When I was young, a boy of 8 or 9, I used to be known as “The Fish”. This was at summer camp, either at my first sleepaway camp, Pine Valley, or in later years, at the “Y” Country Camp. I was called “The Fish” at whichever summer camp I stayed, until I was a teenager.
As a kid, I was proud of the fact that I was “passing” swimming exams that only children of 13 were allowed to take. I was “The Fish”, able to swim quickly, possessed of nice swimming technique, and also able to hold my breath for long periods while swimming underwater.
I remember one day, while hanging out at the lake, a pretty swim instructor asked me to demonstrate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another child preparing for a swim test. She was stunned when I actually locked lips with her and started blowing air into her lungs. What did she expect? She quickly got up, blushing, and then I started feeling funny, too.
Back in the city, my mother started taking me to competitive swim class, at the time held at the old Davis “Y” on Mount Royal Avenue near Park Avenue and now a pool owned by the Université de Montréal.
We were coached by Paul Friedenthal, an Austrian, who pushed us to reach our potential mostly by shouting. He was short on technique, however.
We followed Paul to the “Y” on Westbury Avenue and through simple good luck I started winning a lot of races.
It happened at a meet one day. I had swum one race and was awaiting the next. Being only 9, I raced in the 10-and-under category. Our races were not usually very long, 50 yards at the most (two pool lengths). I was doing okay but nothing extraordinary. As I sat with my mom in the stands, a lady sitting nearby leaned forward and said in a low voice, “If you hold your breath, you’ll go much faster.”
That was it. In the next race, and in every race after that, I would swim like the devil as far as possible, often a whole 24-yard length, without taking a breath. I left the competition far behind in my wake.
I also started racking up points.
In those days, for any athletic competition at the “Y”, a win would count for 10 points, a second-place finish for obviously less. In that year I had very few finishes other than first…
At the end of the year we all got together – this means all the competitors of all ages in all the different disciplines – for a celebration. Again, someone whispered into my ear, “You’re very lucky, Ronnie,” he said, “You’re about to win something big.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. During the evening various trophies were handed out, speeches were made, but at a certain point the room got silent, a man made a short speech about a remarkable year and he hoisted a very large trophy and quietly called my name. Applause filled the room: the Bunny Sabbath Trophy, awarded to the athlete who won the most points during the year, was being given to me!
I never took this trophy home, of course. My name was added to the many names already inscribed on it and I was given a rather flimsy little token trophy which I kept on a shelf in my bedroom for many years.
Looking at the photo below, I think that I’m a pretty good looking kid!
And if I never really, really thanked that lady who helped me out with some timely advice that day many, many years ago, I like to send out that thanks to her now, wherever she might be in the Universe.