Earlier that summer I took my first swim lessons, now I crouched behind the starter’s block about to cry. Mom’s fear of water drove us to swim lessons at age five. A month later I faced the unknown with my first race at the Lone Oak Country Club. What if I come in last? What if I had a false start? What if I am too afraid to dive in? I don’t remember the exact locus of my fear: maybe it was just performing, being judged, being ranked, winners and losers. Fear gripped my five year old soul. I stepped back from the starting block afraid to dive in.
Our coach, Roger Alexius, stood tall and tanned donning a mop of surfer blond hair that was very cool in 1972. Roger, a collegiate swimmer and now doctorial student in Recreation, took over a little Parks and Recreation team. Within a few years his Lexington Swim Team would swallow up the dominate AAU team in town. Our moms swooned a little over Roger, but more importantly my dad respected Coach Alexius. At times the high school swimmers challenged Roger into a race for pool supremacy. Roger always won with speed and good humor. On bus trips we chanted: “Clap your hands, stomp your feet, Roger’s Raiders can’t be beat.”
That day of my first race Coach Roger and I seemingly stood at opposite ends of the podium. Roger stood like a crafty Ken Doll with GI Joe grit and presidential confidence. I cowered chewing the corner of my beach towel afraid of the race, failure, failing to race, or crying in front of the crowd.
Coach Roger came and stood by me. His smile exuded confidence. Coach spoke: “Paul, you are going to win this race.” I am not sure if I gave voice to my inner fear, but my face questioned him: “Coach, how do you know I will win?” Roger continued: “see that little boy over there? They put a swimmer in the pool with him. Do you know why someone is in the pool with that little boy?” I shook my head. Roger looked right at me: “The coach is in the water because they are afraid he might drown. Paul, are you going to drown?” I slowly shook my head back and forth. “Paul, can you swim to the end of the pool by yourself?” My eyes narrowed as my confidence rose and I nodded. I could swim those 25 meters. Our home pool was an Olympic pool. I swam it every morning by myself. Roger repeated the refrain: “You will win this race”
The starter’s gun went off and I dove in.
When I touched the wall Coach Roger swept me from the water. He hoisted me from the pool with a victorious shout and carried me around like a championship trophy. The whole Roger Raider Nation screamed and yelled as Our Coach lead the cheers. I won my first race. We won our meet. It may be my personal greatest moment in sport. I have never felt as triumphant or as well coached. The Blue Ribbon embossed with a big oak tree hung in my room for years above other greater swimming honors. Forty one years later that day still seem clear and powerful. My coach stirred within me the confidence to dive in.
1 Thessalonians 5.11: “Encourage one another and build up each other.”