Gimme a Smile: Pain is good for you

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2010

I never thought I'd be telling my son an inspirational story about my time on the high school swim team. My athletic prowess can be described in one word - nonexistent. I was your stereotypical nerd in high school, complete with thick glasses and the ever-present book. What was I doing on the swim team?

I was the slowest swimmer on the team. That's not bragging, it's the truth. I was little and skinny and nonathletic. Kids lapped me on a regular basis. Everyone else would finish their laps at practice and sit around waiting for me to straggle in. Then they would take off immediately for the next set of laps, and I would struggle on without any break at all. Was it my fault that I was always exhausted?

My coach's favorite phrase from the sidelines was, "Pain is good for you." It always felt like too much of a good thing to me. I suffered most from the cold, even though I went to high school in Florida. The season started in January. Contrary to popular belief, it's cold in Florida in January. We swam in a heated outdoor pool - I remember lining up to pull the tarp off the pool, and watching the clouds of steam billow up to hide my teammates on the other side. The water was warmer than the air, so it wasn't so bad once you were in, as long as you kept moving. Worst of all was the moment in a swim meet when you had to take off your sweats to climb on the blocks, shivering in your already wet swimsuit while waiting for the starter's gun so you could dive into the steaming pool. I've never been so cold in my life!

I still remember the famous day in 1977 when it snowed in St. Petersburg. I woke up to find our backyard birdbath frozen over, and flakes of snow drifting in the air. I could even scrape enough snow off the car to make a snowball. I rode my bike to swim practice through the swirling snow, savoring the irony of the moment. We didn't actually swim that morning - in fact, school was cancelled for two days to ease the pressure on the power companies. I guess Coach thought swimming in the snow might be taking "pain is good for you" a bit too far.

Being the slowest swimmer on the team did have some advantages. I won the "Most Improved" award one year. I still have the trophy to prove it. When you start out as "really slow" and work your way up to "slow," you've got something to be proud of, right?

Then there was the time that I won the meet for the team. It was a moment to cherish. If I lived in a Disney movie, I would have come in first. But I don't, and I didn't. I came in fifth, out of six. I make that second to last, and my math is better than my swimming. But Coach had figured on me coming in last, for no points. I swam my heart out, beat one person, and earned one point for the team. We won the swim meet by one point.

My teammates didn't parade me around the pool on their shoulders, and I didn't go on to become the star swimmer on the team. I'm sure I never won a race in my entire swimming career. But Coach did make a point of saying to the team that each person's effort counts as much as anyone else's, and that we would have lost the meet without my unexpected achievement. I'd never been so proud of being second to last in my life. It may be as close as I'll ever get to coming in first.

No one's going to make a movie about my triumph, but I do cherish the life lessons it offers: the importance of working together to realize a goal, the certainty that my contribution does make a difference, the value of doing my very best even if everyone else's best is better than mine. What do you know, Coach was right - pain is good for you.

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