|Taken early one cold morning in late November: the view from the stern of the ferry as she left her new home|
and headed west to her chosen and beloved home in the Comox Valley.
There are seminal moments in every person's life that burn themselves into your memory so clearly that to recall them is to relive them. Personally, I have a peculiar memory in that I remember practically everything that has ever happened in my life. I frequently surprise my family by recounting events in our history that they had forgotten entirely. My brother Ivor, to this day, does not remember throwing a spent mortar shell at me when I was about ten. Accompanied by a friend, he and I had been hiking through an old WWII army training ground and we had stopped to investigate a massive red-ant hill which grew out of a peculiar depression beside the road. He remembers the shell, he remembers his friend Scott being there as we dug into the immense ant hill to retrieve the ancient brass, but he cannot remember who caught that shell when he threw it high and ducked for cover. I remember like it was yesterday; the sweat dripping down my back as the late August sun beat upon my pudgy shoulders, the heat of the newly excavated artillery shell as my fumbling hands nervously caught it just before it hit the ground and the anger welling up in my heart as I realised that Ivor had no idea if the shell was live or spent when he lobbed it my way.
This kind of memory is wonderful in many ways; it allows you to relive the best moments of your life. My first glimpse of the long legged beauty I was to eventually marry; I remember thinking that a boring dude like me would never get a date with someone like Roni. I still am embarrassed that I had to down a couple of stiff drinks with the boss (these were the eighties, so having a drink or two with the boss after work was accepted and even expected in some cases) before I found the courage to ask Roni out on our first date. I botched that first date in the worst way, but it was certainly a sign that I had found the right girl. I forgot to turn off the pager that evening and I ended up taking this poor city girl on an emergency call into the cold of the flat lands around Lethbridge. She forgave me, but I have no idea why since the call was a particularly messy and gory emergency that ended up with us having to drive back to my apartment with the windows rolled down to diffuse the pungent smell of manure, blood and fetid infection that covered my clothes. My halting proposal months later was juvenile; I had not ever bothered getting a ring before I dropped to one knee. Our wedding was a patchwork quilt cobbled together more based on a pragmatic budget rather than a romantic dream. The memory that has been most clear just this last week was the timid way Roni broke the news to me that she was pregnant; I was standing in the tiny closet we used as an X-ray dark-room in Whitehorse, sifting through un-filed radiographs looking for a specific case. The mix of fear and joy that filled my heart that day will be just as vivid the day I die as it was that day over 22 years ago. All those memories are as crystal clear in my mind's eye as the view out my kitchen window as I type this.
Unfortunately, for every "yin" there is a "yang" in this world. I also remember the exact details of the day Calista died. The fateful phone call, the lonely drive home already sure that she was either dead or dying, the long approach to my home where there was an ominous RCMP squad car and the ubiquitous soccer-mom van owned by the victim's services representative. There are no "fuzzy' edges on this memory; I can still taste the salty tang of my Roni's tears in my mouth as I tried to kiss her pain away. They tasted just like my own tears as they flooded down my cheeks. There are worse memories than that though; having to choose between burial and cremation the next day or writing my daughter's obituary less than a week later are two tableaux I wish I could permanently erase from my memory. People who dream of having total recall need to understand that there is a curse attached to a gift like that.
A friend with which I have exchanged correspondence with for nearly two decades passed on his condolences just before Christmas. My friend is possibly the best amateur writer I have ever had the pleasure to read; his prose flows like a cold glacial stream over ice; it is clear, crisp and sparkles with genius at every bend and rapid. He has self-published a couple of well-received books (with limited circulation) and I wanted his advise on how I should go about publishing this journal. Rob, while considerably younger than I, has an old soul and he can always be trusted to give some worthy advise.
|For serious karateka. He still|
writes beautifully, but its
a pretty esoteric subject.
|a great read even if you|
are not into karate.
