I had made it through the first few weeks. The physical exhaustion was beginning to overcome the mental fatigue, and all I wanted was a long night’s sleep.
But it wasn’t easy.
Randy had been sick from cancer for a few months now, but even after a week, the news that my coach of 13 years was being moved to palliative care still took up a majority of my consciousness.
I thought about it in the silence of our hotel room, at the pool, lap after lap, and almost everywhere in between.
It left me with a series of questions: How would his family cope? What would our future hold? And, most importantly, how would Randy swallow that kind of news? How does anyone stay sane knowing his death is imminent?
I told myself sleep would help.
Maybe I would find answers tomorrow.
For the first time in weeks I was in bed before 11 and I figured this was a good sign… until the knocking at the door rattled me awake. I’d been through this before: the unannounced drug testers were again arriving at a less than ideal time.
I contemplated ignoring them, but eventually thought better of it. I reluctantly opened the door and found Ryan, our interim head coach, standing there with a blank and desolate look on his face.
“I know we were told we would have more time,” he said. “But Randy’s gone.”
Breathing through a straw
Altitude training is something most of us on the team dread. It always starts late in May, after our national championship meet earlier in the month. We go from having an entire week off to full training in Flagstaff, Ariz., at 7,000 feet.
It feels like you’re breathing through a straw, and being thrown back into it all was not an experience I’d describe as pleasant. It was a cycle we had done for three years now and often Randy was the only one excited about the process.
In retrospect, his enthusiasm over the trip was heightened after he bought his new BMW bike. On our second trip he chose to ride it down and enjoyed every second of it.
All that aside, his appreciation for these trips came from the simplistic nature of it all; we were there for one reason — to swim.
The first few weeks were the worst, and the thing about Randy was that he never underestimated the importance of our happiness — he was always pushing for us to enjoy the process and be content in what we were doing.
That being said, positive reinforcement was not something we expected, but after a rough few days, he stopped us all and pulled us out mid-session.
“Look, I know this is hard,” he said. “Swimming is hard. Yet you all have been doing a great job. I know it’s not easy; hell, I had a hard time walking here this morning. But you NEED to get used to being uncomfortable. We can and will be the best in the world.”
Randy was always a straight talker. There was no doubt he rubbed a few people the wrong way by his lack of tact. However, he never once wavered from his passion to be the best coach he could be and in doing so, foster us to be the best in the world.
Man, did we want gold medals.
At my first Olympics in Beijing, I had the race of my life in the prelims of the 1,500 metres. Our goal for the entire season had been to win a medal at the Games. It was a simple and easy goal to follow: get on the podium, with nothing else being good enough.
With preliminaries being at night, I went to sleep with a (short-lived) Olympic record and Lane 5 ready for me in 36 hours. It was the first restful sleep I had had the entire Games. It was the last morning of the swimming schedule, and both Randy and I found our alarms ringing early. For once, 3:30 a.m. was a welcomed sight.
This was our day.
We borrowed bikes and slowly meandered through the silent village to the training pool. Our goal of standing on that podium was just hours away.
I can imagine the excitement of my friends and family who watched that race back home: I was leading with seven minutes to go. Seven minutes: halfway done. Seven minutes with a gold medal in sight.
Beginning to hurt
Randy was unquestionably losing his mind. It was at this point things began to hurt. Hurt being a complete understatement. I felt the searing pain in my thighs, quads, triceps, lungs - the list was endless.
The gold medal was slipping away and eventually the silver did the same. Our goal was to make it to the podium and it was all saved by the very marginal amount of energy I found in the last 30 metres.
I was pissed.
Less than seven minutes ago it was gold, and I stood on that podium feeling completely divided. I was happy to win a medal for our country, but miserable for my mistakes.
Even in Flagstaff, seven years later, Randy used positive reinforcement sparingly to both make us stronger and grow our appreciation for the times he chose to use it. It wasn’t the words he said in that moment in Beijing that changed my outlook on the Games; it was the tears in his eyes.
Closure is not something that comes easy.
A bad race and missed opportunity can linger for years or even decades. I’ve had many of them. Though I’m still far from a point of acceptance, I’ve been told that the appreciation for results comes later.
Randy was good at always having an appreciation for it all in the moment, yet somehow he was able to, constantly looked towards what was to come. His imagination changed the way many of us view sport and he helped us become more resilient people both in and out of the pool.
I know I am a different man today as a result of his presence.
His legacy will inevitably live on in his wife and sons, through the club he helped build, and through the hundreds of athletes he pushed throughout his 30 years of coaching.