Lessons from a high school championship swim meet
By Dennis Janzen
Not long ago, a good friend was telling me the story of his daughter’s local high school league championship swim meet. As he was framing the scene, it was easy to see the pride in his face and voice. His daughter is special, and what she did that day made a huge difference for her team. Here’s what happened.
The story begins when Emily saw some members of the swim team practicing. She was impressed by what she saw and wanted to be a part of the swim team. However, Emily had never really swam more than a few yards at a time. She spoke with the coach and he agreed that if she could learn to swim a full 25 yards, she could be on the team.
Now I need to tell you—Emily has Down syndrome. Her father is one of the most successful coaches at his level in all of California. His son, Emily’s brother, recently graduated from the Air Force Academy and was a four-year letterman on the Air Force water polo team. Achievement, drive, commitment and discipline define the entire family.
Well, Emily worked incredibly hard and learned to swim the 25 yards. She made the junior varsity team! But the story doesn’t end there. Emily continued to improve and after a few weeks was able to actually swim 50 yards without stopping. She was always at practice and enjoyed encouraging her junior varsity and varsity teammates. Everyone came to appreciate this happy, young, Down syndrome girl very much.
A coach's decision
Late in the season it came time for the league championship meet. Now remember, Emily was on the junior varsity team. The league championship meet was only for varsity team members.
Her father attended the league championship meet because he wanted to support many of the varsity swim athletes whom he had previously coached and taught when they were younger.
As Emily’s dad walked into the swim complex he was met by the varsity swim coach who told him that he had entered Emily into the 400-yard freestyle.
“Are you crazy!” the stunned father said. “No way—I will not have my daughter humiliated that way.”
The swim coach just said, “Trust me. It will be OK.”
The reluctant father sat and watched. Soon it was time for Emily’s race to begin. Emily climbed onto the blocks and when the horn sounded, she jumped into the water and began to swim. Swimming hard, she passed the 25-yard mark, then the 50-yard mark—100—200—300.
By now, virtually everyone—all teams, parents and friends in the swim complex—was at poolside cheering on Emily. She was exhausted and flailing but wouldn’t stop, especially with the kind of encouragement she was hearing and feeling. You guessed it. Emily finished the race, all 400 yards. Applause and cheering erupted throughout the swim complex. What a moment. “Proud” hardly describes what the father was feeling.
After hearing this story, I wrote the name “Emily” on a small piece of paper and put it in a special place. There are more lessons in this true story than there is space to write them. Here are five things I am reminded of whenever I look at the name Emily written on that small piece of paper.
Everyone has worth. In God’s eyes every person matters. We all have worth. Yet the world so often tells us differently. We are all priceless, regardless of our perceived limitations or preconceived notions or prejudices.
Too often we base our own personal sense of worth on what other people tell us about ourselves. The same happens towards others, and it’s not right. Jesus Christ, the one true authority on everyone’s self-worth, gave his own life for each of us by dying on a cross, which clearly tells us just how valuable we are.
Opportunities for positive impact can occur for everyone, at any time and anywhere. I should never pass judgment on others in a way that hinders their opportunities for making an impact on those around them. No one more positively impacted the people at that swim meet that day than Emily. Teams, rivals and spectators all came together because of the extraordinary effort of one remarkably determined yet “challenged” young girl. In some way, we are all “challenged.”
I’ve thought of what Emily did that day so many times. How many times have I allowed my own thinking to hinder others or myself. God provides us with countless opportunities, each for the glory of his kingdom. How in tune am I to the many opportunities that God brings before me?
God’s ways are limitless. God does not limit us nor does he seek to thwart us. It is easy to think of plenty of good reasons why Emily should never have been placed into that 400-yard race. Yet, if Emily had not been in that race, her remarkable impact on others would have never happened.
How often, in our humanness, have we allowed our doubts and fears to actually limit God’s incredible plan. We have a choice in what we allow Christ to do through us. We serve a God who somewhere does the impossible every second of the day. Do my desires and sense of what’s “possible” reflect a trust and obedience in a limitless God?
Our abilities are greater than we realize. We are capable of far more than we ever believe possible, especially when encouraged by others. Until the day of Emily’s race, she had never swam a full 400 yards. Yet on that day, she came to believe that she could. Why? Because her coach told her she could. The result was an unshakable belief and a commitment to swim as far as she possibly could—for her teammates and her coach.
One of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced over a lifetime in competitive athletics is seeing the expression on athletes’ faces when they first realize they’ve just done something they hadn’t believed possible. At Fresno Pacific University, our championship volleyball teams are encouraged to play to a simple principle: “Make the people around you better.” We believe that with strong encouragement from teammates, we have a better chance to win championships.
The power of faith. It’s amazing what God can do even when our faith is no larger than a mustard seed. We are limited only by our own attitudes and unbelief. Over the years, I have been privileged to see some extraordinary accomplishments by student-athletes, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds. Reflecting on these accomplishments, the one thing that each has in common is an extraordinary vision formed from an immovable belief and faith in ability and effort.
Expressing an exciting vision is easy. Talking about a strong faith is also easy. Neither means much unless they’re actively pursued. An accomplished vision occurs only from a committed, sustained faith. Martin Luther King once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” When I think of what Emily did in that race, I am reminded of how powerful a simple faith in action can be—especially when encouraged.
Indeed, what Emily did that day really mattered. Her presence, even with the challenges of Down syndrome, greatly influenced everyone around her. I believe that God, through Emily, was at work that day delivering powerful life lessons.
God has created each of us for his own unique purpose. God’s work is accomplished in so many wonderful ways—ways we often can never foresee. It is exciting to know that God values and loves each of us so much that he is willing—in fact he desires—to work through each of us to accomplish his plan.
God truly holds each of us in the palm of his hand. Knowing that we are uniquely blessed for God’s perfect purpose, may we never limit the powerful blessings of giftedness we’ve each abundantly received.
One last detail about Emily—by finishing the race she earned her team one point. And they won the league championship that day—by one point.
Dennis Janzen is the former director of athletics and head women’s volleyball coach at Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, Calif.
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