Stubby Isham was a swimming coach. Perhaps, people called him "Stubby" because his strong, chiseled physique was packed into a man of short stature. His fleecy white hair and beard were the only clues that he was closer to age 60 than age 20 . His agile mind and body kept pace with the dozens of children swarming around him each summer for swimming lessons and swim team practice. Along with the finer points of the American Crawl, Stubby taught important life lessons in very simple ways.
The moist smell of chlorine-tinged air still sends me back to the days when I knew this master teacher. I loved to swim and took to beginners lessons like a grateful fish thrown into the water by a benevolent fisherman. Stubby taught all the beginners, clapping and coaxing as each guppy-like child blew bubbles or kicked vigorously while clinging to the pool's splash gutter. The only bad thing about swimming lessons was the dreaded Red Cross swimming test that allowed me to move from beginners to advanced beginners. I don't know if anyone else feared this event as I did. All I know is that I couldn't successfully pass one of these prescribed ordeals, no matter how much I loved to swim.
One day, I overheard my Mom tell Stubby, "she has a testing block." I now know what she meant but as a six year old, I imperfectly decided she was saying that I wasn't able to pass a test. He looked in my direction and said quietly, "She'll be fine."
Just before one of the awful trials was to begin, Stubby asked if I would assist him with the test. Anxious to help, I quickly said "yes" and ran to get his clipboard and whistle from the front office. When I returned, Stubby said, "Oh my, there's a swimming cap out in the middle of the pool. Would you go get it for me." I splashed to the task and retrieved the flowery rubber object from the deep end. When I climbed out of the water, the crafty trickster smiled from ear to ear, "Congratulations, you've just passed your swimming test!" Stubby wisely knew that strong aspiration could overcome fear. His twinkling observant eyes had noticed my desire to help and guessed it was stronger than my fear of failing. This lesson was merely the first of many Stubby taught.
By age eight, I was a proud member of the local swim team. Stubby was the coach. He put us through our paces, lap after lap. We were timed as we raced against one another and instructed on ways to decrease our time. I was determined to beat the two best swimmers in my age group. After one timed race, Stubby pulled me out of the water, his eyebrows knit into a puzzled look, "What were you doing?"
I stammered, out of breath, "I don't know ... what do you mean?"
"The whole time you were swimming you had your head high up out of the water and you were looking around," he explained, "that took precious seconds off your time. To swim fast you have to keep your head low and in the water as much as you can."
"But ... but ... Stubby," I insisted, "I had to see where Peggy and Margaret were if I am ever going to beat them."
Stubby's eyes widened with understanding, "Oh, that's what you were up to." He laughed, "Your job is not to beat Peggy or Margaret. Your job is to beat yourself ... your last best time. That's how you win."
To an eight year old, the coach's logic seemed flawed. I did what he said, despite my doubts. In the next big statewide meet, his wisdom was again revealed. Not only did I beat my two most challenging competitors, I even broke a record! I learned to swim my own race that summer. A simple message, comparing yourself to others slows you down. Your job is to strive to do better than you did the last time--pretty elementary when you think about it.
Stubby was a role model, before I even knew I was looking for one. In my late teens, I returned to the same pool where I had known him to work as a life-guard and a swimming instructor. I loved to work with the children who were afraid of the water. Watching them change from crying fear-filled conscientious objectors to confident water creatures made my job fun. Though Stubby had died years before, his words echoed in my voice as I taught the essential water skill of floating. Frightened floaters sink like rocks. Stubby's words still hold true, "The secret is to trust the water ... if you let it, it will hold you up without even trying." His philosophy of water levitation was a form of fundamental theology for me. The living water of my faith has buoyed me up as surely as the constant waves of the pool in which I taught Stubby's simple truths.
My recollections of my swimming days brought yet another Stubby lesson to mind. His skill in turning ordinary occurrences into life-long learning taught me a lot about meaning. The meaning that can be found in the simplest of things. All too often, miracles are sought in blinding flashes rather than in the subtle ripples of ordinary events. Thanks, coach.
Copyright Mary Ewing Rixford, M.A.,LMFT, LPC, 2002, All rights reserved.