In his first note to me, Rob passed on an ancient Japanese adage: "Waza waza no sanzai", or the "three curses" of life. The first is to lose your children in old age, the second is to lose your spouse in middle age, while the third is to attain your life's ambition in youth. Experiencing any of these is to be cursed because each destroys your reason to live; you are left adrift in a storm, your compass shattered and your rudder lost. Rob's advise to me was to completely re-invent myself. The focus of my life to this point, Calista, is lost. Roni and I need to find some other way to focus our life so we can return our ship to an even keel and get back on a plotted course to a safe harbour. Good advise that I just cannot take right now; sometimes you just need to drift with the storm before you can see the evening sky turn red and have some hope for a peaceful dawn.
|In life it is so easy to lose focus. You won't|
find any loss of focus on this HDR of a
Roni and I tried all the standard activities that parents think their daughters might enjoy and thrive in. We tried gymnastics; she liked it, but was never going to really excel at it. Even when she was only four it was clear Calista was never going to be particularly petite or terribly graceful. There is no doubt that all the best gymnasts are more elfin that amazon, and that just did not cover my girl. Roni got her involved in dance and Calista actually spent four or five seasons learning modern jazz and "hip-hop" dancing. Technically Calista had all the right moves, but truthfully she had little sense of rhythm and absolutely no "soul" when it came to dance. While many of the girls who shared the dance floor with her became progressively more immersed in the "dance culture", it was clear that Calista was just "phoning it in" by the time she was ten or so. It was swimming that was a constant throughout Calista's early years; first all the levels of lessons and eventually she just seemed to fall into competitive swimming naturally.
|As she danced, you could see her thinking |
about it hard. It kind of killed the "soul" and
the art of the dance.
|But she did get to practice her posing, |
something that really paid off later in life.
Since I had been a pretty decent competitive swimmer (eventually battling my way through to the 1980 Olympic trials before I topped out as just another "also swam"), you would think that it would be me that really pushed Calista into swimming, but it was actually Roni. Roni, bless her heart, had all the right reasons for Calista to be a good swimmer, and I am not sure she ever lost sight of those good reasons. I only wish I could say the same for myself.
Roni cannot swim a stroke. She actually sinks like a rock and could drown in a bathtub given the chance. Anywhere near open water Roni actually starts to tense up; riding in a speed boat is a white-knuckle experience for her and anything tipsy like a canoe is completely out of the question. Sometimes even the ferry to Courtenay seems a bit small for her when it is crossing the wide, blue Straights of Georgia (aka: "The Salish Sea") Roni hates the fact she was never enjoyed water sports and always swore her girl was never going to suffer the same embarrassing fear of water. Typical of perfectionist Roni (if you wondered where Calista got if from, just look to my better half), being able to just "dog paddle" well was never enough; Calista had to go all the way with her swimming lessons.
Calista raced through all the red-cross levels just about as fast as any child can. She was quite ambitious and the fact that she got achievement awards for each level helped feed that ambition. By the time she was seven or eight it was clear that we had found something she really enjoyed doing. It quickly became obvious that the twice yearly red-cross sessions were not going to keep her busy enough, so after a family discussion Roni and I looked into the local competitive swimming clubs. I am not sure that Calista liked the "competitive" part, but the training was exactly what she needed; she was happy and eager to make it to every training session. It was about this time that dad started to lose sight of the true goal of the training and perhaps began to catch a little podium-fever.
Calista's first swim-meet was almost her last. After over six months of training three times weekly, the last meet of the season was an out-of-doors meet at the ancient Olympic-length pool in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The pool itself was probably four or five decades old, but the building servicing the pool, still housing a decrepit empty indoor pool, was actually a historic building left over from the early days of the last century. Everybody involved in swimming dreaded the facilities but loved the annual swim-meet because it is usually was sunny and hot in Saskatchewan by the third weekend in June. Typically everybody came home with sunburns and lots of ribbons. Even the parents used to get involved by participating in a fun "masters" relay (the older you are, the more likely you were to cheat) during the intermission of the third day of the meet. The first year Calista attended this meet was a ten-year exception: it was cold and pouring rain as we left Regina for the hour-drive to Moose Jaw and things did not get a lot better as the day wore on.
|I think her exact words were "I can't believe you|
are making me swim today". I admit it was darn
cold on deck that day.
|Happy in the heated water. The smile disappeared as soon|
as she got out on deck. She also was not quite sure who was
taking her picture without her glasses.
