sessions.
The first race was of a meet was the 200 yard medley relay. The disciplines were 50 yards of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle in that order. In this race I swam butterfly and during the meet I’d also swim freestyle sprints in individual and relay events. Backstroke racers, Bill was ours, would start in the water raising themselves up to the starting blocks then spring backwards in the pool at the sound of the starting gun. Next was our breaststroker, Kev, bobbing up and down two lengths of the pool. I followed next for the butterfly impatiently waiting, situating my goggles then timing my long shallow dive with Kev’s hands touching the wall. After a few dolphin kicks my body would surface the water then begin porpoising for two lengths of the pool.
The butterfly is a stroke of power and finesse. A swimmer’s hands reach overhead as a conductor’s would when orchestrating a symphony then slice into the water cupping, pulling then pushing water underneath the body. At the end of the stroke both feet kick in unison to propel the body up and out of the water like a dolphin jumping alongside a navy vessel providing room for the arms to swing forward along the top of the water to begin another stroke.
Crowd noise dissipates when performing during a race. Out of the corner of my goggles I could see Coach Ken or teammates on the side of the pool providing cheering motions, with distance of hands telling of a lead or trail. Completing my two laps and touching the wall I could sense our freestyler Mike leave the blocks and take first place if our team was in or near the lead. Mike had great speed and his then frame allowed him to swim like the fast skinny pickerel. I found sharing a team victory on a relay was more enjoyable than winning a solo race. As was said in a different context, “Some things are meant to be shared.”
During close meets Coach would approach me head tilted down looking over the top of his glasses and say my nick name with instructions. “Chokes! You have to swim your best time to beat this guy. You’ve got that time in you.” He’d show his strategic clipboard with the time to accomplish, provide a motivational tap before sending me to the starting blocks. Being on the blocks hearing my name called as an Olympic athlete before a gold medal race provided added motivation to coach’s words. My small 5’6”, 120 pound frame would be ready to leap off the block like a frog escaping danger.
The inspiration and lessons learned I received from Coach would stay with me for years in competitive and non-competitive sports. The most important being preparing and training hard. As I mentioned earlier, not until later in life did I realize the effect of having a trusted mentor who set a trigger to prepare for an athletic endeavor of a race, a winter climb of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, or just a standard training regimen. Training, knowledge and preparation are key. I consider my high school swimming experience a rite of passage for the age I was more than having a party for turning 16 or 18. Knowledge is gained by learned lessons and rites of passages are actions through a ceremony. My ceremony for this rite of passage was swimming for four high school years earning school and personal awards. I didn’t challenge school records, but challenged myself to perform my best while having fun times with teammates.
I’ve won races and lost races. It felt great to win of course, but looking back the lessons learned were a rite of passage and created the competitive spirit which stays with me today, win or lose. Race results are kept in my scrapbook of swimming and my scrapbook of life provides memories of personal wins and losses contributing to growth as powerful as swimming the butterfly.
Peace and Thanks Coach! – “Chokes”
“Every positive change, every jump to a higher level of energy and awareness involves a rite of passage. Each time to ascend to a higher rung on the ladder of personal evolution, we must go through a personal period of discomfort, of initiation.” ~ Dan Millman