He was 8 years old when I watched him zip across the pool for the first time.
John Plutt had just won his first race, a short 25 yard dash, and he touched the wall before other children had reached half.
Everyone on deck couldn’t help but stare at the small, skinny, kid with arms ten times too long for his body. He hopped clumsily out of the pool, a plucky grin on his face as his mother hurriedly rushed forward to wrap him in a towel. Even in the 90 degree summer heat, John was turning blue and shivering as he walked off to talk to our coach.
Every swimmer, coach, and dedicated parent who got to witness this historic first dip into competition knew that they had just watched something- someone- special.
Of course, at the time, none of us knew how special John would be.
Fast forward a couple years, I’m 12 and John’s 10. We had been swimming together for two years now, and I had been there for every practice the kid had ever had. We were lane buddies, both of us just fast enough to swim with the senior group of our team, but not old enough to be part of the social circle that came with it. Obviously, getting ignored by the oh-so-inspiring high schoolers allowed for plenty of time for John and I to get to know each other. By the time I was in middle school, I had a second little brother, and a training partner for life.
I remember when he made his first state time, it was at a winter meet, and we were some of the only kids who even swam during the winter for our small developmental club team. It was the 100 fly, I remember he broke 1:10, and I remember screaming so loud my voice was hoarse the rest of the day. He ran from behind the blocks to our coach, who sent him quickly over to his mom and I, who he attacked in the biggest hugs he could manage at the young age of 11.
That was the moment John became something more, as a swimmer. He got hungry, he wanted to swim more events at state, and his work reflected that. He stopped playing other sports, and he decided he really loved swimming. As far as I know, he’s never looked back.
That first state meet was the start of a long line of state meets, and lots of races that John won. I learned very quickly that John refused to lose.
It was that desire, that dream to win, that propelled John to convince his family into letting him switch teams with me during his 6th grade year. We left for a more competitive environment, one where I could train with other girls my age, and John could try his might against some of the older year-round boys.
So we left, we moved, and it was terrifying. I remember John being worried that the coach would be mean.
Little did he know that Josh Cortese, our coach, would end up being the best person to prepare him for what was to come.
Some of the biggest turning-point races in John’s life were at a small, summer-league meets.
Josh decided to test John by making him swim in “The Open.”
“The Open” age group, during summer, is for kids over the age of 15, but younger kids can be entered by their coaches. At 13, John happily accepted the challenge, he swam, and still swims, with these much older kids every day. He races them in practice, and he never backs down.
He didn’t falter in the face of this bigger obstacle. He swam with kids almost five years his senior at that league meet, and for the first time ever John realized he was not limited to being good in his own grouping, He learned that, with hard-work, age really is negotiable. The older boys quickly took him into their ranks, and helped to train him to another level.
During his eighth grade year, we carpooled to Pueblo County High School every day for swim practice. I got to tell him all about the joys of high school swimming, and I knew then he would make a splash in Pueblo. He was already competitive with the fastest kids in town, and he wasn’t even 15!
That year, he won a state championship during club season in the 100 fly, and his confidence sky-rocketed. Watching him win that race was like watching him win his first 25. The same grin covered his face when he got out of the water, and the same kid who used to bargain with his parents for suckers in exchange for victories walked over to his mom and immediately said she owed him a whole coconut cream pie for winning. He didn’t focus on the swim, he just wanted some food.
His first high school meet was characterized by people saying “Who is this kid?” immediately followed by “He’s a freshman!” I couldn’t help but smile every time someone realized what I had always known. There, right there, in this goofy 15 year old boy, was something very rare.
I am inspired daily, by my swim-brother, who sets goals as soon as he breaks them. Who has never been complacent in victory, only working harder after a big win. A boy who, no matter the attention, always stays humble.
Imagine every practice together, every tear shed, every sore muscle, and every huge “post-win” grin coming together at one time. Imagine every aspect of your history with a person coming to mind in a second. Imagine every moment of the past rushing in and intermingling with the present as every joking “I’m gonna win as a freshmen” becomes more than a possibility, more than just a dream.
Saturday, May 19th, I watched my closest teammate, my family, touch the wall after the most important 100 fly of his life at the 4A state swim meet.
Tears filled my eyes as the one appeared next to his name, and everybody else on deck watched as a lanky kid, turning blue from the cold, with arms still too long for his body received his medal. They were realizing what I’ve always known, “This kid is something special.”