I’m normally not one of those who sits around and thinks about the past. But, as I’ve always said, we are where we’ve been. I always say that to folks because of the fact that I’m a drug addict and alcoholic, and I’m a Jesus freak, saved by grace to serve The King of Kings – Jesus Christ. He uses all of our experiences, our weaknesses, for His purposes. In other words, in God’s economy, bad things are used for good. That’s not an equation that any human being could come up with!
So, I had a dream last night that I was at a swim meet searching for my Lakewood Aquatic Club (LAC) team mates. In many ways, my years at LAC were the highlight of my young life. If there was any such thing as a “defining time” for a young person, then that was it for me. I had been a swimmer for as long as I could remember. In fact, my mother tells me that after I fell into the pool at our house a couple times, she and my daddy put me in swimming lessons at the age of 2. I was swimming before my earliest memories in other words. At first, they chased me around the pool, but eventually, I took to the water like a fish. I swam my first competition at the age of 4.
When I was 6, and I remember this, they took me to an “Invitational” event in Long Beach. I went past the trophy table, saw the biggest one and said “I’m getting THAT one.” And I did. I was a good swimmer, a fast swimmer, naturally talented I guess. But, my personality proved to be a detriment in some ways. At age 6 I was swimming with Marianne Thompson, a good coach, but not an AAU coach. So, when I turned 7, we went to a club where Ralph Zwolsman was the coach, Aquamarine in Manhattan Beach. We used to work out at Aviation High School and it was the first time I had two workouts a day. While there, I met most of the friends who I was to have all the way through High School. Those young fellows and I swam together every day, we played together on weekends, had sleepovers at each other’s houses, and all the normal kind of stuff kids do.
My daddy, I have related in other stories, was very much into my swimming. I don’t get it, the only thing that registered on me was that I was _not_ going to push my kids in sports. It’s just a basic difference in personality I guess. The one thing I remember is that when I was 10, in 6th grade I think it was, I wanted to quit swimming and do “other” things. I had no idea what those “other” things were, I just wanted out. I wanted to have my _own_ life I think. In some ways, those were the first symptoms of rebellion in my young life. I was very resentful that I had no choice in what it was I did, I was always swimming it seemed. In fact, most of my memories of those early years of my life up to that time were about swimming.
So, I stayed at Aquamarine Swim Club until I was 10. We swam one race as a relay team that year, it was the last possible race as 9-10 year olds for many of us, and we set a National Record. Unfortunately, and this happens a lot, I got so excited that I jumped in the water after the race to celebrate with my team mates, but the other relay teams had not finished yet, so we got disqualified. Very sad. As I said, it happened a lot, it happened years later to a team mate of mine, only she was at the Olympic Trials. Anyhow, what happened was Ralph (our coach) was a very crotchety old fellow, he used to grab us by an arm, or a leg, or our hair (we kept it very short for that reason!) or our ears, and yank us out of the water and he’d say: “No! No! No! Not like that, like this!” And he’d show you how the stroke was supposed to be done. He was very physically rough on us, but we were boys, and it didn’t really hurt us. In fact, I think that kind of rough treatment is good for boys – it certainly never hurt me, and it did make me tougher.
Anyhow, he never really displayed “fondness” or anything like that for any of us kids. There were as many girls on the team as there were boys, but he only treated us boys roughly like that. The girls did well in swim meets, including my sister. But she decided she didn’t want to swim any more, she would have been 14 at the time, so I went in one day to workout and told him my sister was quitting. He got mad and said to me “Well then you get the hell outta here too!” Not a very nice thing to say to a 10 year old, but then, nobody should have had me tell him that my sister had quit either.
So, he did apologize later for that, and asked me to come back, but my mother and father got upset at him and we had already found a new club – Jerry Astorian’s club in Culver City, the name of which I cannot even remember right now. There were some really good swimmers on that club, including Kiki Vandeweghe whose daddy was a former New York Knickerbocker, and whose mother was a former Miss America. Kiki swam for a couple more years on that team with me, his sister became my “first” girlfriend, and then he went on to play basketball like his dad. Since that time, he’s gone on to now be a General Manager in the NBA, over my now home team – the Denver Nuggets – of all things!
