21 May Honoring our Coaches
As the annual PFI freediving competition, Deja Blue wraps up and we are on to the third annual Caribbean Cup in Roatan, Honduras I can’t help but feel gratitude for everyone that helps us along the way. I don’t just mean everyone that helps Ren and me. I mean those that are reaching out to every athlete at every competition around the world. In a sport that doesn’t earn money for it’s participants there develops a long, long list of people who help to facilitate each athlete’s vision. There are those who shovel a little money their way so they can get a $15 airport sandwich instead of waiting the hunger out over a three hour flight. There are those who call every day to make sure you’re still safe, happy and coming home soon (Mom). And there are those who spend countless hours of their own time and money to make you as good as you can be.
I’m taking this opportunity to honor one of those people. One who has helped me along the way.
How can a seventy something year old guy who never learned to equalize properly, rendering him a ten foot diver be such an advocate for the sport of freediving? After four years of knowing Don I still ask myself this question every time the guy drives the two hours it takes for him to get from Wilson, NC to Wilmington, NC where I train. When I’m in town, he makes the trek consistently once or twice a week, depending on when my daughter, Ani allows me to hit the pool. Don loves the idea of spending hours in a chlorinated cesspool of urine pushing me past my comfort levels, yelling (as if I can hear him with my head almost always under the water) lap after lap, clapping his hands to signal another run and bringing attention (mostly unwanted) to the our lane from the rest of the pool. He’s been doing it professionally for over forty years until he retired and found freediving and then me, one of his “senior projects”.
“Coach, I don’t know what the future holds for me….What I do know is that I’m thankful for every minute I spent as a member of your team.”
Don spent the chunk of his life called “working time” as a swim coach. I learned early on that freediving for Don was another vehicle to do what he really loves, coach. Some people are naturally adept at certain professions and it’s obvious that coaching is Don’s calling. Years after retiring his Speedo, and not a day too early (no offense), Don is still receiving accolades from past swimmers that he keeps in their original envelopes. He shared a few with me recently, “Coach, I don’t know what the future holds for me….What I do know is that I’m thankful for every minute I spent as a member of your team.” The seven page letter is a tear jerking testimonial of Don’s love for the water and his athletes.
Armed with a few national records and an inflated ego to prove it I decided to humor the guy. I learned quick that he was not interested in stroking my confidence, that’s what mothers are for.
Don took me on as his senior project in 2011 without my consent. I did not solicit help from a swim coach. He signed up for one of Evolve’s freediving courses and showed up the first day with a deluge of insults regarding my lack of breast stroke technique, lack of willingness to hit the pool as hard as I should, and overall deficiency as a swimmer. This coming after I had puffed myself up as the next best thing in constant weight no fins (CNF) since Natalia Molchanova, having earned three national records in the discipline just a few months prior. As a coach, Don has the uncanny ability to look past your achievements and into the next day of training where improvements can be made. This attitude took some getting used to. Armed with a few national records and an inflated ego to prove it I decided to humor the guy. I learned quick that he was not interested in stroking my confidence, that’s what mothers are for. After our first day in the pool together and his initial comment after watching me swim a lap, “At least you won’t drown right away,” it was apparent that his only interest lye in bridging the gap between what he knew worked as a swim coach and what he thought would work as a freedive coach. He was there to teach me to swim.
I am ashamed of my initial reaction to Don and his persistence in helping me out. For the first couple of years and a few more records I begrudgingly introduced him as my friend, unwilling to let him accept any distinction as my swim coach. It wasn’t until later that I realized how much of my success can be credited to Don’s time and inexhaustible generosity (along with numerous other entities that I won’t mention as this is about Don). He was interested in me all along as a coaching project but that relationship was intensified as we became friends. I began to understand that as a lifelong coach this is how Don identifies himself. My resistance to allowing him to wear this designation was like forcing a fish to walk. It’s just not in the nature and the genetic buildup for a fish to take legs and walk. It’s just not in Don’t nature to be anything but the best coach he can be.
Since working with me Don has extended himself to numerous other athletes around the world attending the Deja Blue, Caribbean Cup and Vertical Blue freediving competitions. Other athletes may be ambivalent about listening to what he has to say thinking, “Who’s this guy,” but I encourage, no, I implore them to turn the volume down on their self-importance, as I had to, and listen. Don has coached more hours than some of us athletes have even been alive. Sure he almost disqualified me during a world record dive but who’s counting? Some lessons are learned the hard way. Plus it gave us something to laugh about. If you’re still not sure about freediving’s biggest fan, watch out of the corner of your eye during the next competition as Don serves me up a huge, homemade chocolate chip cookie (my favorite) as a victory present. We eat cookies on the back of the boat and enjoy success. Success that we share as he has been there all along the way.
Post by Ashley Chapman of Evolve Freediving
All commentary and opinions in this post are exclusively of the author, Ashley Chapman. They do not reflect the opinions of the USFA, Evolve Freediving, or any other associated organization or people mentioned.
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