I got an email from my college swimming coach, Don Sammons, today, which follows. My answer to him is below.
I have been thinking about you a lot in the last few days, as I recall that you occupied my thoughts heavily before our swims in Tampa Bay, the English Channel and the Catalina Channel.
Part of what I think about is captured in the note you sent this morning. The words are friendly, challenging, encouraging, optimistic, and uplifting, all at once. To think that you could accomplish all of that in 18 words is as typical a Don Sammons message as any I could think of.
The other part of what I think about with respect to you is far deeper than that. I have learned so much from you.
I couldn’t even imagine the number of hours we spent together during the years that I was 17 – 21. It was two workouts and the better part of five hours a day, six days a week, from late August until March. It was weekend traveling to meets, or hosting meets in Champaign. Oh, and then there were the summer workouts that consumed May, June and July, when I remember we sometimes even had three-a-day workouts.
During those hours, I learned from you about being an athlete, being a competitor and being a man. So did my teammates, though not all of us learned willingly. For every lesson we learned about keeping our elbows up or not breathing into the wall, we learned a hundred lessons about the value of hard work, of having and executing a plan, and of sharing successes and disappointments with teammates.
After I graduated from Illinois, obviously the amount of time we actually spent together fell dramatically but the lessons learned lingered on. Through careers, families, challenges, and even back to swimming, I am never too far from a Don Sammons lesson. My family has heard those lessons, my children have been immersed in those lessons, and even my colleagues have been exposed to those lessons.
Perhaps the best lesson of all is the one that I am reminded of when I contemplate A Long Swim, and that is to recognize the power that our minds have in determining what we do, who we are, and what we can accomplish. As physically challenging as your three-a-day workouts were, the mental fortitude that was required was at least as rigorous. The distances I swim in open water can be challenging – between waves, cold, dark and wildlife – but so much of it is the mental fortitude that I would not have if it hadn’t been for you.
I remember a conversation we had when we got together several weeks after our English Channel swim in 2011. People always asked similar questions about the swim; again, waves, cold and dark being prominent among them, but you asked something completely different.
You – When did you know that you were going to make it across to France? Did you ever question yourself?
Me – You know, I never did. I knew we would make it across when I stepped into the water in England. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it to France.
You – (With fingers pointed at my temples) That’s because of right here. You are mentally strong. Powerful beyond measure.
Of course, what you didn’t realize is that the mental strength and the “powerful beyond measure” thing were all because of the lessons I learned from you. If it hadn’t been for those lessons, there would have never been a Channel swim or any number of other things that have been great blessings in my life. There is no possible way to adequately thank you for those, but I am grateful for them every day.
At the time, I was curious about your choice of the “powerful beyond measure” words, and they really stuck with me. Then, I found a quote that perfectly captured them. I don’t know if that is where you first heard them, but they really fit. Check out something that Nelson Mandela said:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
Inadequacy. Fear. Light. Darkness. Powerful beyond measure.
That is the Don Sammons legacy that literally generations of University of Illinois swimmers carry with them, many without even realizing it. On behalf of all of those swimmers, thank you. We are in for a long one on Saturday in New York, and you will never be far from my thoughts.
My best to Marilyn.
The best part of Don’s letters to me are the endings. Here are a few of my favorites from my collection: