Life with Leo

I was lucky enough to grow up with the kind of coach that could change your life.

For the really talented swimmers, he literally changed their lives. Got them college scholarships, Olympic trials, coaching jobs…that sort of career trajectory.

But for the “normies” like me? Well, Leo Cancellare did nothing short of everyday miracles that changed the trajectory of my life. It started when I was 13.

I’m 38 now, and I still hear his voice in my head.

Gone Too Soon

Leo died young, 18 years ago this weekend, at the age of 41 from an aggressive form of cancer. When he died, they covered it in Texas Monthly. You know you’ve touched lives when the seminal magazine in the Lone Star State writes about your death and incredible legacy.

As for me, I never really got to fully tell him what a difference he made in my life.

I was never a great swimmer. I sort of puttered in the middle of the pack with a few moments of glory overshadowed by a career of boy-induced attention difficulties. I’m sure I could have been a good swimmer, but I was more interested in being a high school girl. Lucky for me, Coach had plenty of advice for me in that arena, too, and he never treated me like less than important regardless of the swimming accolades I was sorely lacking.

Beware the Anklebiters

“Never mind the anklebiters,” he told me once when he’d noticed my puffy eyes and red nose. My “best” friends had broken my heart. Again. “Some people never change and you’re an idiot if you stick around hoping they will.”

Wise words that I held on to. He was “Boss Hogg” to us, his “hogs.” It was a name reserved for his high school boys’ swim team, but eventually, the rest of us on the El Paso Aqua Posse were called hogs, too. I wasn’t so keen on the moniker then—but I realize now what a privilege it was.

“Boys are dirtbags,” he yelled at me one early morning, just hours after I returned from a late-night junior prom date. I was 16 and had the nerve to skip Saturday morning practice to get my hair ready for the formal. When I got home from the salon, there’d been an answering machine (remember those?) message from Coach. Just for me. I was summoned to a 5 a.m. practice the following morning (after prom, mind you.) Or else.

You didn’t mess with the or else when it came to Coach. I showed up, as summoned, with the other unfortunate souls who’d skipped practice, too.

As I did lap after lap, trying desperately to hide the beer funk that reminded me of all the bad choices I’d made the night before, he was waiting at the end of every turn, grilling me about the football player I’d gone to the dance with. One of the football players from the high school where he served as principal.

“Did you kiss him?”

I blanched at the question, sinking my chin into the chlorinated water and trying to avoid his eyes. Seriously?

Before I could answer, he set me off on another six laps of torture.

“To kill the nasty boy germs,” he said as I pushed off the wall. “Make ‘em fast or you’ll do ‘em again.”

Advice Across the Years

Throughout different points in my life, I hear his voice in my head. They’re echoes of commands and advice he’s already given me, a lifetime ago, but they seem so real and relevant for whatever dilemma I’m facing. Mostly it’s when I’m scared and hesitant.

He yelled at me once for being scared and hesitant. I was 13. Brand new to the senior team and scared of my own shadow. I hardly looked up. I swam slow on purpose to stay in the farthest lane from the older kids.

“You’ve been here for three months already,” he yelled at me one afternoon as I walked to the locker room. I’d failed to get another personal best in time trials. “Start acting like you belong here.”

I winced at the words at the time. How does one act like they belong anywhere? Especially when you’re the youngest, the smallest, the slowest? Coach didn’t care. He wanted us all to occupy the space we were given like we owned it. Like we gave a damn.

I still struggle with this as I approach my fourth decade. And I still hear him.

“Act like you belong here.”

Looking for My Tribe

I always wanted to be a swim coach, mostly because I wanted to influence and bolster the confidence and decision-making abilities of goofy teens and preteens like the one I’d been.

It just never happened.

I took up a life in newspapers and marketing firms. I had a slew of kids of my own and never really found the opportunity to be a coach.

My family and I moved around a lot these past four years. Jobs changed. Circumstances changed. A year ago, we met up with a woman who had a bit of Leo in her herself. She saw the potential in our jiu jitsu and kickboxing background and gave us a shot.

We opened a martial arts program. My husband (the black belt) teaches every night and helps people learn jiu jitsu. He also helps people change their lives in ways they probably don’t even understand themselves.

But me? I’m a middle-of-the-pack purple belt who struggles underneath side control. Who cries when I feel like a jiu jitsu impostor. Still looking for my place in the program and a role I could latch on to. Good, but never quite good enough.Nothing special. Basic.

The Island of Misfit Toys

My husband taught jiu jitsu at the after-school program in the middle school last year, but when we got our own program up and running last summer, he had to stop.

This past month, something compelled me to contact the middle school’s program coordinator and ask if she needed a martial arts program this trimester. Turned out, she did.

