Semper Fi, Sink or Swim
"The Few, The Proud, The Amphibians"
Text by Jamie Miles • Photos by Joe Cardwell
Dr. Mark “Doc” Wilson doesn’t waste time and energy worrying about problems. Throughout his tenure as Morgan County High School principal, problems merely present opportunities to bring people together for a solution – no matter how unconventional the answer.
Last August, Wilson and wife, Lisa, hosted a swim party and cookout for the incoming senior football players. Amidst playful roughhousing poolside, he noticed one young man standing alone, hugging against the house. Wilson approached the student, Bill Payne, and asked if anything was wrong. Gesturing toward the water Payne confided, “Doc, they are going to try to throw me in.” It was then Wilson remembered Payne planned on joining the Marine Corps after graduation. Doc realized the young man had one huge hurdle to overcome. “Bill, this is a problem. If you’re going to be a Marine, you have to know how to swim.”
“Connecting people is an important part of my job,” said Wilson last week. “When there is a need, I like to find persons who can do something about it.” This May, six graduates plan on joining the Marines. As a requirement of basic training, Marine recruits must pass a timed swim test of 500 meters. If MCHS places a high priority on preparing students for their chosen path, adding a swim class to the curriculum seemed a practical solution. “It’s always exciting to come up with concrete ways to prepare our students for their goals in life.”
Blonde, blue-eyed and quick with a smile, Robin Couch is a busy working wife and mother of four. When Wilson called to ask if she would take on teaching the would-be recruits to swim, she couldn’t turn him down. Robin grinned, “It was a big commitment but if I didn't do it, who would?
Starting late-January, the seniors met at the Aquatics Center from 1:30 to 2 p.m. every day except Wednesdays. Couch joined them during her lunch break as Materials Manager at Morgan Memorial. When the lessons started two of the young men -- Payne and Andrew Behrendsen -- were unable to swim or tread water.
Last week, Behrendsen stood on the pool deck remembering those first sessions. “I thought swimming was something people did on weekends to have fun. Surely it wasn’t going to that difficult.” He soon learned the reality of trying to stay afloat in deep water. “The transition from thinking this was going to be easy to thinking -- whoa, this is not so easy -- was like two seconds.”
Marcus Cicero was excited but scared. His comfort level increased when Doc assured him of Couch’s experience. Robin grew up in Atlanta and swam competition AAU year round with Swim Atlanta. Throughout college, she coached swim teams and worked as a lifeguard. When the Recreation Department started the Marlins swim team, she volunteered to be their first coach.
With all her experience teaching young and old, Couch acknowledged fear is the biggest obstacle most adults face in learning to swim. “The older someone gets -- the more they know fear.” Earning their trust is the challenge. “You can tell a four-year-old something and chances are pretty good they are going to believe you.” Glancing at the boys swimming laps in the pool she added, “Adults are like wait a minute…we’re not so sure.”
Signing up with a recruiter last August, James Fraiser had approached Wilson about forming a physical conditioning group to get his classmates ready for their IST (Initial Strength Test) which is a timed 1.5 run, timed number of sit-ups and pull-ups. When the swim class formed, the two ideas merged. Fraiser admitted that as the best swimmer in the beginning, it was a little hard on his ego when others ended up being faster. But he added they all gained an appreciation for each other and their individual accomplishments. Joey Bixler and Dusty Cunningham discovered their gills and were voted the natural swimmers of group. Cicero used to lag behind but now challenges the leaders. And swimming all those laps each day resulted in increased lung capacity, which lowered their times for the 1.5 mile run.
Andy Dunston, Morgan County Aquatics Director, watched the recruits’ progress. “All I can say is in the beginning -- a few of them knew how not to drown.” He was impressed with their significant improvement in technique and especially with their endurance. Dunston served in the Army and passed several swim evaluations during his time in the service. “As for military standards, I know what’s ahead of them,” he added with a nod, “I think they’ll be okay.”
Couch admitted to apprehension last January. “Was I concerned? Sure…they didn’t know how to swim.” She knew the young men’s body types with lots of muscle, not much body fat and higher bone density, made them less buoyant. “I couldn’t say ‘just relax’ and you’ll float.” She laughed, “If they relaxed, they’d sink to the bottom.”
The first challenge was to get them comfortable in the water. With non-swimmers Bill and Andrew, this meant helping them learn to stay calm while kicking their feet and moving their arms to stay afloat. That first month, Robin swam alongside holding them up and talking through the motions. “They’re not a swim team so having a pretty stroke is not as important as just teaching them to stay up and go.” Floatation devices were not an option. Robin believes once someone gets comfortable with a float, they often become dependent on them.
With graduation and their formal swim instruction ending, each promised to stay in the pool. Behrendsen, Bixler, Cicero and Fraiser are due to report at Parris Island within the next two months. An injury to Cunningham’s wrist and unresolved visions issues for Payne have placed them on applicant status for now. All remain enthusiastic about their decision to join the Corps because the Marines are “simply the best.”
Wilson is quick to thank Bill Wood and Dunston along with the Recreation Department for helping get the program started. “But all the credit goes to Robin for saying ‘yes.’” The consensus from her pupils was that Couch was an awesome coach. As Andrew observed, “She knew when to push us and she knew when we were at our max.”
During last semester, Wilson enjoyed stopping Payne in the hall to check in with his swimming progress. When asked about his new found ability in the pool, Bill’s standard reply was, “I’m an excellent swimmer, Doc.” Similarly with her students now swimming and heading off to new vistas, Couch feels privileged to have played a part in their dream. Last week, after their final session together she looked at Bill and smiled, “I’m proud of you.”
Standing inches away from the pool deck with no hint apprehension, he looked to his coach and agreed, “I’m proud of myself too.”
Printed in the May 26, 2011 edition