Every day, Mr. Coach shows his gratitude to the athletes in his life by swimming the living snot out of them. Fortunately for him, they’re a lot kinder when they show him their gratitude.
Often, at season’s end, they show their gratitude with restaurant gift certificates (and free babysitting, always clutch). Once it was tickets for both of us to see a Broadway touring production of "Les Miserables" (if there was a subliminal message with that one, we’re ignoring it). Even after they graduate, Mr. Coach’s swimmers keep expressing gratitude for his having swum the living shot out of them. One gal, Kde, asked her wedding guests to donate money to her alma mater’s new pool in lieu of gifts. Seriously.
But, as I sit here right now in a hotel room, watching the opening ceremonies from the Beijing Olympics (the "fam" and I are in Indianapolis for a swim meet, but of course), I can’t help but remember one of the most unusual ways a swimmer expressed her gratitude for all the pain and suffering Mr. Coach inflicted upon her. (Interesting opening ceremonies, by the way, but Little Mr. Coach called it when he said those poor Hungarian women looked like they walked through a paintball game to get there.)
Molly’s expression of gratitude involved making Mr. Coach fly 2,260 miles, put on an outfit that made him look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, then run a quarter-mile in single-digit winter weather through a dicey part of town. In other words, she successfully nominated him to carry the Olympic torch during the relay leading up to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Appropriately there was a swimming-related complication to the whole event. When Mr. Coach found out in fall 2001 that he had been chosen, he realized the date of the relay’s transit in the city where he was assigned to run it would fall smack-dab in the middle of his college team’s winter training trip in Fort Lauderdale. He hesitated for a moment until I gently pointed out he’d have to be missing a frontal lobe or two to turn down an honor like this.
So he drilled his assistant coach on the intricacies of keeping 40 college swimmers alive for 36 hours and then booked his round-trip tickets from and to Fort Lauderdale. Back home, I organized a caravan of friends and family to join us when Mr. Coach returned for the torch relay. And what a memorable relay it was.
After depositing Mr. Coach at the meeting spot for the relay participants, the caravan of family and friends set up camp at a pizza joint near where he was slated to do his leg of the relay. He would travel there in one of those buses like you see in airport parking lots.
It was a bitterly cold evening, so the parents sent the kids outside to occasionally see how close the news helicopter search lights were getting. Finally the advance vehicles started arriving. Highly perky young men and women jumped out of vans and began heaving bottles of soda into the crowd, beaning a few of the less observant spectators.
Before they knew it, the mini-bus with the relay participants showed up and out popped Mr. Coach, holding something that looked like a yard-long, saber-toothed tiger fang. A few minutes later a woman walking slowly and savoring every second of her time with the flame sauntered up to Mr. Coach, tipped her torch towards his, lighting it. And then he took off. Like a bat out of hell.
The caravan of family and friends and I looked at each other, slack-jawed because our plans to jog alongside Mr. Coach were disappearing rapidly into the winter darkness. One of my friends grabbed Little Mr. Coach, then a three-year-old, from me.
"Go, go!" he yelled, so I abandoned my son and took off after my husband, camera in hand. Alas, I did not reach him in time to get a picture (though he certainly got an earful from me later), but a pair of his college athlete’s parents had had the presence of mind to set up camp at his end point and they got some video of Mr. Coach sprinting in with his torch and passing the flame to the next participant. The rest of the caravan arrived a few minutes later and Mr. Coach, now done with his relay duties, walked back to the pizza joint with everyone, explaining why he taken the whole relay concept so literally.
"Before I got out of the bus," he said, "the organizers told me that they were running behind on time and they asked me if I could help them out, so I said, ‘Sure!’"
So now you know that when that Olympic torch got to Salt Lake City on time, Mr. Coach played a major role. And for that, his country undoubtedly owes him a big thank-you (though hopefully with free babysitting).