Anyhow, I swam there in Culver City for a couple years, it wasn’t really memorable other than the fact that I was introduced to “girls” there, and then I got myself kicked off that team. I basically got kicked off the team for laziness, though you might see it otherwise. One of the mom’s on the team certainly did! We worked out at this place that had a 50m pool, and I became friends with this one fellow who was very lazy. I was always easily corrupted it seems. Anyhow, we used to like to get out of the pool and go stand in the hot showers. It was just something to do, in order to not work out so hard I guess. We all hated working out, it was hard work (duh!). I was poorly motivated in those 2 years at Culver City in other words.
So, there was a time when they cut off the hot water to the boy’s locker room, so we just hopped over to the girl’s locker room and took showers with them. The girls all had stalls for changing, it wasn’t any big deal to them, but one day a mom walked in and saw us in there and she freaked. Rightfully so actually. I got canned from that team, ultimately when the coach found out that we were just using the showers, we weren’t really doing anything “weird” (we weren’t – all the girls defended us) he asked me back to the team, but I’d already moved to a new team – Lakewood Aquatic Club.
I was 12 years old, a victim of my own success, a goof off, but I still had a ton of talent, and it was very raw at that point. As I said, I swam with Kiki, and he was a National Record holder in the 11-12 age group, and I wasn’t much behind him in speed and endurance. So, I started at LAC as a 12 year old with somewhat questionable background. They put me under an assistant coach for awhile, and I started hanging with the goofs there, but it became apparent in a hurry that I had talent so I got moved within a year (6 months if I remember right) to the Sr. Club with those who had “National” level ability. I met Jim Montrella for the first time, and absolutely loved the man. He was the kind of coach that was easy to love. He was kind and gentle, yet firm and demanding, he could coax the best out of you. I became a real swimmer under Jim Montrella, and all my success in those years is due to his coaching.
Jim was a very successful coach I remember it well. I remember the year 1972 very well too. That was probably the most memorable year of my young life up to that point. What happened was (of course) the olympics, and our team, LAC sent 3 swimmers to the Olympics. Most notable for me was Steve Genter. Steve was this HUGE fellow, at least 6’4″ tall, and he was built like a tank! He was a great swimmer, though overshadowed that year by none other than Mark Spitz. Steve became our idol though, and with justified enthusiasm, all us young “teens” looked up to him (no pun intended).
Steve went to the Olympics, he qualified for two individual events, and he was to swim on a relay – with Mark Spitz. On the plane flight over to Germany, he got sick however. Ultimately, he wound up in the hospital. Our coach Jim was there, I believe he went as the women’s coach that year, since we had sent two women to the Olympics: Susie Atwood and An Simmons. Jim visited Steve in the hospital. You need to realize, that was just _days_ before Steve was to compete! He’s in the hospital, and he ultimately got a collapsed lung – that’s VERY serious!
But, Steve did not give up! He “worked out” in his hospital bed by having them hang a bar over his bed. Then, he did isometric exercises for several hours a day, repositioning the bar so that he could get a full work out of all the range of motion for his arms. He did get well, and then when he swam – he earned a silver and bronze medals in his individual competitions (I believe he got the silver in an event that Mark Spitz won) and then he got a gold medal on a relay with Mark Spitz as well. He came home with a full set of Olympic medals from Munich!
Quite naturally, all us young teen boys were in awe of Steve. We idolized him, and he knew it but was quite humble about it. He continued swimming for a year or two after that, and the most memorable experience I had was when we one time got to play water polo together. There were a number of us teen boys (13?) at the time, and we were all small (under 5′ tall). We played a water polo tournament against a High School team, and Steve was on our team, and the rest of us were a bunch of small teen boys – against a regular High School team! They were beating us up pretty badly. I had no idea what water polo was at the time, I could swim very fast, but ball handling was not something that I was good at yet. So, Steve would go from one opponent to the next. Every time one of us would get beat up pretty badly by a player on the opposite team, Steve would “switch” who he was guarding to that fellow and beat him up pretty badly in turn. Water polo is one of the roughest sports there is: I used to tell folks it was like an iceberg, 90% underwater!
Anyhow, I loved my time at LAC – all of it with Jim Montrella. I “grew up” there sort of, at least I started to grow up while there. We were at swim meets about every other week. During the summer time we worked out 5-6 hours a day (that’s nearly 20 miles a day of swimming!). We even had “camps” where we would have instruction sessions lasting all day. We worked out with weights, machines, we ran, we “buffed up” and we stretched. We learned partner stretches, and we spent enormous amounts of time together. All my friends were on that team pretty much. I had very few friends through Jr. High, and didn’t really get any other friends – outside of swim friends – until I got to High School, but that’s another story.
