Looking back over this year 2008 (1st of 2 posts). . .

Someone asked: “So Jim, you live such a full and busy fulfilled life, what are some special memories from this year for you?” which got me to thinking.  Yes, I have been blessed with so many special moments, and this got me to thinking.  Surprisingly two jumped out rather easily, so I share them here for your enjoyment.

Moment #1: Swimming at the 2008 US Transplant Games

Having been a non-athlete (meaning I never swim to win against those real athletes, rather just to prove I can and show the world that “transplantation works” which is the reason behind the Games in the first place) competing in the swimming every Games since 1996 (the first year I was eligible after my 1994 heart transplant), how could this year have been any different?  Well, surprisingly it really was.

Winning the bronze in Badminton 2008

Winning the bronze in Badminton 2008

A little insight first. Yes, I have done swimming in all those past six Games, but in each case for some unknown reason that swim has been an event of terror.  As I often share, I do know how to swim, having been taught how to swim by an aborigine (i.e., that’s an Australian native) while living in Australia back when I was 6 or 7 years old (in a community pool with the Pacific Ocean about 100 yards away).  My father loved to swim and I can still see him gliding through the gentle waves in our home movies of those years in Australia (just had to keep a watch out for the sharks that often caused the life guards to empty the waters).  For whatever reason, from the time I began to swim “competively” (and I do use that term loosely!) at the Games, I have found myself overcome with fear once I hit the water, especially since I never had previously dove into the pool from a diving block as they do at these events.  In 1996 I was so afraid of falling into the pool as we lined up to wait for the starting gun, that I missed the start!  I thought it was going to be “Ready, Set, On your Marks, GO!! “bang!” but learned the hard way, in front of the huge crowd, that its just “Ready? “bang!” and everyone is diving into the pool, except me!  I hear shouts of “Get in the water Jim!” and so I jump and found myself under water immediately thinking, “Do I have my swim trunks still on?” (checking, I do, thankfully!), then immediately thinking “Do I still have my dentures in?” (checking, I do…) and then thinking, “I’ve got to breathe!!” and so I surface to gasp for breath and start swimming.  I’m scared I’m not going to make it to the other end of the 25M pool.  I’m hyperventilating and scared as I’m going into full panic mode, realizing I’m in the middle of this pool and nowhere’s near anyplace to grab onto and get out!  Without a choice, I continue to swim and eventually (seems like forever) reach the far end, still with no way to get out, so push off to return to the finish end 25M away.  Now I’m really panicking as I am out of breath, keeping my head too much out of the water to keep from drowning, and swimming for dear life (this new heart about beating out of my chest) to reach that finish line and just get out of this pool.  Finally, I am there, out of breath, no ladder to climb out with, a video camera and mike thrust into my face as someone asks, “So Jim, how was it?” I can’t even hold my breath to bob under the lane ropes to move four lanes over to that ladder.  Anyway, I had made it somehow and it felt great to have accomplished it.  No records – just alive to swim another day.  That was back in 1996.  Either that year, or was it the next Games in 1998, I made the front page of the national news in USA Today‘s Sports section, swimming in full color as part of an article about the Games and having had a heart transplant.

Sports page, USA Today, 1998

Sports page, USA Today, 1998

So even this “non-athlete” could serve the cause of raising awareness with his swim offering inspiration across the nation.  If only they really knew this story as I just shared it with you here.  (Now I know you may be laughing, and it sure does seem funny in relating it here over a dozen years and 6 more Games later, but at the time it was a traumatic experience, and maybe that’s the basis for what has happened every swimming event since).

Even in swimming practice, now that I finally do have a place (the local YMCA) to practice (I only swam once every other year year at the Games, no practices, no warm ups), I have found myself swimming with a deep sense of fear, but despite that panic in my heart, I get to the pool end and stop to catch my breath and try to calm down before turning and swimming back to the other end again.  Sure, I can just float if I stopped, and I am good at floating, so there’s no rational reason for that fear, its just there.  So that’s how I came into the 2008 Games to swim again, just in the 50M freestyle (since I have no “style” to speak of, that’s my event, the “freestyle”), having learned the hard way in 2006 that I really can’t do the 100M (I had entered that distance by mistake back then and wasn’t about to make that mistake again!)  Yes, I finished, and even won a medal for it in 2006 – a fluke of the age brackets when three others dropped out of that competition, making me one of the three who actually swam – well actually I doggie-paddled for at least one of those four laps but that’s the freedom of doing freestyle –  hence won a third place bronze medal (for not drowning!).

But here I was back again in July of 2008 in Pittsburgh for the 50M freestyle event again.  This time I had actually practiced  but still that fear was there.  I hung out around the pool waiting for my event, cheering on the others who were the real athletes and true competitors, swimming for the gold!  I nervously chatted with friends, especially a couple of young teens whom I knew from our transplant world back home.  When I shared my past nervousness with them, I was surprised to hear Joelle share that she too was often scared as she entered the event.  Well, long story short, this 19 year old friend took me under her wing and offered words of encouragement, offering to be a cheerleader along side the pool as I swam.

cheerleader and swim coach, Joelle

cheerleader and swim coach, Joelle

It was time, our event was called to stage.  Then it was time to walk out in the lineup along the diving blocks to take our places for that dreaded starting gun shot.  I took a deep breath in and felt a calmness I had never known before at this point.  Joelle had taught me that I didn’t have to use that slanted elevated starting block, rather I could just jump in from the side of the pool – that made a big difference for me.  “Bang!” and we were off – I dove cleanly into the blue waters and went a good distance underwater, finally surfacing but without the usual panic for air.  Stroke after stroke I swam as my dad used to do down there off the shores of Australia (without any sharks to worry about!), feeling comfortable.  No racing heart.  No shortness of breath.  No panic setting it. I just kept swimming, hearing the cheering from my two new friends along the side of the pool  For once I had the outermost lane, so there was no fear that I couldn’t grab the side of the pool if I needed to (but this time that never entered my mind).  Instead of reaching the end of the race in panic, I felt I could have turned around and continued to swim another 50M.  Wow, how different this experience was from those others.  It was fun.  It was so good!!

No I didn’t win any medal this time (despite being in an age bracket that offered such possibilities again, but too many were competing), but bettered by 2006 time by over two minutes, and that felt so good too.  I thank by new swim coach, Joelle, for sharing her own spirit and life to make this year what it was, a fun event for the first time.  I can’t wait for the 2010 Games to be held in Madison, WI.  See you there.  Meanwhile, checkout the video below and don’t miss the beautiful sounds of cheering from the sidelines, especially Angel Fox with the bull horn! – yes, that’s me in the closest lane . . .

So, what’s the other moment of 2008, you ask, just check out the next blog post to find out . . .

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