Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mary Lou Smith, my coach and hero

The Olympics! Who doesn't love them? I hope you're enjoying them. The gold-medal-winning Fab Five American gymnasts have especially caught my attention. These girls are amazing. I cannot begin to understand what they - and other athletes - and their parents have sacrificed to get to the Olympics. Some athletes move to distant cities to work under excellent coaches. It's a perfect symphony between athletes, parents and coaches.

I have never forgotten the one coach who made a difference in my life. In the 1960's and 70's, sports for girls were only beginning to gain momentum. While I might have become a high school athlete, no one ever encouraged me in a sport until Mary Lou Smith.

Mary Lou taught and coached swimming at my college, Virginia Intermont, for many years. Embarrassingly, I'd failed beginner swimming three - yes, three - times as a young girl, so I never really believed I could become a solid swimmer. As a college freshman, I brought my defeated attitude to Mary Lou's Lifesaving class. And that's when change began.

In August of 1973, I met Mary Lou and began a year-long journey with her at the Intermont pool. I'd never been around someone so skilled at teaching swimming. She was smiling and friendly, but dead serious about teaching people to swim. Whistle around her neck, Mary Lou dissected my strokes and bit by bit, class by class, taught me proper breathing, the crawl, backstroke and breaststroke. Within a month or two I felt comfortable in the water, strong and capable. The last half of the semester, I learned lifesaving skills and passed the final exam. In Janaury I registered for Mary Lou's Water Safety Instructor class and by May was ready to teach others to swim.

In the summers to follow, I taught girls to swim at Girl Scout camp and became a camp waterfront director. When a child would say, "I can't," I adopted Mary Lou's attitude and reminded her to say, "I haven't learned yet."

A coach passes along her skills and expertise. But a coach also believes in a student when she doesn't believe in herself.

Thank you, Mary Lou. You made me feel like an Olympian.


LPool said...

That's really interesting....I'd always thought that you were an accomplished swimmer when you arrived at VI.

Family Travels on a Budget said...

You learned the lesson well. I try not to say, "I can't" anymore -- and I'm instilling that same value in my kids. I'm so glad to know the story behind who taught you this valuable lesson.