Gary West Column Photo

Gary’s 8-year-old daughter, Mandy, and 6-year-old son, Greg, display some of the medals they won at a swim meet in 1977.

Every year when the 4th of July rolls around I have a memory flashback to an Independence Day event that at the time was a bit of a personal embarrassment for not only me but my two young children.

It was 44 years ago, and the local country club I belonged to, traditionally had a big Fourth get together that included father-son, father-daughter swim relays, water balloon “fights,” and even a father-son battle to see who could capture a greased watermelon in the center of the pool.

With a son 6, and a daughter 8, they were excited about taking their newly learned swimming skills from the club’s swim team, and parlaying them into a win in one of the biggest social events of the year.

The event was so big, that portable bleachers were brought in for family and friends to also enjoy the festivities without getting wet.

Now keep in mind, these relays were not broken down into age groups. If a dad had a 16-year-old son or daughter they swam against the 6, 8, and 10-year-olds as well. It was an open event. Age was not a factor.

My two kids had been talking about it for weeks. For their age they were really good swimmers.

But, you see I had a big problem. I couldn’t swim! Well, not very good anyway.

I had grown up with working parents, who refused to let me go near a swimming pool. In fact it took me going away to college before I learned to do anything in the water that even resembled a stroke. Let’s be honest, I learned to “dog-paddle.” That was okay, because, if necessary I could at least save myself if the need arose.

I had missed out on some fun as a youth, avoiding, pool parties or trips to the lake with friends, so I was determined my kids would learn to swim. And they did.

In an odd sort of way, I became their coach. Driving them to swim lessons when they were four and five, I watched the instructor carefully, soaking up the shouts of “kick,” “pull,” “rotate your head,” “keep those fingers together.”

Now knowing the lingo I would take them to the pool, and walking along its edge as they fluttered along, I would shout kick, pull, rotate your head, keep those fingers together. In their minds they thought I knew what I was talking about. Heck, in my mind I thought I did, too. I had become their coach away from swim team practice.

Now, suddenly I had a dilemma.

With July 4th rapidly approaching there is no way I could let my kids down. The races were something I had to do . . . not necessarily wanting to do.

In the weeks leading up to the big day, at night I would travel alone to the club’s pool, scale the 4-foot metal fence, and in the cover of darkness begin to map out a plan that would allow me to negotiate the 25-yard distance without my old reliable “dog-paddle.” Instead I would explode into the water, and with a couple of much-practiced under water pulls, keeping my fingers together, efficiently glide hopefully half of the 25-yard distance. At least I had a plan.

After several nights of my covert practice sessions, I felt like I could do it. It would be tough, but I actually made it from one end to the other, with the last 10 yards or so, resulting from a stroke that involved my head being completely out of the water, and my arms in a flailing motion that propelled me to the wall. No sir, no dog paddle here, especially on July 4th.

I didn’t need for anyone to tell me my practice efforts were not a thing of beauty. I knew it.

This day would not be about winning. For me it would be about survival. After all, I was friends with all of the fathers and had seen all of the kids at the weekly swim meets. They could all swim, some of the dads even swimming in high school and college. It didn’t matter, this was about competing, having fun, and making memories.

Oh, I made memories all right.

When they announced the father-son relay, my 6-year-old, was the first to climb onto the starting stand at the opposite end of the pool. It mattered little to him that he would be competing against kids more than twice his age. He was ready to execute his racing dive before the others had even lined up.

The gun fired and he and all of the others were off. He swam beautifully, kicking, pulling, keeping his fingers together and rotating his head. When he touched the wall, it then became my time . . . time for me to put my plan into fast forward. For all practical purposes the race was over, after all he was only 6.

Now it was up to me.

I jettisoned into the glistening water instantly implementing the “hold-my-breath-underwater-glide” that was to be the most important elements of my “swim.”

Holding my breath for what seemed like at least 10-seconds, I came to the pool’s surface, expecting to be halfway home.

Something had gone terribly wrong.

I was only three feet from the end of the pool where I had entered. Did I forget to kick? Or perhaps I forgot to pull. No matter . . . I was in trouble. Slapping the water as if trying to splash someone, and in the deep end of the pool, I’m sure the spectators thought it was all part of my schtick. I could actually see some of them standing and pointing as I was now in a survival mode. Rolling and twisting, somehow, someway I came to the surface, and catching a breath, I realized I had to put into practice what I had been telling my kids for a couple of years — kick and pull.

Finally, recognizing the bottom of the pool beneath me, I was able to stand, and without missing a beat went into a freestyle swim motion, now rotating my head from side to side as I walked along the bottom, reaching the end none too soon.

Exhausted, out of breath, and now leaning against the pool’s edge, my daughter Mandy, bent down and asked if I was okay? Yes, I told her, in spite of swimming and nearly drowning. I asked where my son Greg was? “He’s gone to the car,” she answered. And then after a slight pause she said, “Dad if it’s all right with you I’d rather not swim in the father-daughter relay.”

Climbing out of the pool, I hugged her, while telling her that was probably a good idea.

Now with my breathing back to normal, I knew I still had a little more to do before I completely finished this race. I had to walk to our car in the parking lot to talk to Greg.

There he sat, wet swim suit and all in the July heat, in the front seat. With his arms tightly folded in a mood of defiance, as I opened the door, he shouted while looking straight ahead, “You didn’t even try.”

My words about how “winning isn’t everything,” weren’t much comfort to a 6-year-old. In his mind he had planned on us winning.

For a couple of years it was something he didn’t want to talk about, but decades later my son and daughter laugh about it, as do I. A 4th of July they wanted to forget is one that turned out to be one I’ll never forget.

There’s no excuse, get up, get out and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at

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