Family finds formula for swimmer’s success
The trials and triumphs of very young people in pursuit of dreams gained a cinematic advocate some years back in the form of a powerful film from the 1990s, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”
Based on a true story, it dramatizes a 7-year old boy’s quest to explore the depths of his extraordinary mastery of chess — while trying to please his teachers and his peers, and also sustain the love and support of his parents.
This saga was not exclusive to Josh Waitzkin, the gifted chess protégé on whom the film was based. It began long before his time and will continue as long as children, parents, teachers and coaches pursue the premise of excellence in a chosen field.
A relatively young family in New London, Pete, Melissa and Seidi Schiro, entered that arena not long ago. Pete, now in his thirties, recalled that he and his wife noticed immediately how quickly and naturally 5-year-old Seidi took to the water.
“It was kind of ironic that from the pool you could look up and see, through a picture window, a large TV screen in the house living room,” he said. “The 2012 Olympics was on and a swimming competition was taking place.”
Neither parent, nor their child, had instant visions of Olympic gold, but swimming in the pool soon became a regular pastime for Seidi.
A onetime high school varsity track and cross-country team captain, Pete had moved on to become a self-made entrepreneur, building a highly successful business. And as young, first-time parents, he and Melissa wanted to encourage a spirit of success in their only child.
Seidi’s immediate penchant for swimming led to frequent trips to the pool, though strictly as a recreational activity.
Seidi, however, wanted to keep swimming after the summer, so her parents looked into a facility that also offered an instructional program. They found the Thames Aquatic Club at Connecticut College, operated by John and Anne Vitale, with four of their daughters.
“They gave Seidi the formal instruction in the fundamentals she had been lacking,” Pete said.
But Pete soon decided the two-day-a-week curriculum wasn’t enough for Sadie.
“I wanted her to be good at something,” Pete said. “Watching her practices gave a bird’s-eye view for determining how much I thought she could handle. So I started taking her to another local swimming program as well, to give her more time in the water.”
That was when Pete’s wife Melissa and he began to disagree.
“My wife felt Seidi was doing the formal training more to please me. But I thought she should at least stay with it long enough to see that it was good for her.”
The trips to that second facility ended, however, when Pete was informed by a collegiate swimmer that extending Seidi’s training to more than the prescribed twice-per-week was a mistake. So he heeded that advice and stayed exclusively with the program run by the Vitales.
“For a while, I felt like everyone was criticizing me for wanting something good for my child,” Pete said with an air of quiet frustration. A soft-spoken man whose work keeps him in the solid shape attained from years in sports, his belief of persisting in spite of obstacles was not being well received.
Seidi herself, now 9, had expressed doubts. “Training at the college was different from playing in the pool. It wasn’t just ‘splish-splash’ anymore, but something I had to do,” she explained.
Problems arose when the coach with whom young Seidi had formed an early attachment, Erica Vitale, went back to college.
“Seidi would start crying and didn’t want to keep going to the practices,” Pete said. “From the beginning it had been Erica who coached her, and the adjustment to somebody different was traumatic for her.”
At this point, Pete and Melissa were very much at odds about Seidi continuing. Then the ineviable, in the form of heightened competition, surfaced.
The joy of swimming fell back into the grind of training. Even the return of beloved mentor Erica did not deter what Pete and Melissa both saw as “meltdowns.”
“Things had settled in and were going fine as she moved into competitions and did so well,” Pete said. “But with that success, your level of competition increases and Seidi was not dealing well with it. That’s when getting her to go to the pool became a struggle again.”
Pete found himself fairly alone in insisting that his daughter not only stay with the program, but also put in time on her own to improve her chances for success.
The frowns and raised eyebrows of others increased as Pete and Seidi often discussed the merits of her workout afterwards, and areas where he felt she might improve.
“A friend once told me, ‘Your child is your report card,’” he said. “I just want to see our daughter putting in the full effort, whether it’s swimming, school, or any other activities in her life.”
One crucial night, that would be put to the test.
“Seidi had a meltdown at practice that finally wore thin even on Coach Erica’s patience,” Pete recalled. “She had burst into uncontrollable tears and it was such a distraction to everyone else there that Erica dismissed her. In the car, Seidi blamed her outburst on her fins, her goggles, other people who were there ... anything she could come up with as an excuse for why she wasn’t doing well.
“So I made an agreement with her that I’d drive her over to Dick’s Sporting Goods right then and let her pick out whatever fins, goggles and any other equipment she thought would help,” he said. “Then there’d be no more excuses and if that didn’t solve everything and she wound up quitting, it would be her fault and no one else’s. She would have to accept that.”
His daughter’s response stunned him.
“I want to go back and apologize,” she said with quiet sincerity. The abrupt request had been swirling in her young mind the entire ride as she recalled a previous discussion with him: “This isn’t so much about swimming as it is working toward goals in life.”
Perhaps it was in that moment she finally grasped fully why she had been expected to stay the course and not blame anyone or anything else for her shortcomings. Perhaps the moment also dramatized how much swimming truly meant to her. Regardless, when the two returned to the college pool and caught Erica and the staff as they were leaving, the heartfelt apology offered by so young a child moved everyone.
Seidi went on to deal more smoothly with the demands of competitive swimming and now enjoys great success. She hopes to one day be a world class swimmer and even wrote an eloquent class essay on it.
As in “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” Seidi Schiro found the right path.
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