By Cort Gifford
The late scientist Masaru Emoto (“The True Power of Water”) tells us that water has memory. I’m reminded of this as I leave the lobby and walk out onto the deck of Sandpoint West Athletic Club’s indoor, Olympic-sized pool. I’m flashing on the past. I have memories of my own here because 27 years ago I swam daily in its tropically warm water. Does it remember me?
In the late 1980s I was in the U.S. Masters program along with a handful of hard-core, age-group swimmers from SWAC. We traveled like gypsies all throughout the Inland Empire, chasing down various swim meets. Our new coach was this skinny kid with a fright-wig-head-of-hair by the name of Mike Brahs something-or-other. But today, on this morning (it’s a little after six) Mike’s 50 year-old, 3.0 version is putting the SHS swim team through its paces:15 minutes of stretching before hitting the water. Like a rag-tag ballet troupe, some sit on towels or on thin foam mats, changing positions as Mike calls out: “Down facing dog . . . don’t forget, circular breaths . . . relax.”
Mike employs an eclectic mix of East and West in his warm up routine.
“It’s kind of a mixture of dynamic stretching plus Aikido plus Yoga,” he explains. “We do all the Aikido joint locks. We also use Yoga positions. Then we do a series of stretches that activates the joints and sockets so the muscles around the joints fire properly.” By contrast, in 1959 my high school swim coach made us do push ups.
Were it not for a simple twist of fate and the termination of a popular SWAC swim instructor, Mike Brosnahan might never have left Moscow, Idaho. A University of Idaho grad, Mike’s circuitous route from Moscow to Sandpoint mirrors the experience of others who have arrived here seemingly by accident. Mike could just as well ended up sailing somewhere off the Caribbean. Literally. An avid sailor, Mike still has the 8’ Sabot-class sailboat his father gave him when he was eleven.
“My dad learned how to sail in Boston Harbor. Both he and my grandfather were in the US Navy.”
Mike’s dad was an aviator in WWII and is credited with shooting down a Japanese “Zero” over the Pacific. He would one day teach his son how to sail in the waters off Oak Harbor, Whidby Island, Washington.
“A few years back I was able to take a coaching sabbatical from Sandpoint West,” Mike recalls, “and for three months our family sailed the San Juans in the 36’ Erickson.”
The family of four includes Mike’s wife of 20 years, two boys, and Briana who not surprisingly is on her dad’s swim team.
“Briana was swimming twice a week,” Mike recalls. “One day she announced ‘I want to go faster.’”
She then started swimming daily and now Briana is close to times which would qualify her for state.
As the man who almost single-handedly brought swimming to Sandpoint, Mike’s aquatic career got off to a shaky start. As a non-swimmer at the age of eleven, Mike nearly drowned in his uncle’s pool.
“I was floating on an inner tube, just paddling around, when my cousin Darcy came up from behind and dumped me,” he said. “To this day I can remember sinking, the clear blue water over my head and me going under. Then this arm reached down and pulls me up. ‘What are you doing?’ asked the cousin. ‘I can’t swim.’ ‘Why are you in the deep end?’ ‘I was on an inner tube,’ Mike replied.
The Paper Plate Award
Sometimes it’s hard not to separate the man from the team. Consider the fact that in 28 years not only has Mike taught thousands how to swim, but 90 per cent of the SHS swim team he taught from scratch as children.
“Most teachers have their students for just one year,” Mike says. “I get to watch them grow up. The award is mostly for graduating seniors, some of whom have been with me for almost their entire lives. I sit down with my felt-tipped markers and start drawing on a paper plate. It might be an historical cartoon of their life, or a depiction of a certain event. It could be a secret just between the two of us, or maybe a trait specific to their character. There’s always something unique about every one of these kids.”
Occasionally Mike encounters a youth who might have troubles at home or who is acting out.
“Over time, their behavior eventually improves, and it’s gratifying,” he said. “You like to think you’ve helped make a difference in their lives.”
Often seen driving around town, the “Green Bug” is Mike’s classic 1967 VW “Westphalia” van.
“They’re really easy to work on, they’re fun. I like ‘em,” Mike confesses. “I’ve used mine for 20 years; it’s my go-to swim-meet camper. Winter, summer, it doesn’t matter. I also have a ‘67 Beetle and another 1978 Westphalia which I gave to Briana.”
In the early years, before SHS adopted a swim team, Mike used the van to ferry his swimmers back and forth to USA Swimming competition, travelling as far as the Tri Cities; a practice considered insane by today’s litigious and hyper-protective environment. It’s a measure of the man that without reservation, parents trusted Mike with their children on these trips.
What’s in a name?
Unaware of the label of racism attached to North Idaho in the 1970s when ideologues such as Richard Butler held sway over a coterie of zealots, Mike looked for a name for the newly-formed USA Swimming team.
“I thought it would be fun to name them ‘The Great White Sharks.’”
Thinking back, he laughs about it now. “We even had white-hooded sweat shirts. It wasn’t long before one of the locals came up to me and asked, ‘Is there any special reason why you’re using that name?’ I guess it wasn’t as funny as I thought. We quickly re-named the team, simply, ‘The Sharks.’”
Exactly one year to the day of the near drowning, Mike was back at his uncle’s pool when one of the guests asked him if he would like to learn how to swim.
“She spent the whole day with me and when we were finished I could swim across the pool on my back and my stomach,” he said. “And the whole thing started. I never looked back.”
Next came formal instruction when his dad set him up with 4-H lessons in the Navy combat pool. Mike learned quickly and at the age of 14 was not only helping the swim instructor, he also received his certification as a life guard.
At the University of Idaho, Mike was the head lifeguard, studied computers, was active in ROTC and looked forward to a degree in Computer Science when fate and his love for the water intervened.
“I needed an elective,” he said, “I signed up for a class called ‘Recreation for Special Populations.’ The practicum [lab work] had me stationed in an old folks home, and I had to come up with creative, non-demeaning, fun exercise programs. Pool work was an ideal fit.”
As a result, Mike abandoned Computer Science and changed his major to Recreation.
After graduating, it wasn’t long before Mike found his way to Sandpoint where his first job was with Holiday Shores as Director of Recreation. Not satisfied with the pay, word of mouth had it that there was an opening at SWAC: a swim instructor had been let go. The rest, as they say, is history.
I spent a few weeks, off and on, going to practices, both with the SHS team, and the pre-competition training for the little kids. What I witnessed was a coach who transcended my past experience with football and swimming: the rigid, authoritarian figure. It was replaced by observing a coach who at times seemed almost kid-like himself. But what was both scary and inspiring at the same time was the talent. I saw an eight year-old girl moving quickly and efficiently through the water while executing a perfect butterfly stroke. And another: a 15 year-old girl who would have smoked my entire 1959 squad, and rewrite every school record on the books. Forgive the pun, but the times they are a-changing.
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