I didn’t expect much. A couple kids, including my own, two times a week. A little kickboxing and boxing for cardio. A couple minutes on the jiu Jitsu mats to let some energy out.

That first afternoon, I walked into the chaotic middle school cafeteria and was CERTAIN I’d stumbled into the pages of Lord of the Flies. Short of trash can fires, it was pure mayhem. Squawking, shouting, keening 11, 12, 13 and 14-year-olds competing to be heard and acknowledged above the din.

I braced for impact. Was I going to get 3 or 4 students? Even that many with robotics and newspaper clubs to compete with?

I was handed my attendance sheet and frowned. Was it true? Had we really gotten a full roster (mostly boys?) to sign up?

We had.

In a school where boys are outnumbered by girls, I’d managed to gather a good number of them to my program— 16 most days. Four stalwart girls brave the testosterone cyclone, too, and they’re the toughest fighters in the group.  These kids are all shapes and sizes. Loud and quiet. Big and small. Outgoing (ear-splittingly so) and introverted. Popular and overlooked. Athletic and not-so-much. My very own middle school version of the Breakfast Club (shout out to John Hughes fans everywhere).

And the craziest part? No matter how hard I make the afternoon, no matter how many push ups and burnouts I throw at them, they keep coming back. And they bring their friends.

My Tribe is Goofy and Perfect

It’s been three weeks. If anything, the program has grown to beyond its capacity and now there’ s a wait list. But that’s not what matters to me.

These kids want to compete at next year’s Silver Mittens tournament (a junior version of boxing’s Golden Gloves). They want to go to jiu jitsu tournaments together and bring home trophies. They want team shirts and their own equipment and they’re even talking about fundraising events to make the money themselves.

Some days, these kids don’t change their socks (on purpose, I’m told) and they make the entire room smell like corn chips. They burp out the alphabet if left alone too long and they have a penchant for wild, awkward punches instead of crisp, clean jabs. Some can’t afford their own gear and have to borrow the gym gloves that have failing seams. Our after-school classes are all some can attend because the tuition for our evening jiu jitsu classes just isn’t in the budget at home.

But none of that matters–what we’re building as a group has ignited them. And me.

They talk (sometimes endlessly) about the things they want to achieve–things they never knew were out there before we all met.

I’m not sure if I can even get these kids tournament-ready in boxing, but if they trust me, I’ll die trying. Pat’s on board with getting them jits ready for tournaments in the fall. We’ll call ourselves Terrier Martial Arts because we’re not an official school club, and we can’t really link to the school…but we can compete under the Boston Terrier mascot of Bellows Falls and paint paw prints all over our faces when its time.

But that’s not even the best part of this story.

The Best Part of the Story

My merry band of misfits and I sat around the cafeteria table a couple days ago after a particularly hard afternoon of training. One kid had a sore nose. One kid scuffed his elbow and got nasty mat burns. They were comparing injuries and one-upping each other.

One boy, the youngest and smallest of our crew, said something that made us all stop. I don’t know what the conversation was that led up to it, but what he said made us all pay attention.

“I don’t have friends,” this little guy said, staring at his hands. “Two. Maybe. Sometimes they’re not nice to me.”

Without meaning to, without considering my speech, Leo came forth.

“Anklebiters,” I told him. “They don’t matter. They never will. Don’t waste your time on them. You’ve got a new crew now and you can eat lunch with them.”

It was true. He’d started hanging out more with some of the other kickboxing kids from his grade and there was even talk about all of them going to see the King Kong movie this weekend.

I realized it was Leo the moment I I said it and as I sit here at the keyboard, I realize it even more. I’d found my chance. I’d found my tribe.

Last week I lectured a boy about calling a girl in his grade “nasty,” telling him that he’s better than that and that’s not who, as a team, we are.

“We don’t pick on people because everyone else is,” I told him. “We’re something better.”

I never got to model Leo’s life by being a swim coach to dedicated, talented athletes with bright futures mapped and guaranteed. Some of my kids struggle with things like attention issues, poverty, and peer pressure unlike any I’ve seen.

So, no, I can’t replicate Leo’s life like I always wanted to.

But I feel like I’m doing one better, most likely with Coach’s blessing.

I’m getting to model his life by being to my crew what he was to me. A sharp-tongued, real-talk source of straight-and-narrow and life wisdom for the goofballs, the immature, and the “mostly-average” kids like I always was.

I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d been in control of mapping my life up to this point. I think of my misfit band of dreamers and I think Coach might actually have had something to do with it. Almost like it was meant to be.

I had to be patient. I had to wait. And eventually, my tribe and I found each other and in our own small, Bellows Falls-ian way, we can carry on the legacy Leo started with me 25 years ago.

Here’s hoping I make Boss Hogg proud.