Once we arrived at Moose Jaw, my "large and in-charge" attitude kicked in. Calista was freezing and crying, in complete disbelief that we were actually making her swim. Her attitude did not improve when she saw the very rudimentary dungeon-like change rooms in the basement of the hundred-year old building. By the time she exited the cave-like basement change-rooms her chin was jutting out, her teeth were clenched and she was already shaking. From cold or anger, I don't really know which. The situation out on deck was worse; the wind was gusting and the coach, a teen-ager barely out of high-school was confused as to which lane the kids should warm-up in and what she wanted to do for warm-up training. I saw my daughter turning a reddish shade of blue as her anger combated with her hypothermia and I finally lost my composure. I got up, told Calista to get her ass in the water and just start swimming. Her coach gave me a sharp look since she was still puddling around about "warm-ups" and I bluntly pointed out that the pool was heated and likely the best place for the well-chilled young swimmers until the summer squall finally let up. I won the day, but it was a Pyrrhic victory; if I kept on winning battles with that coach I was going to end up well bloodied and finally lose the war. I am not sure the young lady ever forgave me and the swimming community in Saskatchewan is pretty small. I ran into her many times over the years Calista competed and I never got a very warm reception.
In Saskatchewan, swimming is a little inbred; the same kids compete in the same events at the same swim meets every year. You can pretty much predict who is going to win each event just by looking at the "heat sheets" before the swim meet even starts. Everyone has their standard routine and we all have choice terms for the parents and coaches of "the other teams". There was the loud coach with the piercing whistle that always had profuse and firm advice for everyone, there was the swim-mom who was unable to sit still for even a moment; she got skinnier ever year we saw her as she nervously rocked from foot to foot on the pool deck, there was the permanently upset mom who might have been her daughter's personal coach (we were not sure; she was always telling her kid what to do or what she did wrong) and, of course, there was likely all sorts of choice terms sent our way by those parents. Calista was probably known as that "dancing kid who never takes off her goggles".
|racing at UBC's Empire Pool just for the|
joy of racing. She had no hope of
winning: the unseen competitor in
the background was Brent Hayden, world-
Calista had many endearing idiosyncrasies; some of them done by habit, some of them done out of necessity. One thing many people never knew about by Calista is that she was just about blind as a bat; without her glasses (or contacts later in life) Calista thought anybody around her might be her coach or her parents. She couldn't clearly see the pace clocks, her team mates, or even the end of the pool when it came time to turn. Roni realised that it was a major issue pretty early on, so she tried to solve the problem by buying very expensive corrective swim goggles. The new goggles worked really well; so well that Calista would wear them whenever she was on a pool deck without her glasses. I must admit that it looked a little goofy, but everyone that knew her understood. Everyone else assumed she was just really anxious to get racing. And, for the most part, she was anxious to get racing for one reason and sometimes for another reason altogether.
My daughter was amazing at how well she internalised stress. No matter how stressful the situation was, Calista always appeared to be just as cool as a cucumber. If one of her friends was fussing about a relay event or a big race, she was likely to tersely tell them to "suck it up". The only thing you might notice if Calista was nervous about a race would be that she would tend to gently dance when she was behind the blocks waiting for the call from the referee. There would be a slight rhythmic bob through her head and shoulders and a subtle little sway to her hips; it was the only time she actually had good rhythm and it was to music only she could hear. There was once, at a interminably long swim-meet at the ageing Harry Bailley pool in Saskatoon that her dancing beat had a decidedly less than subtle rhythm; she was actually hopping from foot to foot anxiously and literally exploded off the blocks when the gun went off. Roni was enthralled as she saw her daughter, usually well back in the pack, surge to the front of the heat and lead from wall to wall. At the end of the race Calista did not pause for the rest of the swimmers to finish, nor did she bother checking her time; she was out of that pool and practically half-way down the deck before the last swimmer touched the wall. Roni was concerned about the rush and tried to flag her down; all she got was an angry snap reply of "I have to pee; get out of the way!". From that day on we used to joke that she should always race on a full bladder. I'm not sure she saw the humour.
