I am going to write today about someone who has nothing to do with mainstream sports. You have never seen his name in a headline and you probably never will, unless you live in Tampa, Florida.
Ed Brennan was my high school swim coach. Today is his birthday. I’ll call him tonight to wish him a Happy Birthday. While I’m at it I may thank him for allowing me to be here to wish him a Happy Birthday.
Last June, when the doctors told me I had seven blockages in my heart I was stunned on a number of levels, not the least of which was the fact that I had no symptoms: no chest pains, no shortness of breath—nothing. In fact, I was in halfway decent swimming shape and had worked out the day before the angiogram that uncovered the blockages.
“Your heart’s strong because you swim,” the doctor said to me. “Your arteries are a mess. But your heart has overcome the blockages until now. If you didn’t swim, well, you probably would have had a Tim Russert episode by now.”
Those were his exact words: Tim Russert episode.
So, the case can be made that the reason I’m alive is because I swim. The reason I swim is Ed Brennan.
When I was a high school freshman I still harbored fantasies of becoming a basketball player. I had been a reasonably good junior high school player—I could shoot and I knew how to play passing lanes in a two-three zone—and I probably would have been good enough to start as a sophomore when I was eligible for the varsity. Of course at that point I was about 5-3 and the thought was beginning to cross my mind that if I wasn’t the BEST player on my high school team there was probably a good chance I wasn’t going to end up playing point guard for the Knicks.
Enter Ed Brennan.
He took me aside one day after a swim class in September and said, ‘you need to try out for my team.’ He was brand new at the school, just 22-years-old and about to become a father for the first time. The swim team at the school I went to at the time, McBurney, on the west side of Manhattan, was awful. I had no idea how awful it was and I didn’t care. I wanted to play basketball.
That’s what I told Ed. He kept after me saying I should at least come to the week-long tryouts and he would be honest with me about my potential and if I didn’t want to swim or he didn’t want me to swim, there was still plenty of time to play on the freshman basketball team.
He was a good salesman. I liked him. I decided to try it. I figured he was singling me out and I liked that.
Of course I hated the tryouts. He wasn’t singling me out. He had made essentially the same pitch to every kid in the school who could float. He put us through a grueling week—or so it seemed to us—of workouts. None of us were in any kind of swimming shape and none of us had goggles. We came out of the water each day crawling with exhaustion, our eyes red from the chlorine. I’m still not sure why I didn’t quit halfway through. At some point it became a challenge because Ed had said only 15 of us would make the team and there were about 40 guys at the tryouts.
I made the team. Okay, I proved myself, time to go back to basketball. Ed laughed when I told him my plan. “That’s fine,” he said. “But you aren’t getting into college because of basketball. You COULD get into college because of swimming.”
Now I KNEW he was conning me. Except something was gnawing at me: I knew he was probably right about basketball. My dad was 5-9 and my mom was 5-3. How tall was I going to be? I’d been the only white starter on my junior high school team and my teammates liked to tell me I was good, “for a white boy.” I had played enough schoolyard ball to know my limitations.
Still…”Try swimming for a year,” Ed said. “You’ll be on the varsity because there’s no freshman team. You can still try out for the varsity basketball team next year.”
Somewhere I changed my mind. To make a long story short, after he FORCED me to start swimming butterfly midway through the season—we only had one other guy who could finish a 100 fly and I could BARELY do it—I began to understand that swimming was where my future was going to be. Ed got hired at a much better swimming school, Columbia Grammar, and took me with him there. The presence of girls in the classroom—McBurney was all boys—forced me to pay attention and do my work because I didn’t want to look like a dope in front of the girls.
I never became a great swimmer, but I became a pretty good one—good enough to be recruited and good enough, in the end, to get into a good college with grades and SAT’s that were good but hardly to die for. I went to Duke because of Ed Brennan. In many ways the path my life took was because of Ed Brennan.
And, when a doctor told me in my late 30s that I HAD to start exercising again if I wanted to see my kids grow up, I went back to swimming because Ed Brennan had talked me into being a swimmer 25 years earlier. I’ve been a Masters swimmer for 15 years now and it has been as much fun as anything I’ve done this side of being a father.
Ed became the swim coach at the University of Tampa almost 30 years ago. When I’m struggling in the water, I still call him for advice. When I’m in Tampa—or near it—I go to his pool and work out. He laughs at how pathetic my workouts are and tells me I’ll never be any good if I don’t get tougher. It’s the same thing he told me as a teen-ager when he threw kickboards at all of us if we weren’t on time to start practice.
“If you’re in the water, the kickboard won’t hit you,” he used to say.
Thank God I was in the water. Thank God I became a swimmer and I’m still a swimmer—regardless of how pathetic my workouts might be.
Happy Birthday Ed. And thanks for convincing me to swim all those years ago.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases
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