Blessed are the Individuals

Blessed are the individuals
who have a sense of their own uniqueness
the set of gifts and talents peculiar to them
and who use those gifts
for the good of others
for they shall hear the words,
“Well done, good and faithful servant.
Enter into the joy of your master.”


When I was thrown into the role of high school swim coach in 2002, I had no idea what I was doing.

I’m sure I was a most unconventional coach. We had Wildcard Wednesday, where practice could be almost anything, and Thinking Thursday, where practice usually went homeschool-educational. (For example, one week when a hurricane was in the news, we “learned” about hurricanes. The eye of a hurricane can be 2 miles to 200 miles in diameter — so we did a 2 x 200 and they swam it fast because the winds around the eye are the strongest.)

But, honestly, I loved those girls. I loved talking to them and getting to know them — and the more I did of that, the more I realized that high school swim team isn’t about swimming. It’s about life.

I started working to impart life attitudes to them that would take them farther than their 10 week season with me.

Like all school sports, we have a rival. The rival was often spoken of in terms of evil, or like they were our enemy. I wanted to change that.

Over and over, I told my girls that after a race it was important to reach over the lane line and congratulate the girl in the next lane, no matter who won.

“That swimmer in the next lane is helping you to swim your fastest,” I told them.

We were at our rival’s pool for the championship meet. The second-to-last event in a high school meet is the 100 yard breaststroke. The meet was very close between Cooperstown and the rival team. My breaststroker, Becky, had little chance of winning. She was good, but the swimmer from the rival school was the top seed by many seconds.

Right from the start, the two swimmers were side by side. Every time rival swimmer pulled ahead, Becky pulled a little harder and brought herself even. During the last 25 yards, the screams from the stands were deafening. Those two girls were so close — and when they touched the wall, rival girl won.

Exhausted and smiling Becky reached across the lane line and congratulated the winner.

When Becky came to me after the race, she was beaming. “She helped me swim my best time” were the first words out of her mouth. Not a word about losing.

I felt like we had both won — and probably Becky was the greater winner because of what she had recognized.

By being our best, we help others to become their best.

Community and individuality walk hand-in-hand. We can’t ignore one for the other.

Becky and Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson flexing together

Top Fives

Three Top Fives of 2018.

Top five books — Les Miserables, The Hate U Give, Imitation of Christ, Conscience, and the whole series of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.

Top five places I visited — Ales Stenar (the sun-ship in Sweden), Troldhaugen (Edvard Grieg’s home in Bergen, Norway), kayaking in a fjord (Gudvangen, Norway), Laity Lodge (with my husband!), and Charleston, SC (with Mary).

Ales Stenar

Edvard Grieg’s composing house

Kayaking in a fjord

Threshold at Laity Lodge

Mary and her French toast at Toast! in Charleston

Top five encouraging moments. (I want 2019 to be the year where I practice encouragement, so I’m trying to learn from looking back.)

1. Andrew Peterson — at Laity Lodge (which is the nearest place to heaven I know in the United States). After insulting Andrew (I think I told him that he looked nerdy in his glasses — and then I wondered why on earth I said such a thing), I finally bolstered the courage (thanks in large part to my friend, Kim) to ask him about the possibility of a caregiving session at Hutchmoot.

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “Check in with Pete (his brother) in a couple of months when we’re starting to plan out the sessions.”

I’m an idea person — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had ideas shut down right from the start. It can be crushing. Even if an idea is totally wacky, encouragers can see the glimmer of good in it and water the seed a little. Andrew did that for me.

I already knew that Andrew was an encourager. At my very first retreat at Laity Lodge, when I was saying my good-byes, Andrew touched my arm and said, “You have important things to say. Don’t ever doubt that.”

2. Rachel Speer Donahue — Well, I did the session at Hutchmoot.

I was so full of doubt about my tiny portion of it. I had sent the written text of it to my friend, Alyssa, who also is an encourager. Her words helped me go through with the whole thing. (Seriously — up to the last minute, I considered politely bowing out.) Afterwards, my mental replays of my portion were all of me babbling. (Side note: I saw a book recently called, “Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk” and I wished I had read the book before Hutchmoot.)

