I spent the 2017-2018 off season working hard, sports fans. Real. Damned. Hard. It turns out that getting repeatedly punched in the mouth with one simple truth was, in fact, effective. It wasn't a secret what was holding me back athletically - I was too heavy. But I needed the synergy of disappointing race results, righteous anger, and reading some very compelling research on the topic to get me launched into action.
Fast forward a few months. It became evident that I do have the option of a body that makes sense for racing bikes, so I decided that I might just as well max out the prospects. Use it while you got it! Since it was clear to me that losing weight is a largely mental task, I embraced that and started working harder on other mental aspects of racing.
If you haven't read "The Brave Athlete" yet, it's a recommended read. Some of it is page-turner, self-evident, almost pop psych-y stuff, but there are some super useful nuggets, too. I especially enjoyed the worksheets and activities because they forced you to stop nodding and agreeing and page-turning and actually DO something. And the one that I really got into was creating an athletic alter ego.
My alter ego - named "Maisie Rose", as a nod to Red Pearl Racing - is an older-but-wiser, slightly rockabilly, version of Storm Large. I was working through her details, realized what she's struggled with and through, and tried to conjure up a picture of what she was going to look like, and who she reminded me of who'd touched me IRL.
And it came flooding back. The person that I absolutely want to be my hero, athletically, is Paula Parmenter. Paula was our swim coach. Sure, Bob, and sure, Jim, but - Paula was our swim coach - the "summer-only" swim kids who struggled with flip turns, had lousy technique, and were out there trying anyway. We were the Lake Forest Marlins - a summer pool and tennis association that put up a swim team to get the kids moving and keep them out of trouble.
Paula had swagger. She could twirl the whistle at the exactly right, hypnotic, speed - and retrieve it in a split second to scare the shit out of that kid who had the nerve to run on HER pool deck. Her signature sunglasses were huge and mirrored-green. You couldn't see her eyes behind the lenses - but you could feel them smile or scowl. Her voice was big and strong and had a Lot. Of. Bass. I don't recall ever seeing her pick up the megaphone. She didn't need it.
To top it all off, she was physically imposing. Like Storm Large imposing. Tall, strong, blonde, tanned, badass. She stood out enough that my mom, the ultimate keeper of the patriarchy, tut-tutted over it: "Such a pretty girl, but so tall! Too bad...." Mom would always trail off there, but we knew. And we didn't care. And - so far as we could tell, neither did Paula. We never saw a second of her life wasted worrying. She just went about the business of sweet, sweet badassery.
Paula's real calling was coaching her "littles" - the 8-Unders - through their first races All The Way Across the Pool. She got them over their fear of the starting blocks. Sometimes she had to remind them to touch the other end so the clock would stop. She never refused a tiny, very wet, very noisy hug from a "little" who had just finished a race and was so proud of themselves. She was genius at making little kids proud of themselves. Appropriately proud, mind you - proud of real things that they had done all by themselves, with improvements duly celebrated and "here's how to make it even better" graciously offered. You're more likely to improve if you know you've already done something worth being proud of.
I showed up on the team when I was 12 - a woefully late starter even by 1970's casual swim team standards. We were new to the neighborhood and we'd never lived somewhere that had access to a pool before, so I was a total newb. But although I was a raw recruit I was pretty determined, and there was a hole in a couple of relays that I could fill, and - hell, it was summer swim team and we were pool members. It wasn't like they weren't going to take me.
Since I was struggling to keep up with the other kids my age, I ended up in Paula's "extra help" lane. She was kind and encouraging - but the firm kind of "kind and encouraging" that doesn't give you the impression that you've got a lot of options besides "Do this and get better". She got me pointed in the right direction, and very patiently got me over my insane fears about flip turns. I never got good at them - I managed a grudging, wadded-up somersault on a good day - but I was damned if I was going to be scared of them around Paula. Fake it 'till you make it....
Once I got the hang of it, summer swim team was a blast. We practiced during my favorite part of the day - the quiet, early morning, before the pool opened for the regular crowd. I got to ride my bike over to the pool - sheer freedom, back in the days of no helmet(!), no shoes(!!), and no bike locks (mostly). Even kids like me, who basically sucked, could find a roster spot that would go unfilled if you weren't there. We won our share of meets. When we won, we got to toss the coaches into the pool, which they accepted with good grace. It's summer. It's Indiana. It's hotter than hell. No one minds going in the pool - just make sure Paula has time to take off her sunglasses....We played Sharks and Minnows after practice more often than not. Having fun while working hard helps you improve.
And then Paula died. April 22, 1978. Forty years ago. She was a passenger in a car that got hit head-on, on a weekend night out. She was 24. Gone. We were all in shock. My mom took us to the memorial service. I don't remember much about it, just a lot of little kids trying like hell to be brave and not cry.
Summer rolled back around, but swim team lost a lot of its joy, especially for those of us who'd been there Before. No one really wanted to warm up to the New Coach Who Wasn't Paula. But eventually, thank goodness, we did. Sport has a way of bringing people together.
If she were alive, Paula would be 64 years old now. Still 10 years older than me, but a bridgeable age difference. I'd really like to know what she was like now, take her out for a beer and thank her for having been an amazing 24-year-old - but I can't. As radically improbable as it seems, someone who was in my life for a few weeks a year, for a few summers, showed up on my ultra-deep radar as being really important. That's worth thinking - and talking - about. We are important. Even if we think our lives are incomplete and messed up, what we've done and what we're doing is going to matter, if we let it.
So - let it. You go, Maisie Rose. Be someone's legend.