Very few parents can say that they were present when their child reached their absolute pinnacle in their sport. I was actually there and it was not at a swim meet, but in a morning long-course training session down at the Lawson Pool in Regina.
|The Lawson Pool at full Olympic length and the bright|
yellow Omega timing pads in place. Things have not changed
much since I competed; those yellow pads are still ridiculously
slippery to push off when you are racing.
|she won her share of medals and they still|
hang in her room today. She kept them as
mementos rather than prizes.
The Lawson Aquatic Centre in Regina is a pretty good pool. It was one of the several "Canada Games" pools built back in the seventies. They all followed about the same design and I must admit the first time I walked into it I thought I had time-warped back to New Westminster BC circa 1979. I almost checked myself for a "mullet" and a pair of platform shoes. The pools are all 8 lanes, Olympic length with a massive movable bulk-head so the pool can be adjusted from one 50 meter pool (with a small 15 meter "teaching tank") or two 25 meter tanks separated by a 1 meter wall of fibre-glass. The pools all have excellent wave control and are very deep, so they tend to be very calm and placid even when filled with competitive swimmers training. The pools are what competitive swimmers call "fast" because when the pool stays glassy calm a swimmer is only battling their own limitations and not the currents and waves..
|Stroke correction with National Coach|
Tom Johnson. He was once my coach.
The fall Calista turned 16 she was swimming better and faster than she ever had before. She had trained much of the preceding summer, had attended a swim-camp with Tom Johnson, the Canadian National coach at the time, and had really trained hard all fall. That girl was really fit that year, keeping pace with many of the senior boys for most of the tough work-outs her coach threw at them. In late November the team was preparing for a big meet in Winnipeg and the coach had been resting them a bit and doing lots of speed training. Coach typically finished off his sessions those days with some hard 50 meter sprints. That particular day I had finished my own easy work-out early and was lounging in the hot-tub waiting for Calista to finish up training. I saw her step up to the blocks paired with one of the senior male swimmers, a boy who usually could leave her in his wake without much effort. I could see she was pretty pumped up and I had noticed she was training very well that day, so I thought something special might just be ready to happen. When the coach whistled the start, I saw my girl explode off the start and, stroke for stroke, she challenged that boy all the way down the pool. When the pair finally touched the wall after 50 meters of flat-out racing Calista was in the lead and had gone her personal best time by nearly a second. She was so amazed at her performance she smiled all the way to school. No words passed between us about it; I'm not sure she ever knew I saw her beat that boy. I always wanted to tell her how proud I was of her, but our car was filled with her friends as I chauffeured them all to school and I missed my opportunity. I just assumed I would have another chance when she swam even faster at a swim-meet.
|She was probably making some sarcastic |
quip or just enjoying the sun
Calista missed that next big swim-meet. The weekend that meet was held conflicted with her "Improv-Games" at school and her "Improv" team was depending on her help to compete in the acting competition. Calista always chose friends over personal goals, and there was no exception this time. She chose to stay home despite the fact she was at her peak. Calista's swim-coach was less than understanding; in fact, her never really forgave her for missing that meet. Upon his return from the swim-meet he basically announced that he no longer had any time for kids that train yet do not compete. He was no longer wasting one more moment of his time on Calista. From that moment on you could see that he was "just phoning it in" when it came to my daughter. I can pretty much date her decline in competitive swimming from that swim meet she missed.
|Her coach. Ok, maybe I am exaggerating; the orangutan|
is probably smarter and better looking.
