In Way Over My Head

My high school times were fast enough that I attracted a small amount of interest from some college swimming programs.  As it was, I was set on the University of Illinois, which was a real family tradition.  My sisters, my folks, my grandparents and lots of cousins were at U of I, and it was the only college I applied to.  Knowing that I was going to enroll, I contacted the swimming coach, Don Sammons (who will also surely be the subject of other mentions in this blog) about trying out for the University of Illinois Swimming team.

Don is perhaps the most positive, optimistic and upbeat person who has ever lived, but he was not exactly encouraging about my prospects.  He made it clear that my high school experience was not adequate to justify a scholarship, but that he welcomed anyone to try to make the squad.  “We start lifting weights in August, we ramp up the yardage during September and October, and we have an intrasquad meet in November.  If we have to cut guys from the squad, it will be then.  This isn’t like high school – our season goes from August to March.  Then, we train for the summer!”  In a few words, I had heard the essence of Don Sammons; honest, optimistic, to the point, and absolutely fair to everyone.  Very well, I thought, and told him I would see him at the weight room, where I was quietly convinced that I would impress everyone.

While I had never lifted weights, I always felt that I was probably as strong as the next guy.  Especially with the swimming-specific weight circuit that Don had put together, not only was I not as “strong as the next guy,” the paltry weights I could move made me feel like I wasn’t even as strong as the next guy’s little brother.  I was a weak mess and, between the weights and the “ramping up the yardage,” I had never dreamed of such a workload.  All of this, on top of being a 17 year old college freshman, being away from home, trying to figure out classwork and juggling a new girlfriend, it was a busy and exhausting time.

We were approaching November and the inevitable reckoning that was to be the intrasquad meet, and I started to count heads.  I didn’t feel like I could be competitive in anything but butterfly, and my analysis of the butterflyers told me that my swimming career was about to come to an abrupt conclusion.  One of the swimmers, Greg Scott, was an All-American in the 100 butterfly; the other one, Mike Borman, was a mountain of muscle and had the times to match his rather impressive shoulders.  I was a distant third to these amazing athletes, and things were not looking good for this YMCA walk-on.

Then, another stroke of luck hit; a few days before the intrasquad meet, Borman quit.  Mike was a junior and was majoring in computer science engineering.  His class load was heavy, his girlfriend was demanding, and he told us he was running out of gas with swimming.  Mike is a terrific guy and we all hated to see him go, but if he hadn’t quit the team, I would not have made the team.  It is just that simple.  Mike’s focus on his studies led to a spectacular career at IBM.  I have tried to tell him this story a number of times, as much as anything just to thank him, but he has blown me off every time.

See you at the pool.  I will report back.