Enter Rachel. After Hutchmoot, the guy who puts together the photo book put out a call for quotes. Rachel was an early responder — and she quoted ME. I was horrified and honored at the same time. The horror has long since subsided, and I go back to that moment over and over. Rachel sat in on my session and valued what I said enough to quote me. It was a HUGE encouragement.

3. Jonathan Rogers — I’ve taken a number of writing classes from Jonathan Rogers. The best thing about his classes are the critiques he gives to the submitted assignments. He is blunt and honest. Jonathan has told me when things I have written are unclear or, worse, boring. He’s always right on the money.

Jonathan recently started a subscription website of writing advice called Field Notes for Writers. I HIGHLY recommend it.

He asked me if he could use one of my pieces for an exercise he calls “Line Edits.” With great fear and trepidation, I gave permission, but when I watched the video of his edits of my piece, “Old Porch,” I was so touched. Seeing my writing through his eyes was such an encouragement.

You, too, can receive encouragement from Jonathan by taking any of his upcoming classes or attending his free monthly webinar.

4. Elizabeth Dunn — We’ve been attending Methodist churches for five or six years now (maybe more). I am NOT a cradle Methodist and honestly don’t understand the inner workings of the Methodist Church. I had never been to a “Charge Conference” until this year.

At the Charge Conference, Bishop Webb came and heard the reports from the various committees in the church. Then he asked for people to share what good things were going on in the Cooperstown Methodist Church. The first person to speak was Elizabeth. She said, “Sally Zaengle has been playing her flute during church and it really adds something special.”

Let me back up to say, yes, I play the flute, but not terribly well. It’s something I do for fun — and more, it’s something that helps me worship. I believe music is a language God speaks.

When Elizabeth acknowledged my playing and that it blessed her — that was so encouraging. Even with all my bloopers, it adds something positive to the worship.

5.Lisa Birdsall and Kristen Griger — My role changed with the swim team this year. With my father declining, I couldn’t commit to coaching again. It made me a little sad, but Lisa (the Aquatics Director) and Kristen (the head coach) found a new role for me — team registrar. As team registrar, I handle all the athlete registrations as well as all the meet entries.

I love my new job! I love learning new things and I can do much of the work from home. Additionally, I’ve been working to educate the new parents on the ins and outs of swimming by holding informational meetings and sending out regular newsletters.

Lisa arranged for me to have an email address with the facility. While that sounds like a small thing, it really isn’t. I’m the only part-time person with a Clark Sports Center email and the recipient of the last email address available on their server.

Not only that, but Lisa started referring to an empty office there as my office. My office. Of course, it’s not my office yet. Someone else needs it while some work is being done outside her office. But I’ve never had an office before. I may still never have the office. You never know.

But the thought of an office is an encouragement. And the email address is a reality — a real work email.

You really never know where encouragement will come from.

In 2019, I hope a little encouragement will come from me.

Encourager or Discourager

Last week, I sat at the timing table in my effort to learn how to run the computer for swim meets.

The woman on my right was the embodiment of sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice. She was genuine, kind, enthusiastic, and, like me, new and a little overwhelmed by the goings-on at the table.

The woman on my left was a pro. She had been working the table for many years. She was calm and unflustered, even when things got crazy.

Pool acoustics are never great, so neither woman could not hear what the other was saying.

Sugar-and-spice nudged my elbow during the 50 Free. “See that boy over there?” She nodded at a swimmer in the far lane. “I wish I had taken a video of him on the first day of practice,” she said. “He could barely swim. Look at him go!”

I watched the boy thrashing at the water slowly making his way down the pool far behind the other swimmers.

On my other side Ms. Pro said, “Oh, God! I don’t know why they allow that kid to swim! He moves in inches! This is going to take forever!”

Behind her, a young woman echoed her sentiments. “His stroke is awful! Look at him. He’s not cupping his hands!”