Nearly my entire early career at LAC, I was still a small fellow, under 5′ tall, I was actually 4’10” when I started High School! I was 13 when I started High School so I guess that does come into play here. The reader needs to understand that I was doing twice a day workouts at LAC right up until the time I started High School. Since Lakewood is about 18 miles from Manhattan Beach where I lived, that meant I spent a lot of time in the car in traffic, with either my mother or one of the other parents in our carpool driving us to/from workouts. It was at about that time when I entered High School that my mother kicked my dad out. Some memories from that time are jumbled and confused, it all kind of became a blur.
Let me just continue with my story about LAC since that’s what I really started telling you about in the first place. We spent a lot of time at swim meets, and during those meets, as an individual, you have an inordinately large amount of free time, when you are not competing, and it’s very dull and boring. My friends on the team and I learned how to play cards, we cuddled with girls, we learned to juggle, we played all kinds of other games, anything to pass the time and keep from being bored out of our minds! But, it was also the most exciting time of my young life as I keep relating. I think that stems from the fact that I was part of a “team” at LAC – something I had never felt before. That’s very interesting because so few years earlier, when I was 10 as I told you, I had wanted to quit swimming because I felt “trapped.”
Anyhow, we had cheers that we’d do at meets, and we were very enthusiastic for each other. It was a great place for a young person to be. The most memorable thing for me, was the first time I got my LAC “sweats.” Some of the teams I’d been on had T-shirts and such, but I’d never had team sweats before. Mine came to me handed down from somebody else. I don’t remember my number anymore, but all the sweats had a number. I can still remember what they felt like! They were soft, and warm, and dark blue with “Lakewood Aquatic Club” on the back and a team patch on the front. I think there was a stripe on them as well. Very sharp looking! I think the jackets had hoods on them too. It was always great to finish a race, dry off, put your sweats on and stay WARM!
It’s so amazing to me that some of the simplest things are those that stand out the most in your memory. As I said, we cuddled with the girls all the time, I had many girlfriends on that team. I really started getting “in” to girls, and I had a new girlfriend about every 3 weeks. I was very typical in that sense I think, I just look back at it now and sigh. What a waste of time and energy, and I wonder why I had to be like a bee going from flower to flower? Maybe that’s one of the memorable things too, I can still remember a lot of their names, and I even have some notes that we used to write to one another. Those are all in a box somewhere, I suppose I will get rid of those someday, but the memories from that time in my life are just too precious still.
So, I started out by saying that I had a dream last night where I was at a swim meet, looking for those old team mates. Specifically, I can remember that I was looking for those LAC sweats in the stands, trying to find where I belonged I guess. The past is a powerful influence on us, I’m not sure what that all means, because I have a new “team” these days, I am part of The Body of Christ, and I know who my team captain is. He gives us orders, and he encourages us and is gentle and kind, yet firm and demanding just like my favorite coach Jim Montrella. On the other hand, it takes a tremendous amount of work on our parts to grow and become more like Jesus, all that work is motivated by factors within ourselves.
I’ve always said that one of the greatest motivators is pain. In that sense, the mess I made of my life a few short years after my time at LAC is what keeps me motivated to continue my personal growth with Jesus Christ. Let me finish the story of my time at LAC and I hope you’ll understand. What happened was that after I started High School, I started working out just with my High School team during the school year. There were a couple summers where I continued working out with LAC,, as I continued swimming with LAC in the summer into my 15th year when I went to the National Jr. Olympics. Anyhow, I think my time at LAC was limited to summers from the time I entered High School. I had a new coach at my High School, and he was my coach through the rest of my “career” in swimming and water polo.
But, from the time I entered High School, to the time my life took a drastic wrong turn was not long. I remember one of the Seniors in my high school asking me when I entered if I had ever smoked pot. “NO! I answered him, that stuff is illegal!” And yet, less than a year later, while at a party drinking beer, somebody passed a joint and I took a drag off it and said “WHOA! That’s really cool!” You could say that one thing led to another, or in another sense, drinking had lowered my moral standards to the point where smoking dope wasn’t “relatively” so bad anymore. I’m not sure why really, I just know that I was hooked on dope from that moment on.
