I struggled up Lake Mary Road on my cross-country skate skis, heart pounding, breath sawing in and out of my lungs. For the hundredth or so time, I wondered what had possessed me to take up skate skiing—a full-body, intensive cardio workout even on a day when the snow didn’t feel like carpet under my skis.
Just as I thought about tossing in the towel, I heard my swim coach’s ear-piercing two-finger whistle interspersed with shouts of encouragement in my head. Johnny Griffith has been dead for close to forty years, but it’s still his voice I hear when I need it most.
Johnny was brutally honest with me about my potential as a competitive swimmer. “You’re not the most talented kid in the pool,” he said, “but you don’t have to be. You just have to want it more than anyone else.” Johnny also had all sorts of nuggets he’d share right before it was time to climb on the starting block. “Remember,” he’d say, “the fastest girl in your heat puts her suit on one leg at a time, just like you do.”
Johnny’s encouragement and his belief in me influenced more than my competitive swimming career; it changed my life. I learned how to persist even when the odds of succeeding were long. I learned how to find that last bit of energy even when I thought the tank was empty. And I learned that giving it all you’ve got matters more than winning. Those lessons stuck, and I’m a different person because of Johnny.
I quit swimming in high school, and then left for college without telling Johnny how much he meant to me. By the time I really understood the impact he’d had on my life, he was gone. And the saddest part is I know how much a few words would have meant to him, because students I taught and mentored have come back to tell me what a difference I made for them.
I hope every kid out there has a Johnny Griffith in his or her life—a parent, a teacher, a coach, or a neighbor who provides the kind of support and encouragement that changes a life. And I hope if you have or had a person like that in your life, you thank them for being there. I missed that opportunity with Johnny, but I promised myself I’d never make that mistake again. Maybe that was the most important lesson of all.
My novel, Yard Sale, is available on Amazon.