Swimming Records caught my eye as I thumbed through the fat almanac of world records and I slapped my palm down on the page.
Jane Miller’s pencil stopped on the sheet of loose leaf where she’d been scratching out an essay on the Boston Tea Party—her quirky anachronistic slant involving tea bag strings caught in boat propellers.
I glanced around the Jensen Beach Hoke Library to see if I’d disturbed anyone else.
Sorry, I mouthed to Jane, not wanting to say anything yet about the fragile hope pin-wheeling through me.
Chlorinated water became my second habitat when Dad worked as a lifeguard. And living aboard a sailboat turned swimming into recreation, transportation, and survival. I swam for Martin County High School because Dad had competed.
But Dad’s reasons for swimming mystified me. The first athlete in his family, reared in Canton, Ohio, Dad was an unlikely world-class swimmer. Stripping down to the altogether—as he told it—to swim in the McKinley High School basement in winter must have taken grit. I could only point to his passion for the Olympics.
Maybe we could have a conversation I wanted to participate in next time he came to visit.
Dad didn’t talk about his swimming career, but I’d pieced together the basics when his old swimming buddies visited.
He backstroked his way to Ohio State University where he swam on the medley relay squad with Doc Counsilman, who later became the most celebrated swim coach of all time for Indiana University and the United States Olympic team.
Dad, who up to that point had never left Ohio, boarded planes to swim in Washington, Connecticut, California, Georgia, Florida, and Hawaii—and probably a lot of other places I hadn’t heard about. I pictured Dad, tense, hunkered down in his seat at thirty thousand feet, focusing on the races. But maybe, after the meets, when he’d blown through pool records and AAU American records, he kicked back and laughed with his teammates.
As a kid I rifled through the April, 1953, Athletic Journal, impressed with the four pages of stop action photos of Dad swimming that accompanied an article by Counsilman. Less appreciated was his perfecting of my strokes. But his nit-picking proved golden this year.
Coach Shelt never had to correct my strokes. More than once, I stood at the end of the pool, sucking oxygen after pounding out a hundred butterfly—hoping Matt Kelly and Kurt Sailor noticed I was the only sophomore girl to stay afloat.
I glanced up at Jane and she made fish lips at me.
“I’m almost done. Let’s leave soon,” she said.
My gaze jumped back to the column of records, skimming for Dad’s name. His last year of collegiate competition was 1950. His records had probably been broken in the past twenty-five years. But maybe he bagged one crazy fast time when he swam on the Coca Cola AAU team in Cincinnati in 1948 under Counsilman’s coaching.
Jane’s pencil paused, caught in a sunbeam, and the quiet of the library pulsed around me.
I knew where Dad won his races—in his mental ability to push himself harder than other people.
So far my final splits sucked because my mind couldn’t muscle up against my body’s I’m done!
Jane looked up and I asked, “Do you think if we train hard enough we can win races?”
She shrugged. “The important thing is that we enjoy what we’re doing.”
Maybe. But I hoped Dad’s mental grit was buried somewhere deep in my DNA.
Dad’s drive earned him All-time All-American at OSU, then a full ride to swim for the University of Miami his junior and senior years. He was named captain of the Hurricanes’ team in 1950. Certainly enough accolades to retire on.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he snagged a job as a beach boy on Miami Beach and trained for two years for the Olympic Trials. In July, 1952, Dad coiled up to the starting block in backstroke starting position— with an ear infection—in New York City’s Flushing Meadow Amphitheater.
He missed his best time that would have earned him a berth on the US Olympic team in Helsinki, Finland.
Dad and I loved each other in a broken-down way, but I deep-down knew him. On the rare occasions when he was bested, I could imagine Dad leaning over the lane line to shake the winner’s hand, then heading off by himself to replay every second of the race until he figured out what he could have done differently. The next week, he’d train even harder.
Except this time, there were no more meets.
No one would have blamed him if he cried.
But he didn’t. I know because I’ve never seen Dad cry.
Jane stood and gathered her papers.
“Wait! I’m looking for something.” My finger ran down the unfamiliar names.
Dad used his mental grit to muscle up a new dream—building a forty-foot yawl by hand.
He had a degree in business and no carpentry skills.
He took a job as a machinist at Miami Boat Yard and poured through books and blueprints. He buddied up with boat-builders, scooping up every curl of knowledge they planed from their hulls. Twelve years of dreaming and planning. Four years of building. And the Annie Lee floated in the Miami River.
Jane tapped her foot. “Hurry up. I want to get in some laps at the beach.”
“Only one more column.” I shoved my Algebra I homework into my notebook and buried my nose back in the almanac.
Dad’s next big dream piggybacked on the Annie Lee—circumnavigation. He learned sailing and navigation from the school of hard knocks—knocking against sea walls, boats, and sand bars—taking me, Mom, and R.J. along for the education.
Mom divorced him two years after we moved aboard the boat. Though Dad worked toward sailing around the world for another couple years, this dream, too, failed to reach its zenith.
Last month he sold the Annie Lee.
My finger froze beneath Dick Fetterman, 3 X 100 Medley Relay. I stared at the ink. Blinked. My breath caught. A sense of wonder fanned through my chest.
My father held a world record. Still.
Dad’s record will always stand because butterfly and an extra 100 yards were added to the event in 1953.
I put the pads of my fingers on Dad’s name, pressing pride over our pock-marked father-daughter past.
I competed throughout high school, but never dug up Dad’s mental metal to excel from my DNA. And Jane failed to wow the Daughters of the American Revolution with her Tea Party humor. But she was right—we both loved swimming enough to continue throughout our lives.
Jane channeled her quirky intelligence into a PhD in geology and the deanship of the college of science and technology at Central Michigan University.
I’ve written four novels, a fifth on its way. And a memoir—blogging its way to book.
Now I understand why my grade school report cards all told the same story—daydreams too much.
I got dreaming over-sized dreams from you, Dad. And maybe I did get a little of your metal to put my head down and write to the last page.