Paradise Found

My arms knifed through the water and I could feel my hips rotate and drive with my freestyle kick toward the wall. When I touched the wall, I looked up and the sun shone brightly on my head and shoulders. The water was warm, just right, I thought- as I eased my body lower to get ready to push-off the wall for the final 50 meters in the set. The coach nodded encouragingly and said, “I like your elbows and your pull – make sure you rotate your body to provide more power.”

Gary Hall runs a program called The Race Club in Islamorada, Florida, just a few miles from Key Largo in the Florida Keys. It is a training camp for swimmers of all ages. But what is unusual about it is not only its elite and honored staff, but its core foundation and principles-based training.

Gary has been an Olympian in 3 Olympics – and has 3 medals and an untold list of experiences to show for it. His son has also been in 3 Olympics – they are the only father-son combination in history to have participated in 3 different Olympics each. He has 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls.

Gary Hall was my hero for swimming when he swam for NCAA swimming champion Indiana under the legendary James “Doc” Counsilman. I liked the fact then that he was a team player, extraordinarily good at his sport, but not brash and outspoken. He also went on to graduate from medical school and to become an ophthalmologist. I was somewhat curious to see what kind of man Gary had become and quite frankly, I wanted a vacation where my son and I could be together and work to improve our swimming.

I first called his daughter Bebe who is enthusiastic about the program and the experience from the word “go”. She is the quarterback who coordinates the training camp staff and schedules and does 100 little things that make a big difference. She is as passionate about the concept as her brother Gary, its founder and her Dad.

In an era of steroid usage, pro athletes’ troubles with the law, and general lack of role models, Gary is refreshingly different for a world-class athlete and coach. He is a good role model in an era where too much selfishness and lack of team play, not to mention after-hours shenanigans predominate the news. Gary turned 56 years young on August 7th of this year, but he is eternally youthful and enthusiastic in his outlook and in his worldview.

My son Ben who is 17 (a high school senior) and my wife and I have traveled to Islamorada in August in a form of pilgrimage to learn from one of the zen masters of swimming. We were not disappointed.

The views were beautiful, the water was warm, and the sunsets were magnificent, but those were not the only reasons we came to the Florida Keys this summer.

In addition to 4 days of two-a-day training, we accompanied Gary to the health club “Froggys” to learn how boxing and medicine ball usage and a dozen other “dry land” activities could help gain strength for swimming. He explained to us the value of good nutrition and how good nutrition for the World Team in 2000 and 2001, in part, helped to improve their performance.

Gary imparts not only coaching knowledge but life lessons as well. He told us the story of how Mike Burton in Mexico City was counted out of everyone’s list of potential gold medal winners (except for his own list). Mike is portrayed rightly so as the swimmer who would never quit, a good lesson for all today. The stories are all the more meaningful because Gary was actually there. He shows us that fitness is a life-long quest. He accompanied us in the water several times to show us the strokes, turns and starts that he demonstrated on dry land. He is the embodiment of a good work ethic and treating everyone with dignity and class.

In addition, his co-coach Mark Hill a world-class sprinter, coached us as well. The two of them complemented each other well to form a lasting set of memories that are positive and meaningful for our family. All 3 that we worked with have a great sense of humor and communicate well.

In fact, talking with both coaches was as easygoing as with our neighbors back home. (I was able to share with Gary a couple of stories about a few swimmers we both know as well).

Gary Hall is not just a swim coach, he is a life coach as well. Gary believes in 5 principles – Family, Faith, Community, Profession, and Health. He practices these principles every day and tallies up how he has done in each category at the end of every week.

This is an experience that every swimmer can enjoy (and I hope will) sometime in their careers. That is, the confluence of good coach, good advice, good people, good life lessons, and good location. That combination is hard to beat no matter what your skill level!

-Bob Jones

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