Less than a year later, after months of being ignored by her coach and bullied by her team mates for spurning the attentions of a certain boy, Calista quit swimming altogether. I had seen the decline and I had tried to reverse the tide by hiring a stroke-coach to do a little remedial correction her own coach seemed unable or unwilling to do, but the writing was on the wall. Its hard to stay motivated when your coach abandons you and your friends turn on you. Calista never came close to matching that one blistering sprint again, but for one glorious moment she was queen of her world..... and I was there.
|One of her team mates stretching|
before work-out. In truth, gorillas
have more manners than many
of her former friends.
After spending most of my teenage years as a competitive swimmer hovering on the far edge of the coveted elite Olympic levels and then another ten years as a "swim parent" (while simultaneously teaching karate to teen-agers and young adults) I have some observations on competitive sports, coaching, and raising children. We, our entire society, have missed the point. We focus on medals and success coming from the talented few and, for the most part, discard the "also rans". The point of sports should be "sportsmanship" in the older sense of the word: dedication, self-discipline, fair play, and overcoming adversity. Unfortunately, once podium-fever takes over, we all seem to lose track of our primary goal in sports: raising healthy, decent children who rise to a challenge and enjoy the effort rather than just the results. I sincerely felt that while I competed, while I was raising Calista, and while I actually taught karate. Where I made my mistake with Calista is that I forced her to hang on too long, after her coach had given up on her and her team had turned on her: I truly believed that swimming was a superior fitness regime for my girl and I ignored the psychological pain the betrayal of everyone around her.
My rant is not about some idealised world where everyone wins and gets a "first prize" medal for simply participating. Its not about helping children develop and maintain self-esteem or any of that new age rhetoric. Its about helping our children become physically fit while developing self discipline. Self-discipline, to me, means winning and losing with grace. It means loving the challenges rather than the results. It means training and racing simply for the joy of enjoying your young body. Parents who scream obscenities from the stands, coaches who only support the potential champions and governments who divert all the money and resources to a few Olympic hopefuls at the expense of youth development are compromising the entire next generation. We probably would be all better off to completely ignore the Olympics and concentrate on getting the average child to enjoy participating in sports. Just get them challenging themselves and stop worrying about the results. By the end of her swimming career, Calista had managed to stop worrying about the end point and had learnt to just love the training.
Once Calista left swimming with a coach, she tried to keep up her fitness levels by training with me each morning. It worked for a while, but the toxic atmosphere on the pool deck with her former coach and team mates just one lane over from the public swimming lanes was more than she could handle. She asked to try boxing; she had tried it out in high-school phys-ed classes and had loved the calisthenics. She had no intention of ever stepping into the ring and actually hitting anyone; she just wanted to train for the sake of training. She understood long before I ever did that it's the athletic challenge that creates the value in sport rather than winning some competition.
|Flushed from the hour of continuous calisthenics before |
slapping on the wraps and the gloves, she is strapping up
while seated on the edge of the ring she never actually entered.
Calista spent over a year at the venerable old Regina Boxing club, a home-town tradition housed in a hundred-year old building in the warehouse district just north of the downtown. The hardwood floors of the third floor open space are bathed in the sweat of generations of adolescent boxers, the numerous heavy bags repaired with multiple layers of duct-tape, and the walls are covered with pictures of famous champions of decades past. There was a real sense of brotherhood there; the least member of the club was as valued as the rising star because they all had to endure the brutal calisthenics hour each training session before they ever got to lace on the gloves. Calista was passionate about her boxing and, despite never actually sparring, considered herself a "boxer" in spirit if not in reality. Much of her passion came from training with the cherished Roland, the man who became a real coach to her. Roland has no idea how lucky he was to be married already; I suspect my daughter might have set her cap for him if he had been single.
|The heroic Roland: Olympic athlete in Beijing and really very|
charming when you could understand him over his thick
Caribbean accent. My girl adored him and trained her heart
out for him.
