Van

A coach of mine passed away last week. I found out via a Facebook post. Since I was 12 and started diving, he was around the pool deck at every meet I attended. Even though I wasn’t on his team, I knew him and knew he was a great coach. He was the UCLA diving coach and I always thought it would be fun to dive with him.

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But when it came time for me to go to UCLA, Van had retired and another coach recruited me. Yet, by some twist of fate, when fall came, the diving coach left and UCLA re-hired Van to coach again for that season. Van was good. He was tough. He would get so frustrated with me. I was an emotional mess. I wouldn’t kick out of my 205C or 305C, even though I had plenty of room. Habit made muscle memory kick in and I would kick out like a frog. At one point, I distinctly remember thinking he gave up on me.

That year at UCLA was rough. My roommate and I didn’t get along. I was not diving the way I wanted to. I just didn’t fit in. School was hard. I wasn’t ready for college. I needed more growing up time, but the clock said I was 18 and it was time to go and be an adult. Again, thank God for Mike. He patiently walked with me during that emotional turmoil. I really needed him.

After my freshman year of diving, I hurt my back. I really hurt my back. I had problems with my back before in high school, but in college the pain intensified. It was so painful I couldn’t sit up straight. Diving exasperated it. As a high school student, my mom would speak up for me. She would explain to coaches, drill team officers and the like, why I needed to sit out. When it happened in college, it was left to me to explain. I had to do it on my own. My maturity was less than par. I remember Mike coaching me on how to tell Van I need to redshirt the next season. Finally I got the nerve up and I called him and asked to meet at the pool to talk to him.

It is funny looking back, but at the time, I was terrified. I explained to him how it was better for the team that I redshirt the next season. How my back really made diving difficult. How the pain was constant, but when I dive, it would become worse. I remember Van patiently listening to my drawl and then responding with something like, diving is an individual sport; I really don’t know how your redshirting will do anything for the team. But, he accepted and I redshirted my sophomore year.

At this meeting on the pool deck he asked if I was all right and if everything at school was going Ok. He specifically asked about my roommate. I remember lying to him saying all was good. I was not about to tell him how bad and low I felt. How much I hated UCLA and my life. How I was turning anorexic and sleeping nearly 15 hours in depression. How I was unable to talk to anyone besides Mike. How my dad quit his job, and how much I needed the scholarship. How my mom was let go and they were using up their retirement. How I felt I was stupid, ugly, and worthless. How I often wanted to die. Looking back, Van knew. He wanted me to talk to him. He was a good man. I was an immature, scared little girl.

My sophomore year at UCLA was awful diving wise. I really never went to practice. I avoided anyone on the diving or swimming team. I had new roommates and they were wonderful. I lived off campus and that was a relief. I liked it so much better. But I couldn’t face diving. I was so ashamed deep inside.

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My pain was real, and I had several cortisone injections, MRIs and hours at physical therapy. I took neutral spine classes at the athletics sport therapy program at UCLA. These classes (essentially Pilates) really made a difference and continue to do so today. I still have back problems, but I go to the chiropractor, do stomach and back strengthening exercises and my back stays fairly stable. I’ve thrown it out a couple of times picking up kids, or sneezing and coughing. But overall, my back has remained stable since I left diving.

But somehow, at UCLA, I felt everyone thought I was faking my back pain. I wish I could go back to that little girl and tell her it’s ok. That my pain was real and it makes no difference what others thought. Instead I felt shame and avoided everyone. This led to such destruction that I quit the diving team at the end of my sophomore year and didn’t even have the guts to tell Van. Instead, I told a really mean assistant swim coach who literally couldn’t stand me. She called me and point blank asked if I was still planning on diving. I said probably not, with how bad my back was. Her snotty response was she figured I would quit. Van never called me. I never called him. I figured he knew I quit because she (I can see her still today, but don’t remember her name) told him.

It really wasn’t until years after (10-15 years) that I realized how shitty that was of me. I genuinely was so messed up back then. I was severely anorexic at this point and wanted no one to know. Yet, my frail 90lb 5’6’’ frame loudly declared my sickness. Two diving coaches actually addressed my sickness to me: Glenn told me I was too skinny and Ward from ASU told me I wasn’t healthy. At the time I was angry with both. Today I thank them for noticing.

Anyways, Van never spoke to me again. He left UCLA and I left UCLA. I dove for one year at UC San Diego, but then quickly quit that too because I thought I was too fat to dive. Anorexia is a serious illness and I was deep in its grip. I regret this time in my life deeply. But I also am grateful for it. It is where I found Jesus. He picked me up during those miserable years and took my hand as I walked in starvation.

When my beloved coach Glenn McCormick died in 1995, I went to his funeral. Glenn was well known in the diving community and Van attended the funeral. I saw him, said hello, and he walked past me without saying a word. It hurt deeply. I was well at this time: Married and working as an office manager at a pediatric doctors office. But, even in that healthy place, my shame of that time remained.

With the advent of Facebook I reconnected with a few of the UCLA divers. I saw Van’s name on FB and sent him an apology note. This was my note:

Hi Van,

I just felt I should say hello and ask for forgiveness after all these years. My years at UCLA were obviously rough for me. I’m truly sorry for the way things ended. I had a lot of growing up to do. Diving was a huge part of my life and I wish things had ended differently. Unfortunately it sometimes takes a huge bump in the road to steer you back on track. For me that bump was UCLA.

I sincerely hope you are doing well.

Best Regards,
Patti Thompson Ziemke

He never responded. I figured it is what I deserved. I’m sure my actions really pissed him off. When I found out he died, I was saddened. Saddened I never was able to clear up the mess I left. I have no idea what Van thought of me – likely he didn’t even think of me at all. But that is something regret does; it sticks with you. I sure think of him and the pain I caused. I forgive myself for the ugly I lived. I was a wounded child and even though I was an adult in age, wounds of childhood had a way of showing up as an irresponsible adult. I regret my behavior and today, I would have handled the situation so much differently. But you can’t go back. All I can do is go forward.

I hope my tribute to Van shows the vast amount of respect I had for him. He was a great coach, and he taught me a lot in that one year of diving. As a high school diving coach, I would often impart Van’s wisdom onto the divers I coached. Its funny how words of a coach stay with you years later. He really mattered to me and I know he did to countless others. I’m glad I wrote him that note. Even though he didn’t respond, I know I did my best to tell him how wrong I was. He was so loved and the world will definitely be a little less joyous now that he is gone.

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