Today I learned about the death of my high school swim coach, Elmer Luke. I had only spoken with him once over the past 37 years, but he was a man who changed my life for the better at the tender age of nine. Mr. Luke helped me get over my fear of deep water and allowed me the freedom to become a swimmer. He had come up against many kids who were afraid to swim in the deep water but until that time, none quite as determined as me.
Mr. Luke was on to me. I had taken ‘Beginners’ six times, not due to my lack of talent for swimming but because of my fear of the deep water. When it came time to pass 'Beginners' by swimming in the deep water, I could be found sneaking off to the locker room or the parking lot where my mom was sure to show up at the end of the lesson. Not this time. When we were instructed to line up next to the diving well, I made my get-a-way towards the locker room. I remember it clearly. Mr. Luke had locked the door. I clung to the big silver handle crying my eyes out. He succumbed to defeat and took his key ring with a thousand keys and opened the door for me to escape to the safety of the girls locker room.
My parent’s fear of one of their kids drowning called for desperate measures. Although I was the fourth child out of five (not the first or last of anything) they clearly thought that this situation needed to be remedied lest I fall out of a boat in one of the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota and drown. They arranged for private lessons with none other than Mr. Luke.
Knowing that he needed to get me into the deep water without my knowing, Mr. Luke put on his friendliest gold crown grinand said, ‘just lay on your back. We’ll walk around a bit.’ Before I knew it, he had me at the big dock. The big dock was reserved for older kids who jumped off the high dive and courageous swimmers who seemed to possess fins and gills. Not me! Not scared little Cathy in her lime green swim suit with wilted flower petals.
The Turning Point
Mr. Luke said, ‘Now you're going to swim back’. I pleaded with him through my tears, ‘Will you swim with me???’ He grinned, convinced that he had gotten me right where he wanted me, and nodded knowing that this is what had to happen. With him beside me, I swam through those deep dark green waters. I still remember doing dog paddle even though I had mastered freestyle during my six attempts at ‘Beginners’. I kept Mr. Luke in my sight to get back to the ropes which separated the shallow water from the deep.
That day changed my life. Shortly after, I began swimming AAU, competed for the next eight years, and picked swimming up again in my 40s. Had I not conquered the fear with the help of Mr. Luke, my life would have been different. I would never have understood that I was an athlete. I would never have developed the confidence swimming gave me or developed a life sport that fuels my soul.
Later in my life, I was fortunate enough to see Mr. Luke again. He had continued to swim and coach until his body wouldn’t let him anymore. The day I called to arrange a time to meet with him, he said, ‘I won’t lock the door on you!’ As it turned out, the challenge of getting me over my fear had changed his life too. He told that story often as a testament to his persistence and desire to get kids to love the water and learn to swim.