Sugar-and-spice said again, “He’s doing so well!”

Ms. Pro groaned at his slow progress.

I felt like I was sitting with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, one focusing on what the swimmer could do and the other focusing on everything he couldn’t.

I told Laurel about it on the car ride home. “I know which one I want to be,” I said.

Later that night — midnight to be exact — I was up with my father. He had changed mostly out of his pajamas and had his shoes on. That night’s self-donned wardrobe consisted of four layers of shirts, one-and-a-half layers of pants (don’t ask), three socks on one foot, and a single compression stocking on the other.

“Dad,” I complained, “what are you doing?!”

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said.

After getting him changed into his pajamas and back to bed, I lay in my own bed thinking about the swim meet, and how easily I became the person I didn’t want to be. I was frustrated with what my father.

“Lord,” I prayed, “help me appreciate the fact that he can still put on a compression stocking — because that’s hard. He can still tie his shoes. He can still walk. And talk. And feed himself.”

I fell back asleep counting his abilities.

Two hours later he was up again. And I forgot again.

“Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to get some sleep!” By which I meant I need sleep.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he said.

And I remembered again the boy with uncupped hands struggling down the pool. I remembered Sugar-and-spice cheering him on.

Again I prayed. “Thank you, Lord, for my father. Help me help him. Help me give back to him a little of the lifetime of caring he has given to so many. Thank you for the lessons that he still teaches me. And thank you that he’s back to sleep.”

For now, I thought, and smiled.

Change

Some of my swimmers dabbing at practice. I love these kids.

When I walked into the pool area yesterday, one of my swimmers was waiting for me. She looked up at me with doleful eyes. The corners of her mouth were turned down. Way down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, crouching down to talk with her.

She pressed her lips together and I could see her lower lip quivering.

“Is this because you moved up?” I asked. Technically, she wasn’t my swimmer anymore. She had moved up to the next group.

Almost imperceptibly, she nodded yes.

“Aw, Genna*,” I said, “we talked about this the other day. You are so ready to be part of the Orange group. Plus Coach Katy is super-fun, so much more fun than I am.”

She looked up at me doubtfully.

“Don’t worry about the warm-up. Coach Katy will tell you what to do,” I told Genna. “It’s different from ours, but you can do it.”

I was running out of encouraging/reassuring things to say to this sad little girl who obviously didn’t like change.

“Coach Sally,” she finally said in a tiny voice. I leaned in to hear what she had to say. “Coach Katy doesn’t have lollipops like you do.”

I laughed. At the beginning of the season, Genna had hung back, hesitant to try anything.

“What can I do to motivate her?” I asked her sister one day.

“Candy,” she replied.

I bought a bag of dum-dums. They were magical.

Yesterday I whispered to Genna, “I’ll give some lollipops to Coach Katy. Would that be good?”

Immediately her face brightened and off she went with her new coach. I sighed and headed to my lanes where my swimmers were already warming-up.

I studied the swimmers who were in the water. “Where’s Bern*?” I asked.

Bern had just moved into my group. Katy spotted him and brought him over to me. He stood shivering beside me, chewing on his goggle strap.

“They’re finishing their warm-up,” I told him. “You can get in and do 100 freestyle. We’ll be moving on to something else soon.”

He didn’t respond. His expression was inscrutable as he stared at the water and chewed his goggles.

“Do you know any of the other kids in this group?” I asked.

He took his goggle strap out of his mouth. “I don’t want to warm up,” he said.

“Warm-ups are important,” I said, and was about to launch into a mini-treatise on warming up when his mother came into the pool area and called him over.

Bern went over, stood in front of her, and immediately burst into tears.

I backed away. I had a dozen or so kids in the water who needed attention. Mom could talk to Bern.

I handed out kickboards and explained what we would be doing.  The kids started their kick set. Every so often I looked back at Bern. He and his mother were having quite a têteà-tête. Finally I saw Bern drying his tears.

Soon his newly-dried face wouldn’t matter because he jumped in the water and started swimming. He did fine.