Calista eventually followed Roland to help him set up his own boxing club in downtown Regina. For the first six months Roland's club actually trained out of the dojo down at Midwest Karate. As a result I got to know him quite well as I sat and watched the training sessions. The work-outs appeared to be an ever-changing program of calisthenics, boxing drills and obstacle courses that developed the fighter's coordination. Roland had a very scientific approach to boxing and he loved Calista's dedication and willingness to follow his instructions exactly without trying to inject any of her own opinions into the mix. Of course, since boxing was all new to her, Calista had nothing to inject. I believe Calista was Roland's first female member when he finally opened the "Black and Blue Boxing Club" in the heart of Regina's downtown. I used to go down to the club after work and after training at the karate dojo just to watch my girl train. After watching her thrive under his tutelage I regretted keeping her in swimming as long as I did. At least my complete lack of knowledge about boxing would have kept me in the good graces with Roland; even if I had given any advice, it would have just been a joke to everyone but me.
|Hardly appropriate for boxing, but it was |
fun to take her pictures in her hardly
used graduation dress.
Powell River has many wonderful qualities, but when it comes to organized sports, unless it's hockey, your choices are pretty slim. The few sports outside of hockey that do survive in Powell River try really hard, but the isolation of the village really limits the participation. The other problem is the ageing demographics of the population; the average citizen here has either less hair or more gray hair than they would prefer. There are not too many people drawing a pension interested in trading blows in the squared circle. Calista tried the local boxing club; she enjoyed the coach but found the sessions were a relaxed drop-in program that did not compare to the regimented, scientific program that Roland had offered. Calista needed that hard-driving heart-pounding training session to really enjoy training. Boxing did not survive the move to Powell River; we still have three practically new pairs of boxing gloves in the basement and I have her wraps sitting in my desk-drawer at work (still un-laundered from their last use; I just can't do that).
In many ways, the loss of swimming and boxing was good for Calista; it forced her to look around and try a bit of everything. In many ways, her last 18 months of life were the most rounded, balanced times of her life. She tried yoga and loved it, she routinely lifted weights and regularly attended all sorts of aerobics classes at a local gym called "Coast Fitness", a five minute drive from my veterinary clinic. She tried "Zumba", whatever the heck that is, she swam periodically with me, she even tried running (she inherited my knees, so that was sporadic at best). By the time Calista moved to Courtenay she had found her own inner self-discipline; she no longer needed a coach or anyone to crack the whip. She cracked her own whip; and it showed. Hell, even the coroner and the pathologist commented how physically fit she was when she died.
|She tried snow-shoeing! The girl that was most comfortable in|
high-heels and form-fitting skirts was out doing the back-country
duck-waltz with her friend KaReen.
Calista attended a brutal "boot-camp" session at Coast Fitness just five days before her death. She visited the gym for a weight lifting session and some basic aerobics just eighteen hours before her death. In all those years of hard training in swimming, over all those hours of sweating at the boxing club and throughout so many sessions of "boot-camp" training Calista never showed one sign of any cardiac issues. Not once.
|A product photo she did for Coast Fitness. She |
fussed over the exact shade of orange for hours on this one
So, we come full circle back to why does a healthy young 20 year old girl just drop dead one morning a few short moments after awaking? If we swallow the coroner's suggestion to date, then we will accept that she had harboured this "Long QT" syndrome for her whole life like a terrorist bomb ready to explode at any time. I did a little research on those syndromes, and it remains a possibility, no doubt. The problem here is that the vast majority of those syndromes rear their ugly head during strenuous activity, especially aquatic sports. Long QT usually has some warning signs hidden in the patients history; unexplained fainting episodes associated with exercise. In Calista's case there was never any collapsing episodes during any of her training or even when she was racing. This is a girl that used to swim the 1500 meter race nearly every swim meet. Statistically, the odds against "Long QT Syndrome" are astronomical: only one in ten thousand people suffer from Long QT and of those, only 5 in 100 will actually die of the disease. Multiply those together: the odds of Calista dying from Long QT is 5 parts in one million. Needless to say I have started buying lottery tickets since Calista died because Roni and I are obviously afflicted with "long shot syndrome". Or the bureaucrats down at the coroner's office have found the "easy button" and decided to just keep on pushing it until we accept their decision. It would be a little more palatable if I had not been the first one to suggest "Long QT Syndrome" in the first place. I wonder what they would have said if I had suggested "alien attack."