Some of my earliest memories in life are of walking on your deck at the old pool.
It was where I learned to love the water, it was where I “badly stubbed my toe” twice running on the deck (rule #1) and proudly displayed my battle wound to you, it was where I would play basketball with a bum water polo ball after you took my childhood hoop from me and put it in the back corner, and it was where I looked forward to spending every summer.
Through the years, especially now as your alumni base has come together so well, people tell me all sorts of stories about watching my brothers and I run around your old pool deck when the three of us had those bright, blonde bowl cuts.
I remember when your college started writing the names of those who were All-Americans on the wall, and I would dream about my name someday being on there with all the swimmers that I so greatly admired–many that I knew and many that were like legends to me. It is a shame that they don’t update it anymore now that I have actually earned my place among you.
When your pool went away and became nothing more than a place to reminiscently smile at while driving by and you moved to another perfectly fine location a short drive away, it was clear to me that it was never really about the pool–it was about you.
To me, you started off as simply babysitters for my brothers and I. Not picking favorites whatsoever, but the ones I remember the most were a Sara Talbutt and a Stacy Montz. Though I don’t think he was ever a babysitter, I also remember a young Trevor Dasnoit playing the role of The Pirate on the high dive with the big pirate hat. Through you, my parents found crazy college kids who were responsible, fun, patient, and trustworthy enough to watch out for their own. Looking back, the character of your swimmers seems all too obvious. This is the Ventura College Swim Team that we are talking about here.
Eventually, you became my gateway to the rest of the world. You introduced me to good people like Tomer Cagan from Israel, Serge Vaculeac from Moldova, and a host of many others from all over the world. Dad used to keep stickers of their flags on his office window. The way they talked may have been different and they may not have had a favorite Pokemon to my utter dismay, but you loved them–and therefore, I figured I would too. Little did I know that in the future, some of my favorite members of the team would be from places like Venezuela, Hong Kong, and–of course–Brazil.
After the summer that I turned 11, I had deserted my track spikes in favor of the pool. Before then, I had always admired you and loved the individuals that you brought into my life, I sported your name on a bunch of t-shirts and sweaters that your coach would throw to my brothers and me, and I knew that for some reason I was always supposed to hope that you swam faster than a thing called “Cuesta”. But my genuine admiration lacked my own involvement. From then on, I could relate to you much better.
I began my own journey between the lanes just in time for the 2005 team–your first championship team. From this team forward, you were made up of my heroes. The biggest one being your leader. Your coach. The one I call “Pops”. Or “Dad-i-o”. Or nothing at all if I did something stupid.
Much like Tim Drake taking up the mantle of a new Robin in the comics or cartoons, whenever you lost someone to graduation, I would curiously ask your coach who the next one was going to be. As the years went by, the question was no longer, “Who is going to be the next freestyler?” but instead something like “Who is going to be the next Cheyne O’Gorman?” or “Who is going to be the next Jesse Marin?” These questions I actually remember asking.
Luckily, the 2006 team had the squad of Ben Vail breaking :21, Brett Todd closing the 800 relay, and the Max Davis Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good all splitting the freestyle duties. And we had JP Oliver and Jeremy Sotomayor on deck for fly the entire time the previous year. Why was I even worried?
By your 2008 team, I was starting up high school swimming and figured I would come up with my brother every single day to join you. I was sure I was ready. Your swimmers always looked so happy at the team dinners, and your coach is my own father who would know that I wasn’t exactly “college level” at all. What could possible go wrong?
You almost made me quit swimming that year, you sick, twisted being (and shout out to Nemanja “Nico” Simonovic, the greatest lane buddy this side of the Atlantic). While the experience was great foreshadowing of you being one the hardest college classes that I ever took, I did learn a few important lessons as I clawed my way through the year, reaped all the benefits as Coach said I would (why is he always right?), and never left you until I had to a full 6 years later…
First, your women’s team–which I was actually too intimidated to communicate with and get to know much when I was younger besides being a hyper idiot, save for some exceptions (few things change, folks)–is TOUGH AS NAILS. I never forgot the time Coach stopped a workout that your men (who got in after your women at the time) were completely failing at, and he was not shy at all about how well the women did the set earlier in the day. Good talk, Coach. It probably happened a lot. Second, I learned why Dad is lovingly called “Coach” by over a quarter-century of your alumni. Though many might have a long winded answer as to why, it really comes down to one very broad reason that applies to so much more than just in the pool: he wants the best for his swimmers. Third, I learned that while a young Cole was harshly struggling and barely holding on to my breath and strength, the very fastest swimmer was (as he should be) the same exact way. You were not just a collection of individuals but one unit that pushed each other toward a common goal that cannot be achieved separately.
