I firmly believe that I am the luckiest guy in the world.
Consider the good luck of being able to have a long swimming career, and spending four years of it swimming for the University of Illinois. I was lucky because Illinois was coached by an extraordinary man, Don Sammons, and it changed my life. Don had a huge impact on me as a swimmer, but he had an even bigger one on me as a person. The lessons I learned from Don have stayed with me for 35 years, so they’ll probably be with me for good.
Don is the most consistently positive, optimistic and upbeat person I have ever known. In a world filled with fakes, Don is so innately genuine that it wouldn’t occur to him to be anything but. Despite any setback, Don was never got down on himself or his team. Imagine being a college swimmer, trudging through the cold and snow to make it to practice every morning at 6:00 a.m., and being greeted with a cheery, “Good morning, Mary Sunshine! Can’t wait to get into that cool blue! Stronger every day, Trooper!”
In fact, an Illinois teammate and very close friend, Dave Bishop, texted Susan at the latter stages of our Channel swim to “tell Doug that Mary Sunshine is waiting for him on the French beach.” That was a lift for everyone.
Rather than live among complications, Don Sammons makes things simple. Work hard. Live clean. Fair and square. Be a good citizen, be smart, be organized and be honest. Everything in moderation. Follow some straightforward rules, and most things will work out just fine. Most of all, though, Don instilled in us his absolute certainty that your mind was your best weapon and our most important asset. If you can control your mind and refuse to let it limit you, your body will follow and it will do amazing and unheard of things. Not all of us learned those lessons willingly, but all of us were exposed to them by this genuinely good and gracious man. Don’s wife Marilyn was the surrogate mother of every swimmer at Illinois for more than 20 years. You cannot think of one of them without the other.
Every couple of years, a reunion of Illinois swimming alums is held. We all troop back to Champaign to swap stories and share memories of the unique college experience we shared. One of these reunions was held a couple of weeks ago. Despite the fact that we had a million other things that needed to be done, I roped Susan into going because I knew that Don and Marilyn Sammons would be there. I really wanted to celebrate the Channel swim with them, inasmuch as Don is far more responsible for the swim than he will ever know.
When Don and I had a chance to visit, it was interesting what he didn’t want to talk about. He didn’t care about the stuff that other people dwell on – the cold water, the waves, the darkness, the feeding or the finish – he just wanted to know about what was going through my mind.
Don: “When did you know you would make it across?”
Me: “When I stepped into the water in Dover.”
Don: “Did you ever look at the swim ladder on the back of the boat? Did you ever want to get out?” [People have often said that the ladder on the back of the boat ‘taunts’ them to get out and get warm.]
Me: “You know, it’s weird. I saw that ladder 20,000 times, but I never thought of getting on it. Not once.”
Don: “Did you ever have that ‘bonk’ where you really question what you are doing?”
Me: “I have to tell you, it never happened. Maybe I was lucky, but it never happened to me.”
Then, Don got real serious, looked me straight in the eye, pointed his fingers at his temples, and said, “That’s because you are strong. Right here. Mentally strong; powerful beyond measure.”
That is what I wanted to hear. I wanted this man, who has probably had a bigger impact on my life than any man other than my father, to confirm that I had done well. I wanted him to acknowledge that I had accomplished something special. I wanted him to verbally pat me on the head and say that he was proud of me. What he didn’t realize, of course, is that so much of me being “Mentally strong; powerful beyond measure,” was due to the precious time I had spent learning from him.
The other reason I had wanted to see Don was that I had a present for him. I had brought him a shell I picked up on the beach in Wissant Bay in France. I gave him the shell and said, “I swam 30 miles to get this for you.” He gave me a hug, we all sniffled a little and Susan took a picture.
Since then, he sent this email:
I can’t begin to tell you how much that shell you brought back from the beach in France means to me. It represents everything that is positive about life.
It will occupy a prominent place on my desk in Arizona.
Have a terrific day.
PS – Please give Susan a great big hug.
Who knew that, by walking in to Don’s life when I was 17 years old, something great would happen.
Sometimes you just get lucky.
I will report back