Glimpse of a Much Bigger World

June 17, 2024

Swim team

Coach VermeilCoach Vermeil started the team off with tough dry land drills of weight training and ab crunches. I was glad I had worked hard in the off season.

Like the dry land drills, we were using swim workouts sent to us by Ted Stickles now National Champion at Indiana University. He was coached by Hall of Fame “Doc” Councilman. With a PhD in exercise physiology, he had literally rewritten the text book on the stroke mechanics of competitive swimming.

The first couple of weeks my muscles were sore and I was exhausted. But early time trials proved our new workouts were paying off.

As we got into the duel meet season, I won every 50 free and 100-yard freestyle I raced in. At 6 feet 2 inches  tall and 180 pounds, I was getting into awesome shape.

Meanwhile, socially, I was invited into the Aristocrats – a Hi-Y group of the school’s elite varsity athletes.  We hung out and partied with the Tri-Y girls’ groups made up of the cheer leaders, pom-pom girls, and their friends – the cutest, most popular girls in a school of over 2,000 students. Needless to say, I was thrilled. This was new territory and I loved it. I also made a new best friend: Mike Abbott.

I had met Mike in Mr. Thornton’s Honors English class in fall semester. At year end, Mike was voted best student, was valedictorian and was accepted to Stanford University.

Eating lunch every noon with the jock Hi-Y, I got to know Mike and we really hit it off. Lance Fenske, who covered sports for the school newspaper, was also part of a great bunch of guys and the school’s best athletes.

Man swimmingAs the swimming season progressed, the San Mateo Times Sports section talked about me being the best sprinter in the league. I went through the entire season undefeated until the very last duel meet against Mills high school.  In the 100 yard freestyle which I was leading, I almost completely missed the third and final turn. Only my toes touched the wall. I came to an almost complete stop. I lunged to regain my momentum. In the process my right bicep tendon popped out of the groove. The sound was sickening, the pain excruciating, and my right arm was basically paralyzed. I frantically and pathetically tried to keep swimming with just my left arm. Half way through the last 25 yards, I accepted the reality of the situation. I grabbed the lane line and hung on miserably. I was no longer undefeated. Was my season over?

The next day the orthopedic surgeon said I did not need surgery but no swimming for at least 3 months so it could heal.

I was devastated. League finals were in 2 weeks.

For the next 2 weeks I was in limbo. I went to practice and did some kicking with a kick board. But I pretty much just rested.

League finals: in the 50-yard freestyle I faced one of my best friends from San Mateo high school: Chris Jones – who had the second fastest 50 free time in the league after me. To my amazement I felt like a powerhouse.  I easily beat Chris and won the Gold medal.

My other big race that day was against my nemesis Jack Reading – the cocky sprinter from San Mateo who beat me the year before and asked the snide question, “Is that the best you can do?”

Team with medalsI improved my personal best time in the 100-yard freestyle by almost 2 seconds and won easily. I also broke the great Ted Stickles school record in the 100 free by almost half a second. I had just won my second Gold medal. I shook Jack Reading hand and told him, “Great race,” even though I had beaten him by more than a body length.

We won the league team championship over powerhouse San Mateo high school and threw Coach Vermeil in the pool.

2 weeks later, I swam in the California state championship. In the 100 free final, I swam my fastest time ever and finished fourth. The 3 guys who finished ahead of me ended up winning one or more Olympic Gold medals.

The winner Steve Clark started swimming year round at 9  years old  at the Santa Clara Swim Club – the most powerful swim club in the United States coached by Hall of Fame coach George Haines. Steve swam for Los Altos high school coached by Hall of Fame Nort Thornton. Steve’s lean, fit parents had both graduated from first class universities. Steve’s father was highly successful. Steve’s parents – mostly his mom – drove Steve to swim practice twice a day 6 days a week year-round until Steve could drive. While Steve was still in high school, he swam in the 1960 Olympics. Steve, an Honors student, got a full ride scholarship to Yale University. In 1964, Steve won 3 Olympic Gold medals. Three years after his graduation from Yale, he graduated from Harvard Law school. Steve had a highly successful career as the co-founder of a New York City law firm.

In high school, I was good local talent. At the state meet, I caught a glimpse of world class athletes and elite success. My father was a doctor’s son but partied his way out of Stanford. My mother never went to a day of college. My father was a Marine officer so he had an IQ of at least 120. They either lacked the discipline or were too neurotic to attain a high level of success. Chain smoking, stuffing them selves with sugar, up until 1am watching TV every night, and starting each day exhausted is the formula for elite success. As you will learn later, my father died of a massive heart attack at age 46.

Gold medals and swim trophy

I had a much closer glimpse of what elite success took: Mike Abbott. Mike always finished all of his home work for the weekend on Friday night before he partied. As I mentioned, Mike was Valedictorian and went to Stanford. After Stanford, Mike went to UCLA law school and became a very successful Los Angeles attorney.

At the Hillsdale high school Sports Awards night, Coach Vermeil gave me the Most Valuable Athlete (swimmer) trophy. I felt incredibly proud. Coach Vermeil later coached the St Louis Rams to Super Bowl victory – but I am getting ahead of myself.

By the way, in researching this essay, I looked up Steve Clark. He is 80 and looks great.

Thank you for listening.
As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.