Through hard work and an effort of will, I continued to improve. When I swam with the Devilfish, I competed hard against Brian and the other kids. When I swam on my own, I pushed myself constantly, keeping my goals clear in my mind. I tried to make every workout count, and I dropped time consistently in my best events. I turned thirteen towards the end of seventh grade, and shortly thereafter, I made my first “A” time—in the 100 Butterfly. This was made more impressive because I made that first cut time in my new, older age group, 13-14 year olds.
A few weeks after I made that first cut, my folks took me over to Coach Pete’s house. I sat down at a little table in his den while he, his wife, and their two infant children looked on. Mom came out with a cake—like a birthday cake, but it said “Devilfish Swim Team” on it—and Dad followed behind, carrying a large white box with a big red satin bow. I watched all of this in a state of bemused confusion. But when I looked at Coach Pete’s face, his pride and excitement were obvious. His joy was contagious, and I felt myself getting caught up in the moment.
“Congratulation, son,” my father said proudly.
He handed me the box, and my mom set that cake down on the table in front of me. I stared at all of this for a moment, taking it in. Then I tore off the bow, ripped open the box, and saw Marine Corps red with gold satin trim. My folks had gotten me a jacket. I pulled the jacket from the box and noticed a red and white “D” stenciled on the front in the style of a high school letter jacket. The back had “Devilfish Swim Team” embroidered across the shoulder blades.
“Oh my gosh!”
My mouth fell open, and I scrambled to put it on, while my parents watched proudly. Coach Pete and his wife both beamed. That “A” time jacket was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I wore it everywhere.
Everywhere I went, people stared at that jacket. It was brilliant Marine Corps red with bright yellow highlights, worn by the now-cockiest kid in the entire state of North Carolina. It was unmistakable. The Cool Kids at school had no idea what to make of it. Neither did anybody else. By now, anyone who cared knew that I was swimming competitively and that this was why I hadn’t gone out for any of the school’s sports teams. Curiosity peaked interest until eventually a few brave souls started coming to the country club to spy on my workouts. I ignored the onlookers entirely, and this begat rumors that I was all too willing to encourage at my school.
Word started to get around. “Dan Head can swim like a mug.”
I didn’t know what that meant in plain English, exactly, but it was what the kids said, and it sure sounded good. Soon kids started asking if I was going to go to the Olympics.
“Yes, absolutely!” I’d say. “I’ve got a really good shot.”
* * *
In the summer after seventh grade, my parents sent me to swim camp at the University of Tennessee. Both they and my grandfather were alumni. The Volunteers had won a National Championship back in 1978, and my parents were keen on the idea of my getting a scholarship to their alma mater. They knew that college sports camps were important recruiting tools for collegiate athletic departments. Scholarships were given based on merit, of course, especially in time-based sports like swimming, but they could also be dependent on personal relationships. New Bern sat relatively close to UT, so that summer offered a unique opportunity.
The camp itself ran by in a blink. We swam twice per day, stayed in dorm rooms at night, and got anti-infection ear drops after every practice. I was ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack when camp started but worked my way into the fast lane by mid-week and didn’t have any particular trouble keeping up once I got there. I did have to work, however. I wasn’t the best kid by any means, but neither was I out of place with the best. Faced with competition, even good competition, I was able to hold my own.
My favorite event occurred towards week’s end. We finished afternoon practice and put on street clothes for a trip out to one of the coaches’ houses for a barbeque. There we watched a documentary called “The Barefoot Boys of Tennessee,” chronicling the Volunteers’ national championship season. It was an inspiring moment, and growing up with my parents, it was impossible not to be a huge Vols fan.
On my way out of the locker room that evening, I put on my Devilfish jacket for the first time. Kids crowded around immediately, staring at and even touching all that red satin.
“Where’d you get that?” one kid asked. He was the best swimmer at the camp. I could keep up with him at practice, but barely, and it took all of my effort.
I held my head up and puffed out my chest, ready to show off at last. “My team gives them out when you make your first ‘A’ time,” I replied, sure that this would earn some respect.
The kid laughed. “Shit, seriously? I’d have a dozen of those. What do they give you when you make a ‘AAA’? I bet they’d give me a whole track suit.”
Suddenly blushing, I offered no reply.