Monday, March 22, 2010

"An open letter to the swimming community" by Mark Spofforth

After witnessing his daughter finish out her NCAA career by leading her Florida Gators to a surprise NCAA title, Gemma Spofforth's father Mark posted this letter on the forums. In the letter, he thanks the coaches and team and people at Florida and the entire NCAA and swimming community for taking in Gemma as a foreigner and building up her career to make her one of the world's best backstrokers. He also describes Gemma's struggles early in her life and her challenges just to get a scholarship to Florida and later to make the Olympic team, win a world title and set a world record in Rome, win six individual NCAA titles, and lead her team to their achievement that cumulated on Saturday night. Gemma's performance on that Saturday night was crucial, one of the greatest displays of "team" by an individual athlete; after being denied her fourth straight 200 back title, Gemma bounced back 90 minutes later to swim a critical leg on the third-place 400 free relay, just enough for Gators to hold onto the victory.

An open letter to the swimming community.

All of you reading this who are parents will understand the mixed emotions that surround the birth of your first child. Joy, pride, but above all sheer terror at the thought of bringing a new life into the world and having to nurture and protect him or her with very little training in parenthood.

In our case we had an added problem when the doctors went into a little huddle to discuss some issue with our baby which they didn’t want to tell us about straight away – that was a nervous time. As it turned out, it wasn’t a major difficulty, and a small operation a year or so later sorted it out.

But really quickly you find yourself leaving your child – a daughter in our case - at her first school, and again the terror at entrusting your baby to a teacher that you don’t really know leaves you with a physical pain in your stomach.

Things go well, the child begins to flourish and soon shows an aptitude for swimming, so you take her to the local swim club, and soon the local competitions start. Once again your stomach turns somersaults every time she races; our daughter seemed to come second most of the time, so you spend some time counselling as well and urging her to keep going, “One day you’ll be a winner if you keep trying”.

The local coach spots something in her psyche and offers to give her longer hours, and eventually county/state competitions become part of the routine, leading to a trip to a national championships and a space on the national talent development team, which in turn lead in our case to a European Junior Competition, and a Gold medal. When the national anthem plays and you daughter stand on the podium, it’s impossible not to cry.

A few years on and things are not so good. A really unpleasant illness has kept her out of the water, she’s unfit and the national team have pretty much discarded her. Thoughts turn to academic achievements and potential jobs rather than sporting excellence. The illness appears to have been properly diagnosed, but might recur, who knows?

But then we have to choose a University, and we start to think about what it might be like to get away from all the local pressure, and look at the facilities on offer in the USA. Eventually she’s offered a golden chance to train at the University of Florida on a sporting scholarship, even if the Coach thinks this is the riskiest scholarship he’s ever awarded, and is daunted by the task ahead trying to get this girl fit….. but again, he sees some spark, some character that he thinks might just turn into something given a following wind.

4 years later, and that girl is a World Champion, a World Record Holder, an Olympian, and her last act for the University is to lead her team to the NCAA Championship.

I am so proud of Gemma, but can’t forget that fear of the unknown the day she was born, and the days that we’ve entrusted her on to teachers and coaches who have all paid back that trust with exceptional effort and skill, far beyond what might be expected of an employer.

So I just wanted to say THANKYOU to everyone who has supported her over the last four years, especially the “Gator family”.

Thankyou to her friends and housemates for accepting a foreigner and helping her understand your country, especially the Beales family, who were there from the first day.
Thankyou to Coaches Troy and Wilby for their coaching skill and their ability to keep Gemma focussed when times were really bad - and believe me there were some bad times
Thankyou to UF for understanding the benefits of bringing in foreigners to work and play alongside your students – I understand the debates about the wisdom of doing that, and I hope that you never succumb to those that would have you restrict your tuition to US nationals alone
Thankyou to all the other swimming parents for acting as surrogate parents at swim meets when we were the other side of the world
Thankyou to all the volunteer officials and managers who make the meets possible in the first place
Thankyou to the USA for having a system that has helped make my daughter a World Champion.

But most of all Thankyou to the sport that she loves and which has helped build character and confidence into what was once a small and sickly newborn baby. You should all be proud of your part in this success

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