This post involves a piece I wrote for my Creative Non-Fiction class. I just tried to read the whole thing in class about an hour ago and couldn’t get through it because I got choked up. Tears are pricking my eyes as I type this. Coach Norris was an incredibly important person to me, there’s not much else to say about it. If you knew her, I hope you enjoy this piece and remember something that she brought into your life.
I was six when I met her. My parents were tired of having me in the house all summer. They signed me up for the summer swim club. My mom threatened my cousin Garret’s life, who was fifteen and a veteran swimmer, to keep me alive.
Coach Janet Norris was easily the most intimidating adult I had ever come across. She had gray, cropped hair, a deep voice, and one dolphin earring. My first memory is of her barking at the older swimmers, shouting orders and reprimands. She terrified me. Every adult I had met at school talked gently to me, but Coach Norris didn’t even address the little kids in such a manner.
That first year, I luckily didn’t drown. I came close once, or so my family says. I was only six, had no muscle, knocky knees, and a bloated kid’s belly that my swimsuit stretched across. We were at the last meet, the big Saturday Invitational. When it was my turn to swim the six and unders version of the Individual Medley, shortened to a fifty freestyle, I was informed that I would have to swim the whole IM. Coach Norris pulled me aside before it was my turn and gave me a pep talk in a voice as close to sympathy as she could get.
“You can do all the strokes really well. You’ll be fine. Just do your best.”
It was the first time she had ever spoken one on one to me and from that day forward I became so attached to her.
My parents still give me a hard time about that first IM. They say I sank lower and lower in the water with every stroke I took. I didn’t care. Coach Norris was waiting for me at the end of that last lap and she hauled me out of the pool by my hands, giving me a rough pat on the back, beaming down at me for at least finishing.
Throughout the years, she and I got to spend more time with each other. She was the swimming teacher at my school and also the Varsity swimming coach. I eventually finished my career with a couple of records that my sister has since knocked down. Norris would ask me to show the other kids in class how to do the strokes; nothing puffed up my ego more.
My eighth grade year, right before I would have been on her Varsity swimming team, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and resigned from coaching. My heart was broken. I had worked so hard for such a long time to be a top member of her team, but she wouldn’t be at the pool anymore.
I swam every race my first Varsity year for her. “If you win this race, Norris will be alright,” I thought to myself as I stood before the starting block, jumping up and down, warming my limbs. If only that had worked. Coach Norris’ lifestyle had led to her being more susceptible to the disease. She wasn’t married and her partner was the judge in our county, who I sometimes saw at the locker room at the YMCA. Never having children is a risk factor, as well as increased age, the majority of women being diagnosed at the age of fifty-five through sixty-four; she fell right in the middle.
“Mom, come in there with me,” I pleaded one Saturday meet my freshman year. Norris was in her old office, under the bleachers watching.
She argued with me, but I eventually drug her in. I couldn’t go alone. My idol had been undergoing chemo. I had no clue what she looked like or what she would act like.
“What was the deal with that turn in your IM?” She asked me brazenly as stood as I stepped in, peering at her from around my mom, a child again. A sheepish half-smile was all I could muster. Not able to speak, I just stood and listened to them. They had been friends ever since I had started swimming for Norris. As I left to swim again, I was ashamed at how I had acted. It was the last time I spoke with her.
Early in my sophomore year of high school, my parents called me out onto the porch where they were enjoying the fall night. “Coach Norris is in hospice care,” my mom said to me. I smiled at her, not knowing what hospice was, I thought it was a good thing, like rehab or something.
“That’s good right?”
My mom and dad exchanged a glance. “No, honey. That’s where people go when nothing else can be done.”
“Oh,” was all I could say. “Right.”
In September, after that conversation, my mom and I went to downtown Indy for the Ovarian Cancer Walk in Coach’s honor. I was surrounded by other supporters, those who were currently suffering, and some who had survived, which was a feat in itself. Ovarian cancer has seen a very slight improvement in the five year survival rate since the seventies, currently at forty-three percent, while breast cancer is now at ninety percent and cervical cancer is at sixty-nine. These women truly had the odds stacked against them.
Right before swim season started that year, she passed away. I came home from my high school boyfriend’s house as soon as I heard the news, going straight to my room and collapsing onto my bed.
When it came time to begin the season, I strode into the locker room shaking inside. To me that pool had never existed without Coach Norris. When I was all suited up, I hid in a bathroom stall until everyone left. I cried, almost as hard as I had the day she passed. I didn’t know if I would be able to go out onto the deck without her. I looked at myself in the mirror, tear-streaked face and puffy eyes. “She’d be really pissed at you right now,” I whispered, finally moving through the showers and out to the pool. I kept my eyes down and put my goggles on as quickly as possible. Nothing ever felt better than diving into the cool water.
Articles I used for statistical research: