Years ago I had the honor to be a swim coach for the Hebron Hurricanes.
I had been on a swim team in high school, watched them operate as a lifeguard, and taught swim lessons throughout college. In the summer of 2002 I was asked to be a co coach for a summer swim league, while I was thrilled to accept the challenge, I was also extremely nervous to lead a whole team of swimmers. At the time I didn't realize what a challenge it would be and the many gifts I would receive from the experience.
My first day as a coach I walked into the pool area to meet the swim team manager, Marjorie and my co coach, Colin. She walked us through the basic steps in getting the team ready for practice and the weekly swim meets. A few days later on swim registration I got to meet all of the swimmers. They ranged from 4 years old to 18. I could tell that all the swimmers knew each other very well almost like they were family. The kids were full of smiles and very playful with each other, but many of them seemed very nervous around the water. I also noticed many of the swimmers were speaking together in Russian.
At the end of registration Marjorie explained to Colin and I that most of the swimmers were from Russia and many swimmers did NOT know how to swim.
Immediately I thought, "Wait a minute...a swim team where many of the kids can't swim? How am I suppose to get these kids to learn to swim and then learn to compete?"I knew this was going to be a challenge, but Colin and I assured each other we could do it.
Swim team started that next week and we divided the kids by skill level. My job was to teach the swimmers who couldn't swim and any kids working at the beginning levels. My swimmers were all different ages including a 16 year old girl who was very nervous about just entering the pool. Her proud smile melted my heart when she finally put her face bravely all the way into the water.
As the summer went on, I got to know each of the swimmers better and learn about their families. One of the girls, Nastasia shared her story of how her family adopted her from Russia.
It was an unbelievable story...but it was true.
Nastasia's family had adopted her from Russia a few years ago. Her parents already had two children of their own. When they picked her up from the orphanage she was very excited to be going home with her new family, but when she got home to the states she cried every single night. Her parents talked to her, asking what was making her cry? She explained that she missed her sister, Alla who was still back at the orphanage. Her parents knew they couldn't allow their little girl to miss out on the blessings of her sister, so they went back to Russia to get Alla. When they met her she was very happy to learn she would have a home with her little sister, but she started crying and hugging her best friend, Anichka. Anichka and Alla slept together every night in the orphanage to feel safe and Alla was beside herself to think of leaving her best friend alone at night.
So the parents decided to take both girls! When they got back to the states after awhile Anichka opened up about her older brother Sasha. He was still in Russia. Their parents did some research and he too came home to the states to be with Anichka. Much later the parents found out there were four other cousins that existed between their newly adopted children. They went back multiple times to bring each child into their home bringing their home to a total of 10 children!
As Nastasia told her story, I was in disbelief, but each of the seven other siblings would stop in for their part in the story and then dive back into the pool. Hearing this story, brought out the other stories of adoption from the team. More than half the team was adopted from Russia because of the inspiration of Nastasia's family.
Nastasia's family attended church in the area and after members of the church witnessed this beautiful story of love, they too wanted to adopt children from Russia. Many families adopted children from the same orphanage, making this swim team one big happy family.
We became a very close group that summer, our swimmers giving it their all EVERY single swim meet and us giving it our all to teach them how to be their best. They each swam their hearts out and by the end of the summer I couldn't be more proud of them.
I'll never forget when we had to have our four year old swim a 100 Meter Freestyle, (four full laps) it took him a whole two minutes after the other racers finished their time. The entire team ended up coming down to his lane, chanting his name. He never stopped swimming, he finished it, and his dad's face was priceless.
I will never forget when my 16 year old swimmer, who in the beginning of the summer barley got in the water swam her first race. She was beside herself with giggles and pride getting out of the pool. After the race I wrapped my arms around her, her hard work and endurance floored all of us.
Lastly, I will never forget the last night of swim team. We had one last party with the team and their families. Our swimmers were all playing in the water and they decided they wanted Colin and I to join them, so with our clothes still on they pulled Colin and I into the water. We resisted, but not that much as we then played a huge game of sharks and minnows until it was time to go home.
We never won ONE swim meet that summer, but it didn't matter. We won more than a medal. I won the gift of learning about each and every one of my swimmers and their stories. Their stories of love for each other and their perseverance to give it their all.
Thank you my little swimmers for modeling what life is all about and thank you for teaching me this through your example.
I was gifted by my swimmers that it isn't always about winning, sometimes it's more than that. It's also about hard work, perseverance, family, laughter, and heart. Something I now model my life after.
Take a moment to ask yourself some questions this summer that I now ask myself as I visit the pool.
- How have you taught others how to persevere? (Don't do it for the medal.)
- What challenge have you accepted? (Get your face wet when your scared.)
- What have you celebrated in someone else's life? (Get pulled into the water.)
That summer was an extreme challenge, but it was also an extreme honor to take part in. I will always keep those swimmers in my heart as they have a small piece of it.
Note: *Swimmers names have been changed*
Alana Stanton is a kindergarten and technology specials teacher at Mulberry Elementary in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She has taught several grades over her 14 year career including K-3 literacy special, first grade, second grade, and kindergarten. Alana believes that relationships always come first in the classroom and the classroom should be a place where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. She currently writes for her blog, More Than A Lesson where she shares the stories of her classroom and her heart.