At the end of practice his mother told me, “Bern doesn’t like change.”

“Neither do I,” I told her.

She said, “He told me, ‘I don’t care about swimming fast. I just want to swim with my brothers.'” His two younger brothers were still in the group he had graduated from.

With that, I appreciated Bern so much more.

We all hold onto things that are sweet and dear.

For Genna, it’s candy.

For Bern, it’s his brothers.

For me, it’s a thousand little things I want to freeze in time instead of watching my father age.

But time marches on, and change comes with it.

It will be okay.

 

*not their real name

 

 

Streamline

I repeat the word “streamline” at least a dozen times every I’m on the deck.  I probably say it in my sleep.

What I mean by streamline is what Michael Phelps is doing in this picture:

It’s pretty straightforward (no pun intended).

A couple of seasons ago I showed my swimmers the Michael Phelps picture, and then photographed them imitating it. I got quite a few variations on the streamline theme.



We work on streamline at every single practice.

I demonstrate while standing on the deck. I show them pictures. I stand behind them on deck and squeeze their little arms against their head, holding them in the correct position. I have them watch other swimmers in the pool who are doing it correctly. Still, streamline is a struggle and ends up in conversations like this:

Me (speaking to Cute Little Swimmer –or CLS — after watching her forget to streamline): Hey, CLS — when you leave the wall for backstroke, I want you to hold your streamline.

CLS: I do.

I watched her again, and then tried different words to explain it to her.

Me: When you leave the wall for backstroke, you’re doing a good job getting those arms up into streamline, but what you’re doing immediately after is pulling them to your side.

CLS: No, I don’t.

Me (pretending I didn’t hear that): This time really think about holding your arms above your head until you’re ready to take that first stroke.

The next time, I took pictures. Here she is, leaving the wall. Her arms were heading towards streamline.But then she disappeared under the water, and I couldn’t see what was happening.

When I saw her right arm, it was out to the side. Not in streamline.

Then both arms were at her side.
She tried to get them back up into streamline.

But she pulled them down again.

When she came back to the wall, I showed her the pictures.

She looked at them, rather disbelievingly.

“I can’t do it,” she finally said to me. “I have asthma.”

It was my turn for disbelief.

Once I had a swimmer tell me she couldn’t kick at practice because she had gotten new boots. “My feet are still getting used to them,” she said. But she obviously wasn’t wearing her boots in the pool. And her feet looked fine.

I’ll keep working on streamline with my group.

At every practice.

Some day maybe CLS will get it.

The Perfect Job

My home away from home. At 5:30 AM, so serene.

“It must be boring,” said one of the swimmers this morning, “just watching people swim back and forth.”

No. It really isn’t. Something about the rhythmic splash-splash-splash of a single person swimming down the pool is very Zen — and I say that in the most Christian way possible.

It’s meditative. Contemplative.

Add in a few more swimmers, each with their own rhythm of splashes, and it’s a trio, a quartet, a quintet.

Musical.

Quiet.

Calming.

I also love my co-workers. I hadn’t realized how much I missed people, until I was spending time in quiet conversation with another lifeguard every weekday morning.

When I go back later in the day to coach, the atmosphere is totally different.

Confusion. Cacophony. Unbridled energy.

Forty to fifty swimmers fill the lanes. The youngest group splashes with their coach in the shallow teaching pool working on skills, or playing a game, or both. A couple of other swimmers practice a specific skill or do a late warm-up in the diving pool. Young swimmers are everywhere.

This, too, is perfect for me. The hustle-bustle-excitement of coaching. Both frustrating and rewarding. A puzzle to solve as I try to figure out what makes each child tick. I watch to see what skills they need to develop, and I fall asleep thinking about how to help one swimmer learn to dive, and another master the breaststroke kick.

Three hours a day. That’s all I work at a paying job.

Don’t tell them — but I think I would do it for free.

Two hours of quiet. One hour of craziness.

A perfect ratio.

And the perfect change of pace to balance out my time as a caregiver.

How did I get so lucky?