I went and bought some (dope) soon after that, and when I went to the National Jr. Olympics for swimming and water polo that year, I, and my friends took pot along with us to smoke at the meets. I don’t remember that I actually smoked any while in Ithaca, NY that year for the swimming National JO’s, but one of the first things we did when we got off the airplane in Toledo, OH for the water polo National JO’s was to run out in a cornfield to get stoned. As yet, I wasn’t much of an addict I don’t think, though many will point out that the “addictive” personality type like mine probably is addicted from the get go. Our performance at the swimming National JO’s was dismal. The conditions were dreadful for us Californians (I think we were sissies), the pool was outdoors, barely heated (if I remember right, the water temp in the pool was around 70f degrees).
Our coach Jim was there, and tried to help us all “get over” that shock by swimming in a canal that was behind the pool. We stayed in the dorms at Cornell University, I can still see it in my mind’s eye. I’m not sure why our performances were so poor, it was just too difficult for us to deal with mentally I guess. I came back and two weeks later turned in a time in my best event (the 400 Individual Medley) that would have qualified me for Senior Nationals that year (the time was like 20seconds faster than I had swam at National Jr. Olympics)! I actually had the most points at our local or “Regional” Junior Olympics, and helped our team to win the boy’s high point trophy that year, and since I had the most points on the team, they gave me the trophy (I still have that one).
Like I said, I was 15, and that was the “pinnacle” of my young life. We went to the Toledo to play water polo that same summer for the National JO title – and we won. I scored two goals in the winning game, but the most memorable thing for me was meeting a gal from North Miami (the girl’s winning team) and swapping T-shirts with her (I never saw her without her shirt, she took mine and swapped in her team’s vehicle and then brought me hers). I kept that shirt for many years: Her nickname was “Buddy” so that was the name on the shirt, along with a big water polo ball with the name of their team on it. As I said, my team mates and I smoked some dope on that trip, much to the angst of our coach Joe Bird. Poor Joe always had to put up with me. I am totally sure that I exasperated him and the other coaches many times due to my obstinate attitude, and my unbridled nature. But that is what happened to me in the years after LAC and I don’t really want to end this story there.
My years at LAC were few, but they were the last “happy” years of my young life. I was just becoming a teen, just beginning to have hormones bubbling in my system, and I was relatively young and naive at the start of my time at LAC even if later I was coarse and corrupt. My parents got divorced during my time at LAC, and that as much as anything else became a defining moment for the rest of my teen years, and on into my years at my first college attempt. I think in that sense, it was the time of life when I lost my “innocence” and that was a big deal for me (not my virginity, my innocence!).
So what is it about those years that I would have that time back? I think it’s that sense that I belonged to something bigger than myself. Though it’s not really possible to go back, I do still want to “belong.” What I need to remember is that I do belong to Jesus Christ and to The Body of Christ. I can have fellowship with other believers, and I can share all these things and my hurts and sorrows, and I can seek forgiveness for any area of my life where I’ve been a rotten person. It’s odd, but the people we hurt the most are those most close to us. I’m sure the rebellion and “sin” of my teen years hurt my parents the most.
I was very fortunate to be saved (at the age of 34) before my father (and mother, my mother still lives in the house I grew up in) died. I was given the opportunity to “honor” both my mother and father, even though honoring my father took a bit of doing, since even after being saved during that first year my attitude towards him was less than forgiving. I blamed him for everything bad in my life. It was easy since I had made such a mess of things. He wasn’t there, and that made it easier to blame him for all my drinking and drug use and my own out of control behavior. We live in a society that likes to blame other people, circumstances and “things” for all our own choices of bad behavior.
Anyhow, I was fortunate, as I said, after being saved that somebody asked me the simple question: “Have you honored your mother and father?” It took some work, and I had to dig through the anger, but I did get to the point where I forgave my daddy for everything. I was actually able to share my new found faith with him before he died. I got to see him a number of times in those last few years, and each time I saw him I told him that I loved him, and hugged him. And he told me he loved me too – something he’d never been able to do when I was a kid. My daddy came from that generation that was not very demonstrative with their love. Men were TOUGH and that’s all there was to it. He was one of that “Greatest Generation” that Tom Brokaw describes: Self-sufficient, self-reliant, the type that pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They had to be tough to survive WWII it seems. Most of the WWII survivors were like that. They were taught to think and live that way, and to be leaders.
I, on the other hand, have had to learn leadership the hard way. I’m not very good at it still, I try to model Christ-like behavior in all I do. I find myself whining and complaining sometimes, and perhaps that, as much as anything else is why I long for a simpler time, a more innocent time, like when I was a swimmer at Lakewood Aquatic Club.