(Besides, he’s done South Florida in late summer before. Nobody needs to do that twice unless they’re trying to lose weight from sweating.)
So Mr. Coach talked Little Mr. Coach and me into coming along with him, and we had a jolly time of it. There’s nothing like walking into a room full of balding or gray-haired guys and being able to still see exactly what kind of people they were back when they fit Size 28 Speedos.
Even scarier is asking someone what their event was and their answer is pretty much exactly what you would have guessed. 200 fly guys have a pensive look to them, like they’re still looking for the wall. Backstrokers are wired kind of loose, although a couple I met had swerved in a more introspective direction. Divers – still neatly tucked and pressed. Sprinters – still loopy as all get out. Interestingly I didn’t encounter any breaststrokers, which I guess means they’ve either become hermits or have a short life span.
The reason why the group was balding or graying was simple: The ISU men’s swimming and diving program was among the earliest casualties of the misapplication of Title IX. Though the Act of Congress indisputably created much-needed opportunities for female athletes in the U.S., unfortunately some schools chose (and still choose) to balance out their male and female athlete numbers by cutting sports like men’s swimming, diving, gymnastics and wrestling. ISU lopped off all of those in the early 1980s.
But these guys weren’t there to dwell on that, which is admirable. They were there to honor their old coach with equal parts affection and insults. You’d have to know their old coach to understand why. And a lot of people do.
Archie Harris is a well-known figure in U.S. and college swimming. If you don’t know him from when he swam, you know him from when he coached. If you don’t know him from his amazing work with the Easter Seals Foundation, then you know him as one of the tall old guys who have run the College Swim Coaches Forum in Ft. Lauderdale each winter for the last 128 years. Archie wasn’t the tallest of the Old Farts (as Mr. Coach affectionately and bravely dubbed them), but he was easily the loudest. And they all have an unerring sense for figuring out who the most authority-fearing and nervous member of a team is – and then going after them for imaginary infractions. They tried getting me once for bringing a glass juice bottle into the facility. OK, they were right, but they didn’t have to be so loud about it.
Archie is 86 now and he (and his wife Harriet) retired from running the Clinic about three years ago. My husband was very keen to have our son meet one of the most pivotal people in his own coaching journey. On the first night of the reunion, we gathered for a social at a hotel. Mr. Coach introduced our son to Archie who gently held his elbow and pulled him close.
“Do you say your prayers every night, young man?” Archie asked our son. And I got a little tear in my eye, watching my son nod nervously and I thought with just a hint of melancholy, “Oh dear, Archie’s finally gone soft around the edges.”
“That’s good,” Archie told him and he pulled him in even closer.
“Tonight,” he said, “when you say your prayers…I want you to get down on your knees and thank the Lord…that you take after your mother.”
Now, I ask you -- who would not want to swim for a guy like that?