Nothing embodied that third principle like the 2010 team, your second championship, where you became something more real to me.
My own brother Collin was on your team. A lot of guys and girls that I already knew and was friends with were on your team–good men and women that I am still close with to this day. For the first time ever, you weren’t that much older; you were made up of my peers. Since I was now only two years younger than you, I was able to pal around a little, share in the excitement of all you accomplished, and discover that this team was a worthy successor to the 2005 family that won you a championship before. It was–and remains–a team anyone would love to be on.
Around April of 2011 during the end of my senior year, my high school swim coach gave me a letter from an anonymous college, which I did not expect since I did not consider my times to be necessarily recruit-worthy. It was a letter from your coach, including a packet of your history that I knew all too well, and on the bottom of the letter there was an added, humorous promise of “fully paid tuition, room and board, food, and a father.” Weighing my options, it was hard to pass up.
Though I appreciated the gesture, the man really could have saved postage and just walked upstairs to my room, but I digress…
Actually being a part of your team was perhaps the greatest time of my life so far, and there have been some incredible times since. Wearing your bright, orange cap with my last name on it–imitating the countless role models who previously had their own, personal caps–gave me more pride than I can express in words. Those two years were also very challenging–physically, emotionally, the whole jazz. It shaped my understanding of what a team is and how it functions–a lesson that can be carried over in any aspect of life.
I was not alone in my pride and pain. Through all 17 of your teams that I lived with before, none compare to the two that I had the privilege of being a part of. I found those to call my best friends, I found those to truly love and genuinely care for, and I found those who I could always expect that glorious “Let’s go, punk” head nod right before the last part of a very hard swim set. No team has made me a better person. I gave you everything I had. Through all the workouts, travel trips, and Jackapaloozas or Jackstocks (as we called them), I get immense joy from reminiscing on the two years that I represented you.
It seemed all too coincidental that mere months after the last of your teams that Coach could have a son swim for, brain cancer decided to play its hand and forever limit my father’s role. While my family remembers and always thinks about those who are not as fortunate, we see how incredibly blessed we are and why we consider ourselves the luckiest people in the world. We have a very close and loving extended family in good health, we have great friends, we have the best doctors on the planet, we have a beautiful California coast in our backyard…and we have you.
Which is why I am writing this letter.
I wanted to thank you in the best way I knew how, which is in words. Speeches can be forgotten, mere gifts cannot do it justice, but these words will hopefully be around for a while. And I am not speaking for my family here–this is from the bottom of my own heart.
You have done so much for a lot of swimmers that have passed through your deck. You have been the springboard for the careers of many coaches and educators–some that I am proud to call mentors myself. You have helped many find love and eventually start families (what are we at, 12 married couples?). You have been a second and third chance for many at finding success in their lives.
Now you are doing something very special for your coach.
As I observe from afar the incredible amount of support that you constantly provide my father and the rest of my family, I am continuously in awe. From the late night text messages that I personally receive from different alumni who swam years apart to last weekend with your newest team–wearing custom shirts with awareness ribbons and the now-famous “Can You Baratte” on the back–coming together to win conference for Coach, you have been a source of happiness, laughter, and love.
To be completely honest, I have not been able to find much comfort in many things since the diagnosis, and I like to keep that to myself. But through your words, I know that no matter what happens at any time–today, tomorrow, or in 30 years—I know that the legacy that Coach has left will have an affect for a long, long time. This means something to me as a son who looks up to his father. To admire at the incredibly positive impact he has given decades of swimmers. To hear stories that I had never heard before about what he has done for his swimmers or how thankful they are for him.
But to me, none of that compares to what you have given us. These days, from my point of view, it truly seems like Coach is the one that gave of himself and now he is receiving 10x in return.
As you have just read, through the years of my life, you have meant so much to me in so many different ways. You have been a watchful eye and you have been a collection of my heroes and my best friends. But these days, with the immense love and gratitude you show my father every single day as he endures this new challenge, your impact on me is unmatched.
Thank you for everything, Ventura College Swim Team. I’m proud to be among you.
And to the current and future teams…clearly you are part of something very special.
Pirate for life,