Pitch black outside, cold and damp, the sun not having come up yet. I’m slouched down, my winter coat covering my chin, almost drifting back to sleep, fists shoved deep into my pockets. I’m trying to keep warm flanked by my buddies—Lidia on one side, Katie on the other—in the back seat of Pam’s beater Nova or perhaps the Tjelle’s sixties Mercury Comet, the kind with the slanted tail lights.

In the swimming pool parking lot we idle silently in darkness as other cars arrive shining harsh headlights into our warm interior, square patches of light shifting and panning over our tired faces. We wait for Coach Bourassa to arrive and unlock the door, secretly hoping he won’t show so we can go back home to bed. We need our sleep, but it is perpetually denied.

Most certainly, every day I think back to my youth as a competitive swimmer, it has shaped me so. I ponder the grueling practices, the nerves before a race, my inspirational teammates, our failures, our triumphs, the adrenaline surging through veins, the costs and benefit of a lifetime in the water.

Barely fourteen and still in junior high, Lidia and I, and quite a few of our elders, swam double workouts on our high school and AAU teams, five—sometimes six—days a week, plus weight training. We sweat, we burned, we ached, we suffered. In my opinion there isn’t a tougher sport to practice than swimming with its few breaks—only minutes to linger between mega-sets of 200 I.M.s or 500 freestyles, only seconds of rest in between each one, sometimes none if you can’t beat the clock, swimming four, five—or more—miles every day.

Our fiercest rival was Newport High. Both coaches were imposing men, each easily six foot four—massive figures. Newport’s coach kind of resembled Burt Reynolds with his dark wavy hair and a large mustache. He was silent, calculating. Our coach with his chiseled features was more of a John Wayne type, in fact had been the actor’s stand-in in a few films. His puffed-up barrel chest accentuated a Pepsodent smile, and though perhaps cool on the outside he was wound as tight as a drum, and if you looked closely you could see worry in his flexing jaw, he cared so deeply.

My sophomore year, 1978, the State Championship comes down to the 400 freestyle relay. Coach picks me as lead-off because of my quick reflexes, always first off the blocks. A few rows up in the stands, as we nervously shake out our muscles, position and reposition our goggles, my brother Scott looks at me, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “fifty-five!” I’d only broken fifty-eight once, the day before in the 100 freestyle semis with a 0:57.75. I stepped up on the slanted lane four block and raised both hands in number ones. Crack! The starter’s gun explodes, my muscles tense and catapult me off the blocks. First in the water. I strong-arm the cool liquid holding my breath until just before the turn. Smack! I hit the wall with the precision of the thousands of turns behind me, shoot off into a tight arrow, head tucked between my arms streamline like a human bullet. My lungs burn but this has to be all out. The next turn is just as solid as the last, and the next into the final length. Six swimmers in a V-shape like some flock of geese, foaming water in our wakes. Again I hold my breath to the finish, reaching—nearly on my side for the last stroke—extending my arm as far as it can go and hitting the finish pad hard as my teammate stretches out above me from the blocks like an airplane taking flight.

I turn around to see the electronic timing board. My lane reads 0:55.97. I look up at my brother and smile. He and my parents—the crowd—are all going crazy. As each teammate swims her segment we gain momentum. Joni, Pam, then Lori, the fastest of us all and an animal competitor. She pulls nearly a body length ahead of Newport and, amongst deafening screams from the crowd in the cement and tiled pavilion, we win the race with an All-American time. And our entire team wins the state championship.

I am reminded of this relay, and of my years in competitive swimming, as much for the pain and triumph, and building of my character, as for the incredible sportsmanship and teamwork I enjoyed from my fellow swimmers. I couldn’t have achieved what I did if it were not for my coaches, my teammates, my managers, competitors, family and friends. My success was the total result of a team effort, just like raising Calvin with his profoundly difficult developmental delay and intractable epilepsy. I don’t do it alone—couldn’t. And I have the emotional support from a lot of the same people that were cheering for me from behind the blocks, on the pool deck, in the stands, even some from other teams, and others I’ve met since then.

I remember a meet my senior year as team captain. Before the competition began we taped up posters we’d painted the night before. I lead the girls around the pool deck chanting and cheering to psyche them up. The opposing team did the same behind their svelte captain, the future three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Mary Wayte. As we passed each other on the narrow deck she snarled at me, “we swim you for practice.”  I smiled, thought it was a pretty clever, provocative remark, wished I had thought of it myself. To this day I’m glad we swam each other for practice, she was tenacious as shit. I’ve benefited from that kind of thing in a most profound way, and, as a result—perhaps more importantly—so has my sweet little Calvin.

In honor of epilepsy awareness month, please share this story with others. Be part of the team that brings us one step closer to a cure.

Sammamish High School 200 medley relay - Katie Tjelle (in pool), Lidia Yukman (crouching), Debbie Kelly (behind block) Jo Belyea (far right)


  1. Wow, I am struck by how melodic and beautiful your words are. I have always enjoyed following your blogs and the insights you give us into your world and into Calvin's. What a lucky boy to have been born to such amazing parents. Thank you for sharing.
    Love you - mean it.

  2. love you too. missed talking with you more at the reunion. it was a blur, no? xoxoxoxox

  3. Newport Knights! Boo!

    Go Totems!